Frank Ocean’s Endless and Blond albums, released together alongside his Boys Don’t Cry magazine, have refined what constitutes an album in 2016. Like, is it just the music? Or the full-length video that accompanied Endless too? And where does the magazine come into all this? The debate rages on, but it’s not the first time the old-fashioned album release has been shaken up. Take these 10 examples as proof that releasing an album hasn’t been simple in a long time…
1991: Guns N’ Roses
No-one ever told Axl Rose, Slash and co. that less is more. They’d recorded enough material for a double album in 1991, but why sell one when you could sell two? GNR mania reached fever pitch when fans queued up outside record stores the night before, while 1,000 shops stayed open until midnight so fans could get their fix as soon as possible (meaning it had already sold 500,000 copies by the actual day of its release). Frank’s double-drop release is the modern-day equivalent.
In a bid to attract press coverage and tip the scales away from the then-dominant CD format, Apple released a special edition iPod that came pre-loaded with U2’s full discography. The tech giant attempted to repeat a similar trick by stick the band’s album ‘Songs of Innocence’ on everyone’s iTunes, which proved very unpopular indeed. For some people, you literally could not give away a U2 album.
2007: Nine Inch Nails
NIN head honcho Trent Reznor announced the release of 2007’s ‘Year Zero’ with an “alternative reality game” that contained clues about the content of the record. And what is an “alternative reality game”? A series of clues and clips released on the web to lead internet users to an online destination – sounds a lot like marketing, but Trent Reznor rallied against the word at the time, saying, “The term ‘marketing’ sure is a frustrating one for me… It’s not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record – it is the art form.”
Hey! Wouldn’t it be a great idea if people just paid what they want for music? No, of course it wouldn’t, it would be really bad for people who make music. But Radiohead posed the question with the release of ‘In Rainbows’, uploading the album to the internet and inviting fans to name their price. Arguably helped to set the template for the freemium model music industry as we know it today, which is a shame as frontman Thom Yorke later called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.”
2007: Paul McCartney
2007: a big year for weird album releases. Macca signed to Starbucks’ record label Hear Music, meaning you could pick up the former Beatles fourteenth official solo album while enjoying a delicious latte. Sounds mad, but sort of makes sense, as it would be stocked in 13,000 UK stores and wouldn’t be placed amid a crowded CD rack as it would be in, say, HMV. At the tune, Macca said: “For me, the great thing is the commitment and the passion and the love of music, which as an artist is good to see.”
The late genius was label-less in 2010, the fittingly titled ’20Ten’. The logical solution? Upload it online to take advantage of wild technological advances and explore a new dimension in the future of the music industry? No, he gave it away in The Daily Mirror, a ye olde newspaper. A newspaper, for anyone under the age of 21, is sort of like the internet, but it’s much smaller, gets ink on your fingers and is out of date by lunchtime.
2016: Kanye West
This has been arguably the weirdest year for album releases since the heady days of 2007. Kanye announced that ‘The Life of Pablo’ would only ever be available on Tidal, then kept tinkering about with it, adding and subtracting bits, sticking on extra tracks and calling it a “living, breathing, changing creative expression”. Then – the cheek! – it became readily available in Spotify, Apple Music and all the usual places six weeks later. Like Frank Ocean, Kanye here helped to redefine what constitutes an “album”.
They say people don’t albums any more – they are right – so why not get a phone company to sponsor it and then give the thing away for free? That’s what Rihanna did with Anti, bankrolled to the tune of $25m (£16m) by Samsung. It was available for free on her website, to buy on music retail sites and to stream on Tidal, before hitting Spotify a few weeks later. Talk about covering your bases.
Literally no-one wants a visual album, but Bey gifted the world with one anyway. ‘Lemonade’ became a spectacular televisual event, broadcast on HBO, creating the kind of old-fashioned watercooler moment that was supposed to have died off with the internet. It was also available to watch and listen to on Tidal (co-owned by hubby Jay Z), before being released for general sale. Some fans, loathe to sign up to a streaming service blighted by terrible PR (it was unwisely launched by mega-rich A-listers such as Kanye and Daft Punk moaning about not getting paid enough) went out and bought the CD instead. A CD! In 2016!
The Icelandic musician’s album ‘Vulnicura’ was released in 2015, with its tracks turned into a virtual reality album this year. It premiered at the Vivid Festival in Sydney in June. Immersive virtual reality visuals made by artists such as Andrew Huang, Jesse Kanda and Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones. A press release read: “These digital assets are blended together to create an ever evolving and changing digital form of particles, light and sound that inhabits the space with you.” Nowadays, that’s an album.