Were you one of the inconsolable souls who, for four years, cried out for Frank Ocean to release new music—any music—and who felt jilted after every missed deadline, every false start? Were you? Of course you were. You listened to Channel Orange and heard rumors about the next one and a new-Frank-Ocean-album-shaped hole appeared in your life. Such is the human experience. We get it. So why haven’t you bought Blonde yet?
After years of silence and fleeting signs of life (thank you, Tumblr), Frank came back after his massively popular release of Channel Orange and dropped not one, but two new albums: the visual album Endless and the more traditional (but only in the sense that it is not visual) album Blonde. Both were released as exclusive streams on Apple Music, which, you’ll know if you listen to music on a phone or computer, costs money. Unlike Spotify, Apple Music doesn’t offer a free tier; if you wanted access to their catalogue, which this week came to include one of the most highly anticipated albums of the past decade, you’d have to pay.
So have you? Many, many haven’t. According to a report from Music Business Worldwide, Blonde has been illegally downloaded more than 750,000 times since its release less a week ago on August 20. That figure doesn’t take into account illegal downloads of individual songs, according to MUSO, the content protection specialist which provided the data. When you start to think about what else that number doesn’t capture, it boggles the mind: the number of times people have fed the YouTube URL of a Blonde song into an MP3 converter, the number of times someone has Dropboxed the album to a friend in need.
The MUSO figure is staggering because of its scale. According to Billboard, sources predict that Blonde will sell between 225,000 and 250,000 albums (or the equivalent of that many albums, when counting streams and the purchases of individual tracks) its first week. That should place Frank comfortably in the No. 1 spot of the Billboard 200 chart. (In 2012, Channel Orange debuted at the No. 2 spot after selling 131,000 copies its first week.) So Blonde has, by all means, been an industry-rattling success. But its distribution across illegal networks has been even bigger. Why?
Is it that no one wants to pay $10 for an album that the Internet collectively yearned for for four years? That can’t possibly be. Let’s say you value your time at $15 an hour. How many did you spend waiting for the new Frank Ocean? The album currently closes $9.99 to purchase on iTunes. Surely, that sounds like a deal.
Or wait—is it? Blonde didn’t appear in a vacuum. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book didn’t just impress fans; it changed the industry in an important way. The rapper has long championed releasing his music for free, and even though Coloring Book was an Apple Music exclusive for two weeks, he later made it available to stream “everywhere,” including for free on Spotify. Chance did that without a label, but technically, Frank self-released Blonde, too. (After releasing Endless as an Apple Music exclusive under Def Jam, he put out Blonde under his label Boys Don’t Cry.) Both moves required the artists to have the utmost confidence in their work, to know that their audience would respond to the music.
And it paid off for the both of them—but Chance’s move also changes something for consumers. When you have incredible artists putting out new music for free, is a $10 album too expensive? Is it worth it, then, to wait two weeks for an album like Frank’s to become available to stream for free on Spotify or somewhere else on the internet? (Yesterday, Pandora announced you can listen to it there.) Does free music shirk the value of participating in the cultural moment, a moment you’ve waited for four years?
The answer to that last question is clearly no—hence the copious illegal downloads. But the streaming war continues to rage on. The record labels will not let up. And what that means for the consumer is something complicated; what’s fair in love and surprise releases? While we watch it all play out, it is this writer’s opinion that the $9.99 is well worth it.