Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” was released a week and a day early on Monday, exclusively through iTunes, and brick-and-mortar retailers weren’t pleased. Any music-sales shop would be, and has been, and will continue to be unhappy about it. Target reacted to the news by claiming it wouldn’t stock physical CD copies of “Channel Orange” in its stores. Now, because of bad timing, Target has to defend its sales maneuver not just to fans, but to those who view its decision to be influenced by homophobia.
As widely reported, singer Ocean outed himself online two weeks ago. Since then, artists and labels have rallied to support this popular African-American solo male artist in hip-hop/R&B music, considering the dearth of openly gay African-American popular solo male artists in hip-hop/R&B music. Especially after his stint with Odd Future, his guest spots on Watch the Throne and the critical acclaim for his mixtape tracks, Ocean has become one of the hottest new items on Def Jam’s roster, and subsequently one of their biggest third quarter releases this year.
When the surprise came that Ocean’s album “Channel Orange” would be available for purchase more than a week early, Def Jam claimed the move was part of the marketing plan all along.
Meanwhile, a war has raged between labels/distributors and brick-and-mortar, particularly big box retailers who have the leverage to help or diminish sales of new titles in a major way. Retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target already compete among themselves, with major slashes in price or exclusives like the AC/DC album release or extra-disc bonuses; however, they also compete with digital retail, which has the added benefit of never running out of “stock” and suffer no shipping costs.
Def Jam’s decision to “surprise” drop through iTunes would have hurt sales at retail, Target included. Undoubtedly, Target would have still sold enough copies of “Channel Orange” to warrant an order, just not as many as they would have initially bought. But pulling the album entirely from shelves sends Def Jam and other labels a message: if you purposely, intentionally put physical retail business to the wayside, we can exercise the option to do the same to yours. Even if this means Ocean’s fans have to go to another store or order through Amazon, or whatever, Target was willing to make the statement.
But others now are reading it as a totally different statement. Ocean’s manager accused Target’s actions to be influenced by political, anti-gay sentiment.
“Target has refused to carry Frank’s album because of iTunes exclusive. Interesting since they also donate to non-equal rights organizations,” Christian Clancy Tweeted. He has since deleted the post, replacing it with: “Note to self: Take your own advice. Emotional knee-jerk reacting isn’t the move.”
No word if his “own advice” still implicates Target, or if it’s since been explained that “executive homophobia” wasn’t what caused Target to pull the trigger, but now the retailer is reeling enough from that perception that it’s released a statement.
At Target, we focus on offering our guests a wide assortment of physical CDs, so our selection of new releases is dedicated to physical CDs rather than titles that are released digitally in advance of the street date. The claims made about Target’s decision to not carry the Frank Ocean album are absolutely false. Target supports inclusivity and diversity in every aspect of our business. Our assortment decisions are based on a number of factors, including guest demand… Target has a longstanding tradition of supporting music and artistry that reflects the diverse landscape of American culture. Our history of partnering with diverse artists includes recent partnerships with a variety of musicians, such as Ricky Martin, B.o.B., and Gloria Estefan.
The inside-baseball nature of their explanation may have been a lesson-learned from another, previous run-in with LGBT-rights supporters. In 2010, the company donated $150,000 to a political group in Minnesota, which backed several politicians, including Republican Tom Emmer who supported anti-gay ministry. MoveOn.org boycotted. Target’s CEO later apologized and said their approach to donations and action groups would be reviewed and revised.
In 2011, Target got what seemed like a nod from Lady Gaga with an exclusive deal to carry her “Born This Way” deluxe package, with the singer saying Target had made up for its “past sins.” But their agreement crumbled, and no matter how much either camps claimed the departure was mutual, the split still carried the odor.
It was smart of Target to answer critics’ accusations publicly. It just sounds like bad timing. Retailers have dropped other titles before, and have probably been plotting high-profile business backlashes like these for years. It was just Target’s turn to refuse whatever the labels dished them but it just happens that Ocean’s own high-profile and outed status became recognized only two weeks ago. If Target truly wanted to openly “hurt” gay artists — or artists with a big LGBT following — they would have had plenty of opportunity to do so.
Clancy’s redacted Tweet fuels the perception that those refusing to stock or support a gay artist’s album implicates that the party is homophobic. As he said, wisely, that’s a knee-jerk reaction. In this case, it just sounds like business, another reason why “music business” is still one of the messiest oxymorons imaginable.