On April 16 at Coachella, finally, after years of postponements, and an hour late that night, Frank Ocean performed his first concert in six years, closing the country’s most-watched music festival with a set that left many fans confused and even disgruntled. Transforming the event’s main stage with a giant screen spanning nearly the full width, Ocean and his band gave the impression they were bringing fans into the recording studio — the kind in which he has presumably been working on his much-anticipated third studio album. Tinkering with remixed versions of his beloved songs, creative camera shots often directed fans’ attention away from the reclusive singer on stage and towards his image on screen.
It was not the kind of fan-friendly hit parade some had surely been hoping for, and after Ocean abruptly ended early (albeit 20 minutes past curfew), the negative reviews started flowing. Days later, he canceled his performance for the festival’s second weekend due to an ankle injury and retreated into the private life he’s built for himself away from the limelight. When he’ll come back — either onstage or with new music — is anyone’s guess.
Since the 2011 release of his debut mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra, Ocean has spent more time out of the industry than in it, releasing only two albums and performing live just 25 to 30 times in the last decade, almost exclusively at festivals. So far, that has worked out pretty well for him, creating pent-up demand that led to his booking atop last month’s Coachella, the world’s largest multi-genre festival. The last time Ocean performed in the United States was in 2017 at the Panorama festival in New York — produced by Goldenvoice, the Los Angeles-based company behind Coachella — about a year after releasing his last album, Blonde. There, Ocean ended on a high note, with New York Times reporter Jon Caramanica calling it a “a grand-scale meditation on feelings and politics” that “proved you can translate intimacy on a giant scale.”
Ahead of Ocean’s Coachella set last month, anticipation was at fever pitch. The singer had originally been booked to headline the 2020 festival before the coronavirus pandemic postponed the event for two years. Then, in 2022, it was announced that Ocean would hold off on his festival performance until 2023. All the while, fans have been waiting for a new album that still has not come, satiated only slightly by occasional features, new songs shared on his Blonded Radio show on Apple Music, miscellaneous creative and fashion projects and appearances at the Met Gala. By withholding from fans in an era where so much revolves around the “attention economy,” Ocean’s passionate fans have only become hungrier for new material from the enigmatic superstar whose long absences are viewed as a product of the singer’s meticulous pursuit of perfection.
“He’d rather do nothing than do something that’s not quite right,” Caramanica wrote in his review of Ocean’s Panorama performance. “And doing nothing has also become, in this era of blithe ubiquity, a daring and quite perversely loud kind of performance.”
If being quiet made Ocean’s stock rise, might his widely panned, self-admittedly “chaotic” comeback performance at Coachella — and his decision to pull out of the second weekend — have pushed his stock back down?
“He flopped,” said one prominent booking agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Is that a career-ender — being a fallible, over-confident 35-year-old young man with one public blemish in an otherwise brilliant career? Of course not…. After more than a decade of brilliant songwriting and performance, he is entitled to make a mistake or two.”
Whether Ocean’s Coachella set was bad or misunderstood is a point of debate, but the widely negative reception was seemingly enough to make him back out of the festival’s second weekend. For many acts, a show like this would be a major reputational hit, causing fans to second-guess attending a future festival he’s booked on — or promoters to think twice about booking him at all.
“When he releases [new] music, am I gonna give it a listen? Yes. [But] if he announces a tour date, am I going to be hesitant to go see him? … It’s a risk,” says Adrian Romo, 29, who traveled from Houston to see Ocean perform at Coachella’s second weekend. “Your fans have been waiting for however many years, you have the biggest stage in the world, and then you do that? It’s like, what can I expect from you in the future? It makes you look at it a little bit differently.”
“I’m not excited [about him] anymore. He lost a fan,” adds Romo’s boyfriend, Oren Rosenbaum, 27.
“If I am a promoter, who is considering him or a comparable artist for my festival, I’m probably going to go with the comparable artist because my trust has been shaken,” says booking agent Malachai Johns with the Allive talent agency.
Ocean’s profile has thrived out of the limelight, however, and it’s not a stretch to imagine his Coachella set driving further fan interest in what he does next, or to even witness another performance of this supposedly bad set — which was not livestreamed on the festival’s YouTube feed, as originally planned — for themselves. Streams for the singer’s music increased 94% in the days following the festival, and much to fans’ excitement he teased a brief mention of a “new album” during his performance.
“[Ocean] wasn’t planning to replicate Coachella at other festivals this summer and cash in — he doesn’t have any other concerts on his calendar for the entire year,” says a source close to the artist. As for the $4 million per set Ocean was to receive, much of that money was spent on the production of an elaborate set that was not used due to Ocean’s ankle injury. While Ocean is interested in making money, the source tells Billboard, he is not interested in going on tour and or being a festival headliner right now, noting that the Coachella performance was an effort to fulfill a commitment he made to Goldenvoice president and CEO Paul Tollett in 2020 and was never meant to serve as a launching point for a tour.
In the United States, Ocean exclusively works with Tollett and Goldenvoice for festival bookings — a relationship he’s developed in part through his friendship with rapper Tyler, the Creator. Sources say that even after all the negative attention Ocean’s Coachella set received, and the hassle of reorganizing the second weekend when he pulled out, there’s no bad blood between Ocean, his agent Brent Smith and Tollett, and they’re all open to working together again in the future.
If or when Ocean decides he wants to tour, however, he’ll assume far more liability for his shows. Unlike festivals, where fans are buying tickets to a larger event and scheduling is subject to change, canceling touring concerts usually requires refunding fans unless the show is rescheduled. The cost of trying to reschedule a tour can eat into profits and make the entire effort unsustainable if not carefully managed.
It’s also hard to determine Ocean’s drawing power, since he’s basically only performed at festivals for the last decade. His career skyrocketed soon after the release of Nostalgia Ultra, just as the U.S. festival business was taking off and many artists at the time opted to forgo the traditional touring model for the less risky festival circuit where artists are guaranteed a performance fee no matter how well tickets sold.
The downside is that artists who spent the early part of their careers performing at festivals have a challenging time building a live fan base as headliners later in their career. Ocean would certainly attract ticket buyers for a traditional venue tour, but it’s totally untested whether he could draw the kind of regular audience that would earn him $4 million a night, like his Coachella billing. Whether he wants it at all is a different question altogether.
A representative for Ocean did not respond to request for comment at time of publishing.