There’s A Novel Strategy Behind Calvin Harris’ Single Releases

He's released two great songs with Frank Ocean, Migos, Young Thug, and Pharrell, but there's no album in sight.

Calvin Harris

Image via Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty

Calvin Harris

At the tail-end of January, Calvin Harris previewed a new song on Snapchat, making his own bootleg from a sunny and spare track booming in his car. The recording was remarkable because it featured Frank Ocean in his first appearance since his 2016 tour de force, Blonde. The clip, just 21 seconds long, had people talking.

By working with the most elusive pop musician in the world, Harris earned his chatter. It wasn’t an isolated incident, though; in fact, it was the beginning of a new kind of release strategy, tailor-made for the streaming age. Rumors are swirling that Harris, an unlikely pop star with hits like “How Deep Is Your Love,” “This Is What You Came For,” and “We Found Love” under his belt, will never release another album. In 2017, he has a new plan: a slow drip of singles—ten in a year—the second of which arrived last night.

In February, when he revealed his plan in earnest, Harris confirmed the initial speculation: he had a song with Frank Ocean and, in something of an embarrassment of riches, perpetual zeitgeist surfers Migos as well. Two days later “Slide” arrived and more than delivered on the promise of that tinny Snapchat snippet. Harris brought Ocean’s unforgettable tenor into its poppiest territory to date and paired it with cocky, staccato verses from Quavo and Offset that, like all the best Migos’ verses, invite the listener to shout along. (Mama too hot like a—like what? Mama too hot like a furnace!) “Slide” felt like looking at sunlight through your eyelids. It was good.

Five weeks later, “Slide” has garnered well over 80 million streams on Spotify alone (adding over a million in the past 24 hours). It hit No. 34 on the Hot 100 (without the aid of a physical release) in its first week. Harris explained its creation in an intimate, entertaining video showing him at work in the studio, solo noodling on the piano quickly becoming, through deft additions, the final version of the song. The video went viral. Premature consensus is that we might already have our song of the summer. That’s a bold proclamation to make, though, if only because Harris is giving himself room to top himself.

The cycle started again earlier this week, this time on Twitter. Another song, “Heatstroke,” got its preview on Tuesday, with Harris tweeting the artwork (in the same patchwork template) and credits. It, too, has an incongruous, exciting slate of features, positioning Harris as some kind of dada DJ Khaled. Young Thug, Ariana Grande, and Pharrell were up next, bringing with them several large fanbases, like the idea sprang from a Venn diagram scrawled by a coked-out record exec. For the savviest of listeners, scanning the credits stoked the excitement further; “Heatstroke” was co-written by Brittany Hazzard, a.k.a. Starrah, the most idiosyncratic pop writer working right now. The release strategy was another gentle surprise drop, hitting streaming services late last night.

At first glance, “Heatstroke” isn’t quite another “Slide.” But it is good; it’s an immediate, retro-leaning jam that lends an inviting air to the still-restlessly elastic Thug. The Pharrell and Ariana Grande features feel a little more tacked on than the Migos/Ocean connection, but time will tell how it’s received. If it picks up, and the other songs are as good as the two we have, Harris won’t just have the song of the summer. He'll also own spring, fall, and winter.

For someone like Harris, who can seemingly churn out a global smash (or something that ought to be a hit) at will, this strategy makes sense. Why release an album where one, maybe two songs might be the only ones to break out, when you can spread out releases to maximize anticipation, and prevent the songs from cannibalizing each other? At the pace he’s setting, each song will come out six weeks apart. “Slide” and “Heatstroke” aren’t steps on the path to a full-length, they’re standalone projects.

Of course, Harris is one of the few people in the world for whom this approach makes total sense. He’s a veteran hitmaker after spending a decade-plus in the viciously competitive and rapidly shifting arena that is modern pop music as a songwriter, producer, and marquee star. And he’s tested out this process before, letting “This Is What You Came For,” with Rihanna; “Hype,” with Dizzee Rascal; and “My Way,” with himself, all live out solitary lives on streaming platforms last year. The cohesive artwork and concentrated rollout we’re seeing here, though, gives the appearance of a more considered process. Calvin Harris’ reps did not respond to a request for comment on his strategy.

“Slide” and “Heatstroke” aren’t steps on the path to a full-length, they’re standalone projects.

This is a bold idea that takes advantage of the flexibility inherent in the streaming economy. Unencumbered by physical releases (it’s unclear whether these songs will ever be collected into...anything), Harris is extending the traditional album cycle to something that’s both diffuse and very, very long. And, because platforms like Spotify and Apple Music allow for changes after release dates—a new development for the music industry—at the end of this year Harris (or his label) can simply take those audio files, include them in a new playlist, and, suddenly, he’ll have an “album” that’s all but guaranteed to be a high-flyer on the Billboard charts. Like Drake releasing an album of just “Hotline Bling”s. (Epic Records did exactly this last year, creating a best-selling album out of spare parts.) 

Despite his pop prowess, it’s unclear whether Harris was ever going to be the kind of artist to release an album with seven or eight singles. Whether or not he even wants to be, it’s increasingly feeling like the days of Michael Jackson (or Rihanna, for that matter) are behind us. Music is metabolized faster now. It’s often the case that when a new album drops, there’s a race to identify the breakout track, which in turn climbs the singles charts. Some artists—take Drake, as the most recent example—are able to inundate the Billboard charts with a large quantity of songs upon an album release, but it’s exceedingly rare that more than one or two break the top ten (in this case, “Passionfruit” and "Portland" just made their arrival). Harris’ fledgling strategy is a way to grapple with the speed at which audiences engage with new music. It might not work, but the alternative is he has ten songs of the year instead of one.

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