Like almost everything Drake does at this point, last Sunday’s release of What a Time to Be Alive, his mixtape with Future, was a master class in how to create a moment. Drake teased the tape onstage in Atlanta on Friday night then confirmed it on Saturday afternoon by posting its cover art—a minimal photograph of diamonds—to Instagram. Soon after, fans flooded social media with a fury of diamond emojis, more efficient and delightful than any hashtag.
Before its release on iTunes and Apple Music, where it would appear exclusively for five days, the tape played twice on OVO Sound Radio, the Beats 1 radio show of Drake’s label. Since its launch on Apple Music’s live radio station in July, OVO has used the show as their main platform for debuting Drake music, as well as music from label artists like PARTYNEXTDOOR and Majid Jordan. For the mixtape stream, the show moved from its bi-weekly Saturday slot to Sunday night, their broadcast sandwiched just-so between Sunday afternoon NFL games and the Emmy awards. On Twitter, mentions of the tape smashed mentions of the Emmys, which was broadcast on primetime network television. According to a report from Twitter, there were over 1.6 million mentions of the artists (Drake and Future and/or their Twitter handles) or the album name in the 24-hour period from when the album was first played on Sunday.
The tape’s Beats 1 debut was the best return so far on the promise Apple made when it announced the radio service back in April, saying it would create a new global listening experience and showcase unparalleled exclusives. According to Apple Music leaders Larry Jackson (Apple Music’s head of content) and Zane Lowe (the superstar DJ who joined Beats 1 after a monumental run at BBC), Sunday’s OVO Sound show was also the fruition of a year spent building trust between Apple and the OVO camp, and an example of how Apple's knack for keeping big surprises secret can be applied to music, too, and boost an album's cultural footprint.
Speaking over the phone from Los Angeles, Larry Jackson, who joined Apple in June 2014 after years as an A&R executive at Interscope, said that Drake’s relationship with Apple began in November 2014. Jackson met one of Drake’s managers, Future the Prince, at a dinner thrown by Lebron James’ manager Rich Paul. Jackson questioned OVO’s methods of releasing Drake’s songs on Soundcloud and then putting up the most popular ones up for sale on iTunes. This allegedly began some deeper thought in Drake’s camp about having some alternative means of distribution.
According to Jackson, the idea for an OVO radio show on Beats 1 came before Drake’s much-talked-about deal with Apple was made. But by the time Jackson and his Apple Music team were preparing to announce Apple Music, they decided that Drake would be the person who would best “personify and embody the modern musician and how they put their music out online in particular.”
Before the first episode of OVO Sound radio aired in July, El-Khatib and Drake made a “dummy run” episode and sent it to Lowe and Jackson. “We were like, ‘This is absolutely perfect,’" Lowe told The FADER over the phone from London. “It's not talk breaks and distractions, it's just amazing music.” Since the show’s launch, OVO has had total control over their show and sometimes sends in the finished version of a week’s episode only 30 minutes before air, Jackson and Lowe said. Similarly, for weeks before its release, What a Time to Be Alive was kept almost completely secret. Releasing it on iTunes and Apple Music the minute after its play on OVO Sound Radio was over, Jackson said, was “a very hard magic trick to pull off.”
In late August, Jackson got a call from Drake and Future the Prince about a new project Drake working on with Future in Atlanta. (This wasn’t unusual—Jackson said he now speaks with someone from OVO every day.) “Somehow they knew I was having a really shitty day,” Jackson jokingly said. “And they said, ‘OK, we got something to make your day better. They started talking about the concept, and I loved the idea.” Apple was thrilled with the idea of premiering the project on Beats 1, and Jackson said that Drake was happy with that arrangement as well. “They realized that we had created a really powerful platform with this radio show and how big the numbers are on it, and that it would be absurd to do something else with it,” Jackson said. (Apple declined to reveal any ratings or listener numbers, but Hits Daily Double reported that the album was streamed 29 million times on Apple Music in the U.S. during its first 72 hours of release.)
Lowe said Apple has taught him about the importance of executing an idea precisely, and sees the success of Drake and Future’s album as an example of this. “When people hear, see, experience something for the first time,” he said, “they want to know that whoever made it or was involved in it is taking real care to ensure that it's delivered the right way. You can build something special and blow it completely with execution. I think something that OVO does really well is execute things perfectly in terms of what works for them.” Lowe applauded the “authenticity” of Oliver El-Khatib, one of Drake’s managers and OVO Sound Radio’s main curator. El-Khatib knows what OVO Sound listeners want to hear, and delivers it, Lowe said.
On Sunday, Larry Jackson and Zane Lowe listened to What a Time’s debut on OVO Sound Radio together, at Jackson’s home in Los Angeles. They celebrated with a few beers and admired the view from Jackson’s backyard—“Larry has a lot of good views, and the one from his house is definitely one of them,” Lowe joked. At the helm of Apple Music, these two have been tasked with imagining music’s future, dreaming up tools artists and labels can use to connect with fans. But that night, they listened and watched along on social media just like everyone else. “It’s awesome to watch a lot of people tuning into this thing and expressing themselves and how they felt about it,” Lowe said. “It was an honor to have a small part in that.”