This weekend, after years of speculation from an increasingly rabid fanbase, Frank Ocean released an album. It wasn’t, however, an album in any traditional sense of the word. The project, entitled Endless, is a video available exclusively to stream on Apple Music. Less than a day after its release, a 17-track album entitled Blonde popped up on Apple Music for stream and sale, apparently released on Frank’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry, rather than his longtime label Def Jam. Skip to four days later — Endless is still not available as a track by track release on Apple Music and Frank’s website, not Def Jam’s, features Blonde.
According to a report from Forbes, Blonde’s release is not affiliated with the artist’s former record label Def Jam or its parent, Universal Music Group (UMG). Speculation followed: Did Frank Ocean release Endless solely to fulfill his contractual obligation with Def Jam, paving the way for an independent release of Blonde?
It’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario where Frank Ocean pulled this off without Def Jam’s complicity — it’s unlikely that Frank Ocean pulled a true bait-and-switch on his record label. For one, record contracts generally have some kind of an option period which comes into effect after any initial album requirements are met. An option period allows the label the option to renew the contract for a successive album period. It’s a little like a free agency in sports: when a contract runs out, the team someone’s already on gets the first chance to resign them.
Agreements also usually specify a time period in which the label is permitted to invoke their option, usually around 12 months. Which means, even if Frank had the ability to get out of the contract, it likely wouldn’t have happened in a matter of hours Universal immediately relinquished their option after the release of Endless. If that was the case, it doesn’t make sense that Frank was forced to fulfill an album obligation, since they probably would have always had the ability to unilaterally release him from his contract.
Additionally, this album has been years in the making. Studio time, marketing, clearances; these things all cost a lot of money. If Endless and Blonde were made concurrently, dividing the cost between the two would be difficult. Although much of it is unseen to the fan, Def Jam likely invested a lot of money into the creation and release of Endless. If Frank released Blonde without permission from Def Jam, he clearly cannibalized on their marketing and release strategy, damaging their ability to make a return on their investment. It’s hard to imagine a world in which Def Jam sues Frank Ocean, but some of these actions could be in contravention of his initial contractual obligations.
Even if it were released to fulfill a contractual obligation, it’s difficult to imagine Endless would be considered an “album” beyond a superficial interpretation. Endless is not a traditional album; it doesn’t appear to be for sale on iTunes or function according to the conventional standards which would likely be requisite in any contractual obligations Frank has with Def Jam. Such standards would normally prescribe that an album has the ability be pushed to radio or sold independently from its visual component. Interestingly, none of the tracks on Blonde or Endless appear in ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC’s repertoires for collection of public performance royalties. BMI’s website states that Frank joined BMI in 2008. A number of other songs that he has writing credits on are in the repertoire, including the tracks from his previous Def Jam release, channel ORANGE.
It is more likely that this entire charade was the result of some kind of settlement between Frank Ocean and Def Jam, and it is overwhelmingly likely that Def Jam knew of his plans to release another album. In other words, it seems impossible that all of this went down completely behind Def Jam’s back.
IT IS MORE LIKELY THAT THIS ENTIRE CHARADE WAS THE RESULT OF SOME KIND OF SETTLEMENT BETWEEN FRANK OCEAN AND DEF JAM.
His rocky relationship with the label is nothing new. After he released Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011 on his own, he took to Twitter to explain: “i. did. this. not ISLAND DEF JAM. that’s why you see no label logo on the artwork that I DID. guess its my fault for trusting my dumbass lawyer and signing my career over to a failing company. fuck Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/ no intention of following through. fuck em. now back to my day. i want some oatmeal and toast. brunch swag.” But in an interview with the Fader later that year, Frank stated “We’re good now” when discussing his label. channel ORANGE, his first full length record, was released on Def Jam in 2012.
On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that an internal Universal Music Group memo, penned by CEO Lucian Grainge, revealed plans to become the first major label to ban streaming service exclusives such as Blonde. Universal’s artists include Drake, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift, among others who have already benefited from exclusive deals. Thus far, exclusive deals with streaming services appear to be extremely lucrative, although the specifics of the deals remain murky. Forbes reported that Drake’s partnership with Apple amounted to a “multi-year, eight figure deal” — the specifics of which Apple has disputed. This turning point for Universal signals a serious pivot in strategy, since just months ago it seemed as though exclusive content could have been the way forward for the entire industry.
The timing and context suggests that the Universal memo is some kind of a reaction to Frank’s ordeal. With front and center placement on its main Music page, Apple’s focus at this point is clearly on Blonde. It fits the traditional album mold better than Endless; it is divided into tracks, which can be downloaded and played individually on the radio or included in playlists. Arguably, it is more easily commercialized. Tellingly, Blonde is reported to have racked up enough streams in its first few days to slate it for a number 1 spot on the Billboard charts and earn an estimated 225,000-250,000 equivalent album units in its first week. Frank’s exclusivity deal with Apple appears to implicate both Blonde and Endless, but it is clear that Apple is pushing his independent release over the Universal release.
In terms of sheer listens, the record label is being squeezed out of this equation, and the success that Frank and Apple are seeing could perhaps pave the way for new partnerships between independent artists and streaming services, without the inclusion of a label at all. Chance the Rapper has managed to become successful while remaining unsigned by partnering with streaming services — namely Apple — to release his music.
While the Universal memo could be a direct retaliation to Frank’s partnership with Apple, it could also be a protective measure. Partnering with streaming services could be counter to labels’ long term goals, as it risks setting the stage for established artists to leave their labels and form Frank-like partnerships with streaming services. By prohibiting exclusives, Universal is thwarting Apple’s ability to function as a label in its own right, and closing down a potential alternative to signing with a major label.
While the true facts of the situation are being kept close to the chest by Ocean, Def Jam, and Apple, drastic moves like this one make it clear that the course of the music industry is changing, likely for good.