Frank Ocean’s Controversial Release Of Blonde May Spark Legal Battle With Def Jam/Universal
Frank Ocean had taken a four-year sabbatical after his 2012 album Channel Orange. This ended emphatically with back-to-back releases of his visual album Endless, and the album Blond. This was released as an Apple exclusive after a day on Boys Don’t Cry, which is Ocean’s own label. Do note that this did not have Def Jam’s, or Universal’s involvement.
The music industry had been waiting for Ocean, and he fulfilled his contractual obligations. This way he was able to increase his potential profit share because of Blond. It rose from 14 percent to 70 percent of total revenues, and all this happened within a 24-hour period. This led to Def Jam along with its parent Universal getting stuck with a visual album that was overshadowed and hence impacting its sale. This cut out the revenue from the album that was heading towards the top of the charts.
This is exactly when UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge had reacted immediately and informed the heads of his labels that Universal now will not be streaming exclusives on one platform and doing it on a global basis. Do note that Universal has been at the center of all these streaming services since the last 18 months. It is yet to be confirmed if this policy change by Grainge is a direct result of Ocean’s strategy behind his album, Blond. Anyway, the damage has been done.
Billboard had reported that Def Jam had spent nearly $2 million on the recording for Ocean’s album. That was to be called as Boys Don’t Cry at that time. It appears that Ocean got an advance due to his new deal with Apple. Hence he paid back that amount to Def Jam. This absolved Def Jam from any recoupable claims and allowing Ocean to buy back his own recordings. This is when Ocean delivered Endless and fulfilled his deal while severing all his contractual ties with the major.
What is controversial here is that Ocean released another album here that was full-length and was fully-realized. And all this was done outside the label’s purview and just 24-hours later! Billboard says that UMG has not taken any legal action yet against either Ocean or his team, but this label group does appear to be having ample grounds to do so.
One of the things here is regarding the record contracts that include minimum delivery clauses. This means that in case Ocean was having a deal for just two albums, there would have been a set time frame in which to deliver them, so that he could fulfill his contract. Besides, most of the recording contracts tend to stipulate a window of time when an artist is not allowed to release its music on any other label in order to avoid any kind of competition with its own current project. But Blond was delivered within 24 hours, and hence has raised the question of whether Universal was aware that it was coming.
This release by Frank Ocean had followed two other rollouts from Def Jam artists. These were Rihanna’s leaked Anti album and the extended-streaming for The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. Hence this would be another issue for Grainge.
Spotify has always been a favorite with the industry as a punching bag because of its free tier along with the low royalty payments being generated. Their strategy fosters piracy and segments the fan base of an artist into smaller pools of Apple Music and Tidal and avoiding the huge base of paid on-demand streaming subscribers to tune in.
This has worked well for many independent artists before Ocean, such as Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Now Ocean is almost certain to hit the No. 1 this week through his digital-only release. This is now raising questions on the importance of a record label in 2016, since services are offering marketing as well as advance money which a label generally provides. In case terrestrial radio is the final frontier separating successful artists from the superstars, then a company such as Apple is having a digital version of that too in terms of its Beats 1 Radio stations!
Did Ocean stiff Universal out of Blonde’s revenue stream on purpose? One can only wonder; however the record giant may not have much ground since the “Marvin’s Room” crooner paid the label back their $2 million investment. Without a contractual clause requiring payment of profits plus a label’s advance, Universal would need to create a precedence requiring future artists to pay the album revenue that the advance went into not a different one.
Frank Ocean definitely pulled a fast one, but goes to show just how important it is for artists to remain independent these days. Ocean will enjoy a much higher profit stream with Apple without having to pay “points” or fork out part of his advance for marketing and promotion. Now that Ocean works directly with Apple, he no longer needs Universal now seen as the “middle man”.
Labels can expect more backlash as artists seek streaming deals with Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming giants. Recording agencies may be fighting to survive since they can’t compete with music streaming companies. Doing streaming exclusives only benefits Apple and such companies not the record label. Universal quickly understood this with Ocean and will forego doing anymore exclusive streaming deals.
Apple took a bite out of Universal and the tech giant is not done yet. As Apple ventures out more in the music arena, the company may soon offer both recording and streaming deals to artists. Doing so cuts out record labels who are already struggling as sales keep taking huge dives. Spotify may soon follow Apple’s lead forcing record labels to reconsider the “360 deal” since artist can get better deals and profits with music streams.
Frank Ocean sparked a fire that record labels can’t extinguish. As content creators continue to work with music platforms directly, labels may soon become a thing of the past.