Frank Ocean's independent album release raises tensions

NEW YORK • The shoo-in for No. 1 on Billboard's next album chart is Frank Ocean's Blonde, which has charmed critics and enthralled fans who have waited four years since his last record.

But its release last weekend, through an exclusive deal with Apple, has also roiled the industry, bringing to the surface longsimmering tensions that record companies have with streaming music services, and sometimes even with their own artists.

Within days of the album's release, revelations about Ocean and Blonde emerged that portray a business deeply in flux. Ocean, it seemed, was no longer signed to record company Def Jam, when Blonde was released.

He had apparently fulfilled his contractual agreement with the label with the release of a separate "visual album" the day before Blonde came out - a move that cut Def Jam and its corporate parent, Universal Music Group, out of the profits for one of the year's mostanticipated albums.

At the same time, Universal's management decided to clamp down on the growing practice of releasing new music through exclusive deals with digital outlets such as Apple Music and Tidal. The move reasserts the label's control over the music its artists produce, but risks alienating top performers who benefit from such promotions.

The story about Ocean's exit from Def Jam began to take shape when fans noticed that the label's name was nowhere to be found in the credits for Blonde. That album had come out just a day after the release of Ocean's Endless, the 46-minute "visual album", also an Apple Music exclusive.

Despite its idiosyncratic format, Endless - one long streaming film, whose songs are not available separately - fulfilled Ocean's contractual obligations to Def Jam, enabling him to release Blonde through Apple without any involvement from the label, say sources.

The way Blonde was released is viewed as representative of a wider shift in the power dynamics among artists, record labels and technology companies. Over the last year, major albums by stars such as Beyonce and Drake were released first through exclusive streaming deals of various kinds. Deals such as these are seen as examples of digital services interfering in labels' relationships with artists.

But the tide may be turning against exclusives, at least from the perspective of the labels.

After the release of Ocean's album, Universal Music Group chairman Lucian Grainge sent a private memo to top executives at the company's labels, calling for an end to long-term exclusive deals with a single service, said a source. Yet, that edict may still leave the company with plenty of room to negotiate more limited deals with digital services.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Frank Ocean's independent album release raises tensions'. Subscribe