After a four-year hiatus, Frank Ocean just smacked the world in the face with two albums in the span of two days. It seems like he dropped a bomb on the music industry at the same time, pulling a move that could alter how (1) record labels release their music, and (2) streaming services build market share.
Services like Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal are securing “exclusive release” deals with A-list recording artists in order to gain subscribers. Frank Ocean’s exclusive deal is the latest in a long list that has included Beyoncé, Kanye West and Drake.
This is where it’s different: one day after releasing the visual album Endless exclusively on Apple Music through Def Jam/UMPG (a major label), Frank Ocean released the audio album Blond on Apple Music through his own independent label, Boys Don’t Cry.
You may ask: can he even legally do that? Well, Billboard offers this explanation:
“In July, Billboard reported that Def Jam had spent as much as $2 million on recording costs for Ocean’s album, at the time thought to be called Boys Don’t Cry.
Now it appears that Ocean paid that amount back to Def Jam, absolving him of any recoupable claims from Def Jam/UMG and essentially buying Ocean his own recordings back.
Ocean delivered ‘Endless’ instead, fulfilling his deal and severing his contractual ties to the major.”
If this is the case, then Frank Ocean is a genius. Yet, there could be legal ramifications for this move.
WHAT’S THE CATCH?
Most label contracts include a clause that states how long an artist must wait before releasing music with another entity, even that entity is owned by the artist. This is usually a minimum of six months. Ocean waited one day.
“…to release another full-length, fully-realized album outside the label’s purview just 24-hours later is controversial, to say the least, and a source tells Billboard that while UMG hasn’t taken any legal action against Ocean or his team, the label group may have grounds to do so. (Sources close to the situation at both Def Jam and Universal Music say that no legal action against Ocean is currently being considered.)” (via Billboard)
While Def Jam may not be looking into legal action at the present time, that doesn’t mean they won’t consider it the future… especially if his independent album largely outsells theirs. Ocean essentially built up a buzz on their dime, closed out the deal with a visual album, waited 24 hours, then released an audio album that overshadowed its one-day-older predecessor.
Now Def Jam is stuck with a long music video in an era driven by audio singles.
One could question how much Def Jam actually helped Ocean’s career. While they signed him officially in 2009 or 2010, his star was solidified with the 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, released outside of the label’s machine. Def Jam was later unable to roll out an official release due to sample clearance issues (mostly because of the “Hotel California” controversy), but they did release some of its singles, and it is safe to say that the success of the Channel Orange era was largely in part to the work Frank did independently.
At the same time, I’m certain that there are plenty of things that wouldn’t have happened in Ocean’s career without Def Jam’s help (radio airplay, television appearances, tours, etc.) While their market share is decreasing by the day, record labels still control the music industry for the most part.
We may never know what really happened between Ocean and Def Jam; all we can do is speculate. I just hope Frank covered his bases on the legal side. If there’s any active legal language that puts a waiting period on him after the termination of his Def Jam deal, and he broke that clause, he could find himself in court.