Fans of the American R’n’B sensation Frank Ocean had to wait a good four years before even a glimmer of new music from the performer. After the explosive breakthrough of Channel Orange in 2012, Frank Ocean took a step back from the limelight. Originally a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, which once included members Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean quickly became one of the most in-demand members of the international music community – and rightfully so. Frank Ocean has a grip on vocals and songwriting like no one else, and presents a flawless portrait of himself through his music.
But as it turns out, music might not be his only skill. The way that he has gone about the release of his new album Blond is representative of a cunning business acumen, with careful planning leading to a huge pay day for the artist, and essentially a giant middle figure to the label he was once on.
Frank Ocean released Channel Orange through the record label Def Jam, whose parent company is Universal Music. Frank released the visual album Endless, in a partnership with Def Jam and Apple Music. While visually and sonically arresting, the songs on the visual album pale in comparison to the outstanding depth, scope and vision of Blond.
So to break it down:
Channel Orange – Def Jam
Endless – Def Jam/Apple Music
Blond – Boy’s Don’t Cry (Frank’s independant label)
While Endless was released through Def Jam/Universal, Blond came under the banner of Boys Don’t Cry, the record label owned and run by Frank Ocean himself. The release of Blond was not affiliated with Def Jam or Universal in any capacity. Frank Ocean only had a short contract with Universal – so, with the release of the visual album Endless, he had technically fulfilled his contractual obligations. But the problem is that Blond quickly overshadowed Endless in every sense, from the charts to the coverage, being released just 24 hours after its predecessor. Ocean’s revenue share from Endless was about 14%, while Blond on his own label earned him a staggering 70%. What this means is that Frank Ocean received money from Def Jam and Universal for Endless, but also from his own indie release. His release of Blond was in partnership with Apple Music – a bit of a sneaky one on Apple’s behalf, as they were essentially playing ball with Universal just to appease Frank’s contract, and allow themselves to reap the benefits of his independent, far superior follow up release on top.
Very shortly after Blond dropped, Universal displayed a panicked, knee jerk reaction when they banned their impressive roster from exclusive streaming deals in the future. While they didn’t unequivocally state that this new policy introduction was in response to Frank Ocean’s actions, the timing of the decision made it pretty clear that this was the case.
The arguments against these kinds of exclusive streaming deals are pretty fair in reality. They annoy consumers who have to sign up for a service they didn’t necessarily want just to hear new music from their favourite artists. They’re anti-competitive, and perhaps worst of all they encourage piracy of music in some ways; people are going to get their hands on an album whether or not they have access to the specific streaming service it’s exclusive to.
Through his bold actions, Frank Ocean may have set a precedent for the music industry. He’s shown how a terrific release can be orchestrated without the influence of a label, and that the artist can reap huge rewards for this. In the age of Bandcamp and Soundcloud, where artists can release their own music at the drop of a hat, this is welcome news. A big name artist like Frank Ocean self releasing his music shows that the middle man of record labels can be cut out of the equation altogether, leaving just the artist and the consumer. And really, this is the ideal scenario for both parties; artists can give their music straight to their fan base without label intervention, and fans don’t have to deal with a carefully orchestrated, corporate marketing drip feed – they just get the music.
In the case of Frank Ocean, though he’s come out on top, there could still be some problems for him about to materialise. Because Universal may have grounds to sue the heart throb artist. Generally, recording contracts have strict caveats on them. Things like the timeframe in which the album should be released, the level of quality it should be, and how long it can be before the artist releases more music. Unfortunately, Frank Ocean may have violated all of these pretty standard contract terms. Though the release of Endless technically fulfilled his contract with Universal, allowing him to cut ties with them, he dropped Blond quite literally the next day. Where Endless was essentially an expensive, ambitious experimental soundscape, Blond is the crossover pop success I imagine Universal wish they’d gotten to release. They might just be bitter enough about that to want to get back some of those millions that Frank is earning through Blond without them involved.
An independent release success story like Frank Ocean’s Blond isn’t exactly indicative of a changing musical industry landscape, because he only got to the level of fame and recognition he did as a result of the work done by his label. If he hadn’t been involved with Universal who relentlessly plugged Channel Orange and made him an international superstar, the indie release of Blond may have fallen under the radar, as many indie releases do.
Nowadays an artist can self-record an album on home software, and self-release it across many platforms, including streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music with ease. But just having your music available in the ether doesn’t constitute a successful release. The hard work of record labels and marketing teams is what propels artists into the public consciousness, and without them it can be rather hard to get a break. Sure, an internationally renowned artist like Frank Ocean can independently release an album to critical acclaim and fanfare, but for an unestablished artist, this type of thing isn’t as easy of a feat.
Artists like Chance The Rapper and MF Doom have never released music on a major label, and have still found themselves great success and recognition. It is undeniable that the landscape is shifting away from artists being corporate puppets. When artists and bands work independently, they have more creative control, and can focus on their artistry rather than meeting the expectations or requirements of their label. Things are changing rapidly – where once you had to be on a major label to be known outside of a local capacity, avenues like Bandcamp and Soundcloud are making this more and more irrelevant. Musicians and fans are more connected than ever, and in my opinion, labels need to catch up if they want to stay afloat.
Universal’s response to Frank Ocean’s actions shows a fear of change, and an unwillingness to adapt to the changing times. This will inevitably lead to their downfall. Rather than try to keep a failing business model in tact, it’s about time that labels worked with artists and streaming services to adapt to the new marketplace. Maybe they’ll have to let go of a few dollars in doing so, but the current idea that a label has to have entire control over an artist is quickly fading into obscurity.
There are many who think that the rise of the internet, and the ease of music consumption that came along with it, irreparably damaged the industry. The simple reason for this is that it is harder for artists and labels to make money, when so many people want to get their music for free rather than forking out $20 for a CD. The vinyl sales boom of recent years has shown that a portion of the population long for the time of physical music, but this is a small trend, that has actually started to decline. The short answer is that artists and labels need to realise that making stacks and stacks of money from music releases is becoming a thing of the past. Adaptation to the changing times is key here, not suing artists because they decide they can do it better on their own.
Fear is a common reaction to change, but there is simply no way of returning to the extremely profitable music business of thirty years ago. As Bob Dylan once said, back when artists would clean up from record sales, “the times they are a changing.” Labels either need to catch up, or get out of the way. Frank Ocean has brought this issue into the limelight, and how this all plays out for him could set a precedent for the evolving music industry for years to come.
*Side note, Blond is an incredible feat of artistry and musicality, and if you’ve been living under a rock or something, you should absolutely check out.