Frank Ocean’s decision to release visual album Endless and the long anticipated Blonde back-to-back is perhaps the most telling summation of various industry trends that emerged since his much-heralded 2012 debut, Channel Orange. In the four-year gap between Ocean’s album releases, Beyoncé coined the term “visual album” for her 2013 eponymous album and then perfected the format with Lemonade. Tidal and eventually Apple Music entered the industry, seeking to dethrone industry giants Spotify with high profile, star-studded rollouts and artist exclusives. And earlier this year, Chance the Rapper proved independent artists could triumph in the age of streaming with the premiere of his acclaimed independent mixtape Coloring Book on Apple Music.
But Ocean’s decision to release Blonde immediately after Endless could see the crooner slapped with a lawsuit. Ocean technically fulfilled his contractual obligation to label Def Jam with Endless, a visual album with less commercial appeal than its immediate successor, Blonde. By self-releasing Blonde—the chart-topping, proper sophomore follow-up to Channel Orange—as an Apple exclusive, Ocean managed to wriggle his way out of his label contract while boosting his total profit share from 14 percent to 70 percent, according to Billboard. Ocean could have also used his forward from Apple to refund Def Jam’s $2 million input for funding Ocean’s project. As Ocean tinkered on his web-streamed workshop, teasing fans and ostensibly working on his next studio album, little did Def Jam and its parent company, Universal Music Group, know that Ocean had pitted the world’s largest record company against the world’s largest company.
UMG could therefore sue Ocean if the artist violated a competition clause, as Ocean’s self-released effort stands to make more money than Def Jam’s Endless. UMG may not even have grounds for a case if Ocean was able to maneuver through industry loopholes. But as the legal implications continue to slowly unfold, there have already been other repercussions for UMG. UMG executive Lucian Grainge called time on exclusives, even though several of the artists under the UMG umbrella have ties to Tidal, which promises higher royalties to musicians. Universal’s new stance on exclusives—bad for the artist, bad for the consumer—is no new slogan in the industry.
Music industry critic Bob Lefsetz, whose name has appeared extensively in media coverage of Frank Ocean’s label mix-up, has frequently called out Apple and its exclusive-prone streaming subsidiary Apple Music for monopolistic behavior. Earlier this year, the FTC conducted another investigation into Apple to see if the tech titan’s practices—specifically its treatment of other streaming services on the Apple Store—violated the Section 2 of the Sherman Act after complaints from rivals Spotify. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts levied a similar criticism of Apple’s practices: “While Apple Music is readily accessible on everyone’s iPhone, Apple has placed conditions on its rivals that make it difficult for them to offer competing streaming services.”
While Apple ultimately emerged unscathed from its FTC investigation, Ocean’s label drama has resurrected accusations of monopolistic behavior against Apple. But, as Grainge’s decision to curtail exclusives indicates, exclusives have come under fire. Spotify has long distanced itself from exclusives, unlike Tidal and Apple. Apple Music, despite branding itself as another streaming service, is becoming increasingly label-like, effectively blurring the lines of a label competition clause in lieu of UMG’s possible lawsuit. From producing music videos to spending lucrative amounts on stars (Apple funneled $20 million into its contract with Canadian rapper Drake), it is unsurprising to see Apple Music’s transformation into a label, considering it originally acquired Beats Music—a company helmed by label executive Jimmy Iovine.
Even Spotify, a company that has shied away from exclusives in favor of its “freemium” model, has been reacting in the streaming company arms race. The Swedish streaming pioneers hired noted manager Troy Carter (whose clientele has included Lady Gaga, Meghan Trainor, and John Legend) in June to take on its rivals, even though Carter criticized the notion of exclusives. But with Apple and Tidal snapping up the chart heavy-hitters, Spotify users have to wait for weeks for the hottest releases. Blonde finally made its way over to Spotify last Friday, before mysteriously disappearing and reappearing after a “technical issue.” With Ocean’s album drama following over to Spotify, one thing is clear: in the fast-paced, ever-evolving Internet arena, streaming services are beginning to dominate the music industry, increasingly resembling record labels but evading their legal consequences.