There are a lot of assumptions being made about the current situation between Frank Ocean, Universal Music and Apple.
The fact that Ocean’s visual album ‘Endless’ (released through UMG) was followed so swiftly by his ’Blond’ album (released through his own label) is provoking plenty of dot-joining.
The theory: Ocean fulfilled his label deal with ‘Endless’ then sucker-punched UMG with ‘Blond’ in cahoots with Apple, sparking rage in the senior ranks of Universal, and a new blanket-ban on streaming exclusives for its artists.
Maybe that is how things went down, although there are a number of unanswered questions. Will UMG distribute the physical version of Blond? Was the label more clued-in on Ocean’s plans than has been suggested? Who stumped up the $2m that Billboard reports Ocean is likely to have repaid to Def Jam/UMG for the recording costs for ‘Blond’?
We are not alone in thinking the ultimate truth behind the double-release may be more nuanced than the early assumptions. Even so, the situation does raise some important issues around the evolving relationships between artists, labels and digital services.
You might argue that ‘Blond’ is the culmination of a much wider trend of artist awareness around rights ownership and labels’ potential as purely licensing and distribution partners: from David Guetta and Metallica to the artist-services arms of major and independent music companies alike.
The headache, as label bodies have regularly and rightly pointed out, has been investment: recording and marketing costs in particular.
Crowdfunding never became the label-killing trend it was (wrongly, if we’re blunt) hyped as a few years ago; tax-efficient schemes to fund albums from the world of private investment melted away under regulatory scrutiny; and while management companies *are* handling more of the early development work for their emerging artists in interesting ways, it’s more about improving leverage when a label deal is eventually signed than replacing the label altogether.
What’s new in 2016, then, is the emergence of digital services (Apple Music, mainly, but also Tidal) as an alternative source of investment.
Let the ‘Music is entering its Netflix Originals era’ thinkpieces commence, then. Yet despite the tension around the release of ‘Blond’, there’s a bigger trend in 2016 of labels and streaming services working as partners. Warner Music and Spotify’s campaign to break Lukas Graham worldwide, which we reported on earlier this year, is a good example.
There will certainly be established artists with the clout to hold on to their rights and strike direct deals with Apple and its rivals if they want to. But streaming remains a fast-evolving and complex space with plenty more improvements to be made and experiments to be conducted.
For the most part, that journey will be undertaken by labels and digital services as partners, rather than rivals – with artists and managers enjoying a closer involvement in the process too.