When Frank Ocean unveiled Blonde on Saturday on Apple Music as a streaming exclusive, it was meant to be a celebration. Long-awaited, it was the artist’s most complete musical release since his 2012 major label debut, Channel Orange, and looks set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 later this week.
One group not invited to the party: Def Jam Recordings, Ocean’s former music label.
Blonde was released on Ocean’s independent label Boys Don’t Cry,which is not affiliated with the artist’s former publisher Def Jam or its parent Universal Music Group (UMG), a source familiar with the situation told FORBES. Metadata on Apple Music, where Blonde is being exclusively streamed, confirmed that the copyright on Ocean’s news album belongs to Boys Don’t Cry and not to Island Def Jam Music Group as on Channel Orange.
A representative for Ocean could not be reached for comment, while a representative for Def Jam did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for Apple Music did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For UMG, Blonde has led to a massive rift with one of its key artists and a decision to decouple itself from the lucrative, but oft criticized practice of providing exclusive streaming rights. On Monday, music industry analyst and critic Bob Lefsetz reported that UMG CEO Lucian Grainge sent an email to other executives stating that the company, which represents artists like Drake and Kanye West, would end all exclusives with music streaming companies like Apple. At least two sources confirmed to FORBES that his decision was influenced partly by Ocean’s move to partner with Apple for his newest album.
The practice of offering up exclusives to streaming companies is a relatively new one, whereby labels or artists allow a service early access to a release in return for an agreed upon sum. This year, Tidal and Apple Music have attempted to win paying subscribers with proprietary content. Spotify, the world’s largest music streaming service, has previously said that it is not interested in exclusive streaming rights.
“We’re not really in the business of paying for exclusives, because we think they’re bad for artists and they’re bad for fans,” Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s head of communications, told The Verge in February.
Blonde was not the first high-profile exclusive for Apple. A month after Apple Music launched in June 2015, it kicked off its exclusivity plan by premiering Dr. Dre’s latest album, Compton: A Soundtrack, in July, on Dre’s The Pharmacy show. Hours later, it was available for purchase on iTunes.
The exclusivity battle ratcheted up in 2016 as Tidal exclusively premiered long-awaited albums by Rihanna and West. Rihanna’s Antiwas released for free digital download on Jan. 28 through Tidal; it went up online for purchase the next day. West’s The Life of Pablo was released on Feb. 13 via Tidal and briefly as a paid download on West’s own website before being taken down. The album was only made available to other streaming services and for purchase six weeks later.
Apple, meanwhile, countered with a Drake deal that had his music appear exclusively on its services first: His fourth studio album, Views, was exclusive to Apple Music for a week following its April 29 release. Drake’s partnership with the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant is a multi-year, eight-figure deal for the rapper, who banked $38.5 million before taxes in the 12 months prior to June, according to FORBES’ calculations.
Many have been critical of exclusive deals, including Lefsetz. In a Sunday blog post addressing Frank Ocean’s decision to tie himself to Apple, he wrote that the practice does not help artists’ careers and that the best situation is where all listeners have access to music, regardless of the streaming service.
“There’s a conspiracy between Apple Music and the industry to change the game, to get everybody to pay for a subscription by putting hit content behind a paywall,” he wrote, before calling for an antitrust investigation of the company.
For the upstarts, exclusivity is one way to challenge the incumbent, Spotify. Apple Music reported 15 million paid subscribers in June, half of Spotify’s 30 million paid subscribers, last tallied in March. Tidal, meanwhile, said in March it has more than 3 million paid subscribers worldwide, a chunk of which were presumably won over with West’s album. While there have been no user stats released detailing the impact of exclusive albums, they seem to have had noteworthy payoffs: The release of The Life of Pablo drove Tidal to the top of the U.S. app store downloads, while Views was streamed 250 million times on Apple Music.
The disagreement over Blonde is the latest dispute between Ocean and Def Jam. Previously signed to the label as a songwriter under the name “Lonny Breaux,” Ocean was unable to make a breakthrough until he released a free mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra under his current stage name in 2011. Upon debuting that for free on his Tumblr, the artist wrote onTwitter: “i. did. this. not ISLAND DEF JAM…. f**k Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/ no intention of following through.”
Following that ordeal, Ocean said in interviews that his relationship with the label had improved, and eventually led to the release of Channel Orange.
The decision to release Blonde independently, however, has reopened that wound. It’s unclear what kind of contract Ocean had with Def Jam but prior to releasing Blonde, he unveiled a 45-minute visual album called Endless on Thursday. Endless, which was also released exclusively on Apple Music, did list Def Jam in its credits, something that Blonde did not do.
A source close to the situation said that Endless project fulfilled Ocean’s contractual obligations to Def Jam and Universal and left the artist free to do whatever he pleased with any new music.
Ocean, unhindered by ties to any major label, released Blonde two days later.