UPDATE: Read Sean's follow-up to this piece here.
Frank Ocean’s album is out. What do you think? Who got that zine? Mine is sitting unopened, framed on my wall right now. In addition to what we already knew about it, this album will be historic for an unexpected reason. It will be, allegedly, Universal’s final exclusive. Having been deeply involved in all of this, I have lots of feelings. I had been at Apple since before launch, but left recently, so while I still can’t talk about details, I can share my opinions on these issues that are already public knowledge. I have no loyalties here, I’m no longer employed, I have no horse in this race. But I fully support Apple as the leader and only relevant party.
01. I’m not in favor of exclusives, I’m in favor of the work and value Apple is putting into music right now.
02. Exclusives are easily and cheaply accessible, often free.
03. Fan complaining about exclusives refuse to spend $10 per month on music. Otherwise, it’s the major labels complaining.
04. Exclusives provide incredible, unprecedented value for artists and fans.
05. Exclusives provide little value to major labels.
06. Exclusives at Apple come from one guy working directly with artists, and putting invaluable creative energy into every release.
07. Apple is the only company doing this, so this is not a fight against exclusives, this is a fight against Apple.
08. Exclusives are not the problem, major labels owning the streaming services and all of their playlist functionality is. Indies are dying.
09. When majors own everything, we all lose because music sounds the same.
10. I believe Apple Music exclusives would have same impact if they were “brought to you by Apple Music” and not necessarily exclusive.
Conceptually, limiting the spread of music is bad. No brainer.
Would it be really cool if Apple did all this awesome stuff without requiring exclusives? Sure. I also want Frank Ocean to release two albums in two days to make up for the wait (oh, right, that happened). But that’s not realistic. And the end result is more value to the artist and consumer, which I consider a good thing.
Contrary to what you read, there’s no scary Apple boardroom conspiracy where corporate is plotting to take over creativity via artist exclusives.
Contrary to what you read, there’s no scary Apple boardroom conspiracy where corporate is plotting to take over creativity via artist exclusives. There’s one guy who is behind ALL of these campaigns — and he is light years ahead of everyone else, best in business. He works intimately with each artist as a creative peer, and develops an amazing plan, this is no simple land grab. He works closer with the artists than labels do.
He’s building a club, or a “community” as we like to say. Everyone is invited, at a very low cost. If you’re in, you are not complaining about exclusives. Those complaining about exclusives are not participating, which means refusing to pay $10 a month for music, so why are we letting them get airtime?
Why are we backing up Spotify here, in contrast? They have never invested in artists' content, and are now renegotiating their rates to pay artists less than they already were. Apple is paying higher royalties, and investing tens of millions in content that artists could never create without them. I hate to even mention Tidal, but the simple comparison here is that Tidal is a reductive strategy, withholding the music from anyone who does not subscribe to something unrelated to the consumption of the music, and providing zero added value. Apple always pairs exclusives with exciting added content, often giving it away for free on Connect (which I wish actually got the chance it deserved). It’s like startup economics—you’re either leveraging equity or cash. Tidal is giving artists equity, but that does not get passed to the fan. Apple is giving artists cash, which gets translated to content, and delivered back to the fan.
Go backwards and examine every single Apple Music exclusive that has come out. Each has been paired with an amazing campaign, full of content and experiences that just simply would not have happened without Apple’s involvement. Frank Ocean’s rollout was historic — two albums, a film, a livestream, a pop-up, a zine, etc. Drake got the "Hotline Bling" video, OVO Sound Radio. The 1975 had a fully produced concert film on a rooftop in DTLA, and tons of access to the artist in Beats 1 interviews. Dre and Straight Outta Compton was a wild experience last summer, constant content and excitement. There was a feature length Taylor Swift documentary. Khaled. What a time to be alive. There are many smaller, developing artists working on these as well, notably the Anderson .Paak documentary, without any exclusives even. There were tons of music videos that I can’t go into detail about that would not have existed without Apple’s involvement.
I believe the success here is that Apple is putting itself alongside the most exciting stories in the industry. When you hear about Frank Ocean, you hear about Apple. Drake…Apple. Dre…Apple. Not only is it associated, but Apple made it all happen. We might not have had a Tom Sachs 140-hour staircase movie, or Endless, without Apple Music. I do not believe anyone is subscribing to Apple Music because Apple held them hostage by withholding music they couldn’t get anywhere else. I believe they subscribe because they want to be around this platform and community that is constantly churning out amazing art. That cannot be said of the reductive Tidal, who simply keeps everyone away from music they want, and do not add to the experience.
These aren’t situations where Apple just pays for things. There is intimate creative involvement from the Apple side, down to actually directing videos.
Labels are rarely involved.
I think that’s where we’re missing what’s really going on. When Frank Ocean puts out a 17-song mood piece without any singles or songs that anyone besides Frank Ocean fans will listen to (read: playlist), it’ll dominate for a few weeks on release (because 17 tracks count more on streaming than a typical 12-track album), then go away from the charts, and the label is out. Frank Ocean and his management will make lots of money on any number of things he chooses to do. He’ll also make more on the payment for exclusivity than he’d likely make on royalties overall. Look at Kanye as the example. He didn’t care how many streams he got from The Life Of Pablo, because he’s doing millions a day in merch and touring, which the label only partially participates in. The album is a brand-building exercise for most of these artists now. I don’t think Beyoncé makes her money on Lemonade the LP, but in everything else surrounding it.
There’s a much worse problem out there, the same people are behind it, and it’s affecting 100% of the music out there. Major labels own the playlists.
These exclusives also affect less than 1% of the music out there. There’s a much, much, much, much, much, much, much worse problem out there, the same people are behind it, and it’s affecting 100% of the music out there. Major labels own the playlists. Indies simply do not have access like they do. Check what happened with Ministry of Sound. One of the strongest indies ever sold to Sony because MoS could not monetize playlists the way they do compilations, and they could not break artists outside of the UK.
Indie artists charting on Spotify are all anomalies. Sure, it happens, but it happens pretty randomly when a song gets hot. It’s not like the indie label has the promotional power to manufacture a campaign to get that artist playlisted and charting. Check out where LCD Soundsystem, a band synonymous with DFA, are releasing their next album (it’s not DFA, and nobody is blaming them). At the same time, every single release on certain major labels charts on Spotify because it’s placed directly into the playlists that first give the boost on the debut, and then become feeder for all of the other playlists. It’s not just about the one big playlist, it’s about the 5,000 UGC (user generated content) playlists that come afterwards.
Spotify says 60–90% of total plays come from those UGC playlists. Spotify works such that the major label-dominated playlists are the gatekeepers to the UGC playlists. There are exceptions, there are playlisters that actually just chart what they feel like, but the majority chart stuff from Universal, Sony, and Warner. Spotify has to do this, as they go away without the major labels. Apple doesn’t really care. Apple has to play nice, but can push a lot more. Indies are powerless. They’re left to leverage better A&R to hope they snag something great before the majors do.
There are solutions to all of this, but nobody in power wants them. Maybe I’ll write a part two on the solutions, but for now, I recommend enjoying the best content out there, which happens to come from Apple exclusives, educating yourselves on exactly how these services work, and supporting artists you love. The internet is a democratic tool, and we’re stripping ourselves of our rights by asking people to do everything for us. Demand more from your services, and demand variety. And next time you see a really, really bad pop star’s new single written by 16 people on the top of New Music Friday, don’t add it to your personal playlist.
Editor's Note: Soon after this was written, the news came out that Frank Ocean's album 'Blonde' was released independently, not through Def Jam. Sean confirmed that this did not affect the points made in this post, but he will follow up on that soon.
UPDATE: Read his follow up here.