When news broke that Frank Ocean had successfully finessed Universal/Def Jam out of his contract obligations with the release of Endless (freeing him up to drop Blonde independently) he was immediately praised for the crafty move. Now, as the dust settles, speculation has been raised regarding the legality of the maneuver.
Does Universal Music Group have grounds to sue Frank Ocean?
Some believe they do. In a piece published by Billboard today, writer Dan Rys cites unnamed sources that claim Frank "increased his potential profit share from 14 percent to 70 percent of total revenues from Blond within a 24-hour period." While the maneuver was unquestionably clever and beneficial for Frank, Rys questions its legality—specifically the classification of a glorified music video (Endless) as a "proper" album in comparison to the main course (Blonde). Rys also points out that the 24 hour window between the two releases may be an issue, adding:
Many record contracts are based on minimum-delivery clauses, meaning that if Ocean's deal was just for two albums, he typically would have had to deliver them within a set time frame, and at a label-acceptable level of quality, in order to fulfill his contract. In addition, most recording contracts stipulate that a window of time during which an artist can't release music on any other label, so as not to compete with the current project — in this case, Def Jam's Endless. By delivering Blond within just 24 hours, it raises the question of whether Universal even knew it was coming.
So, while Frank seems to have pulled a fast one on the label at the moment, UMG could potentially turn the tides if they pursued a lawsuit. No legal action has been taken yet, but UMG CEO Lucian Grainge has responded by saying Universal will no longer participate single-platform, global streaming exclusives.
Regardless of legal outcome, the contentious situation makes you wonder if the rising tension between artists, labels, streaming services, and fans is nearing a breaking point. Do artists even need labels anymore if they can "independently" release chart-topping albums with Apple Music? How will labels respond to this shift in power?
Yesterday, former Apple Music employee Sean Glass noted that "labels are rarely involved" in these exclusive releases in a story published on P&P. He continued with an interesting point:
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.
The rapid shift in power continues in an already dizzying year of firsts. In April, Kanye West released the first No. 1 album where more than half of its units were generated by streaming equivalent albums. Two months later, Chance The Rapper's independently released Apple Music exclusive charted in the Top 10 and inspired the Grammys to finally accept streaming-only releases for awards nomination.
Now, Frank Ocean becomes the first to defiantly side-step his major label contract, preferring a direct relationship with a streaming service instead. Time will tell if that move will land him in legal trouble.