Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Who wants another exclusive Frank Ocean album?

As high profile artists and streaming services continue to play footsie, exclusives are the latest music business battleground

At least he's happy

Wed, Aug 24, 2016, 11:21


Frank hearts Apple. That’s one of several takeaways to be had from the latest round of musical chairs involving Frank Ocean, Apple Music and Universal Music. It appears, from some eagle-eyed sleuthing, that Ocean exited his deal with Universal’s Def Jam label after the release of his visual album “Endless” last Friday and jumped into bed with Apple for the exclusive release of “Blonde” a few short hours later. Trust us, when you’re hanging around for Frank, 24 hours is a short period of time.

On the back of this and several of its other acts choosing to give exclusives to services like Apple and Tidal, Universal have reportedly decided that enough is enough- they’ve signed and developed the acts, after all, when Apple was just interested in flogging iPods – and are seeking to end the practice. Add in the news that Spotify are out of contract with the major labels and you’ve lots of end-of-summer angst and shenanigans to muse about.

But this is worth mulling over from more than just a music business point of view. For fans especially, the rise of exclusives, where high-profile acts release new music exclusively on one of the big streaming services, has become a vexatious issue. If you’ve a subscription with one or other of these services, you don’t really want to be going out of your way every other month to invest in another one just to hear a new album. There’s plenty of evidence that Tidal got a bump when Beyonce and Kanye West went there first with “Lemonade” and “The Life Of Pablo”, but it doesn’t appear to have had enough of a long-term effect to either knock the bigger services from their perch or persuade someone with deep pockets to pony up for Jigga’s vanity project.

It’s also worth noting the evidence that exclusives could well see fans moving back to piracy rather than doing what they’re told and ponying up for another streaming service to get the album. Whatever about hardcore fans who have to get the album the very second it appears, many of us will either wait for the album to show up on the services we’re paying a tenner a month for or check a rip of the album out on Soundcloud (guilty as charged when it came to my first listen of “Blonde” on Sunday).

There’s a school of thought that exclusives with certain streaming services are what the artists want so we should go along with it. It’s a school of thought which I usually have no trouble getting behind – after all, artists are the ones who create the work so they should have the call on how this is released. The only reason we still have albums is because artists insist on releasing them as they view this as the best way to present their work.

But it’s abundantly clear that it’s only high-profile galactico acts with long established fanbases who are getting the nod to go down the exclusives’ road. I can’t imagine Apple Music or Tidal are making a beeline for newbie acts to show them some tech world love and a big fat cheque (open to correction on this). Instead, the streaming services are lining up to bring the already successful acts into their tents. Naturally, the permanent establishment managers, bean-counters and legal eagles who work with these acts are happy to play ball – Mino Raiola isn’t the only one who believes that a big cheque is the best way to keep your clients happy.

Of course, the streaming services will argue otherwise. This blog post from former Apple insider Sean Glass puts the case for the defence, but it’s an argument which doesn’t really address the main issue. Glass goes on and on about fans who want to be part of a club or community and hear these exclusives, but what happens when those massive music fans, people who are prepared to pay for their music, have already decided that they want to go with Spotify rather than Apple Music? They’re still huge music fans, albeit on a streaming service which is not Apple.

Why are they getting discriminated against because Apple have this dude who’s showing so much love to established artists? Glass refers to this Apple dude, named here as Larry Jackson, as “one guy who is behind ALL of these campaigns…works intimately with each artist as a creative peer, and develops an amazing plan…he works closer with the artists than labels do”.

That dude will sound familiar to any act who has ever had any sort of exchange with a label. All labels have dudes whose job is to show the artists some love. Even Steve Albini identified this dude back in the day. You can bet the artists love when they see this Apple dude approaching, in much the same way as they loved the dude from Universal when he or she was showing them the initial love. Artists love getting showed the love.

Glass also argues that Spotify are not paying the artists their proper due, but it’s not exactly the case that Apple Music are over flaithulach in this regard. All of the streaming services will pay as little as they can get away with because they’re in the profit business. They’re not in the hey-here’s-some-free-money-for-everyone business. The reason why they’re packing out the exclusives is because they’ve made the calculation that a certain coterie of artists have an enthusiastic fanbase who’ll pay or churn to Apple. Simple as.

Glass says that “Apple is giving artists cash, which gets translated to content, and delivered back to the fan” but remember that that cash is going to just 0.1 per cent of acts, not even the one per cent. Remember too that it is “delivered back to the fan” only is that fan is paying a tenner a month to Apple in the first place.

Should Universal boss Lucian Grainge really choose to put the kibosh on his acts doing exclusive deals with streaming services, things will get very interesting and not just for Universal acts. The other labels will also follow because this is what they tend to do. For the acts, it then becomes a case of expert counsel and guidance. Many will still be in the middle of deals – deals, let us not forget, which they freely signed of their own violition and for which they got handsomely compensated – so they’ll either have to lawyer up to get out of the contract or just go with things. Others will be nearing the end of their contracts or about to go out of contract and may well be swayed by the idea of a big cheque from Tim Cook for an one-off release with an attractive clause about copyright. For music fans, though, we’ll just have to wait and see what the pitch looks like when the smoke clears.