Frank Ocean’s Blond Heist

Call him Mr. Blond. It seems Frank Ocean pulled a fast one on his label Def Jam/UMG, fulfilling his contract via the visual album ENDLESS and then dropping Blond on his own Boys Don’t Cry label, both projects being Apple Music exclusives. Lucian Grainge, label boss at UMG, has reportedly responded by banning ALL exclusives by artists on the label.

Fascinating questions arise from all this… was Def Jam/UMG entirely unaware of Blond’s existence? Was Apple Music complicit, keeping Blond a secret from UMG? How’d Frank’s team go about it? Sounds like a heist film to me…

It’s not clear how UMG’s exclusives ban would have prevented this. If ENDLESS was released on multiple platforms, hows does that affect Frank dropping an album on his own label while reaping the benefits of his major label’s marketing budget? Sure, the 2x Apple Music exclusive makes UMG look extra bad (and is a master-stroke from Frank and his Three Six Zero Management team), but exclusives are not the real story here.

The real implication is that there are certain artists or even just certain projects or phases that wouldn’t feel right on a big label, or maybe any label, and for the first time they don’t necessarily need one. Beck signed his deal with Geffen/Universal because it was built in that he would also get to release a few records on indie Bongload, before trying to get out of both. Some projects could rightly be seen as tentpoles for which no expense should be spared (looking at you Random Access Memories), but Blond is a personal/intimate album from a famously private guy who maybe doesn’t want to be a pop star. Thus completes the heist metaphor, as the treasure was rightly his all along.

I doubt very much that Frank was not given a wide berth to do as he liked, especially if UMG was interested in retaining his services on future albums. But while many artists know how cold it can be on the outside, Frank and Chance have shown that sometimes it’s not enough to have “full creative control” written into your label contract. Whether they skip it entirely (Chance) or dip out after squeezeing whatever they could from it (Frank), there has always been and will always will be artists who’d just rather go it solo or where a pairing actually makes aesthetic sense (David Lynch on Sacred Bones!). At least for now, there’s a space to do that and make waves. Once the shine wears off on the no-label approach it will get tough again. In the meantime Blond’s release is a win for everyone but major labels, which is to say, a win for artists and fans everywhere.

But all labels take heed: if an artist wants to fly under their own flag, they’re unlikely to ever be happy under yours, and now they don’t have to. If it doesn’t go well, it’s your fault, and if it does, you’re getting too much of the income/credit. There’s still lots of unsexy work to do behind the scenes in terms of financing, administration, and distribution. You can still help artists scale more quickly by reducing pressure on their management team to figure all this out on the fly. Hold on too tight and you’ll start to look like a casino owner who deserves to get swindled.

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