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 have been at Apple since before launch, but I 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.
1. I’m not in favor of exclusives, I’m in favor of the work and value Apple is putting into music right now
2. Exclusives are easily and cheaply accessible, often free
3. Fan complaining about exclusives refuse to spend $10 per month on music. Otherwise, it’s the major labels complaining.
4. Exclusives provide incredible, unprecedented value for artists + fans
5. Exclusives provide little value to major labels
6. Exclusives at Apple come from one guy working directly with artists, and putting invaluable creative energy into every release.
7. Apple is the only company doing this, so this is not a fight against exclusives, this is a fight against Apple.
8. Exclusives are not the problem, major labels owning the streaming services and all of their playlist functionality is. Indies are powerless.
9. When majors own everything, we all lose because music sounds the same.
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 board room 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. 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 artist’s 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 some exciting added content. 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’s 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, you got sooooo much…Hotline Bling video, OVO Sound Radio, etc. The 1975, had a fully produced concert film on a rooftop in DTLA, and tons of access to the artist in Beats1 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. #WATTBA 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, but just 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 was just paying for things. There’s 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, it’ll dominate for a few weeks on release (because 17 tracks count more on streaming than a typical 12 track album), and then go away from the charts, and the label loses. 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 TLOP, 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 Beyonce makes her money on Lemonade the LP, but in everything else surrounding it. 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. 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 5000 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. Sure, there are exceptions, there are playlisters that actually just chart what they feel like, but the majority chart stuff from Universal, Sony and Warner. 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.