Background

Hot on the heels of Frank Ocean’s new visual album Endless was the sudden drop of his 17 song album Blonde a mere 24 hours later that nobody saw coming. The two albums however were released through very different platforms. The 45 minute long visual album Endless was released through Apple Music video stream via Def Jam/Universal Music Group while his chart topping album Blonde was released independently as an Apple Music exclusive through Ocean’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry.

Reportedly, by releasing Endless, Ocean had fulfilled his contractual obligations with Universal Music Group and freed him to release his own album independently. Now, two days after the release, there is widespread media speculation that Universal Music Group has made what can only be described as a landmark decision for the music industry: to officially ban the practice of exclusive distribution with streaming services.

Not the first

However Ocean is not the first artist to have made a strategic business move to free himself from contractual obligations with large record labels. In May earlier this year, Chance the Rapper released the Apple Music exclusive, Coloring Book which became the first streaming-only album to reach the Billboard 200 chart. Similarly Britney Spears has announced that the upcoming release of her first album since 2013 will be exclusively streamed through Apple Music.

Other notable examples include the precedent of music icon Prince, who legally changed his name to the ‘Artist Formerly Known As Prince’ in 1993. His rebellion, though resulting in waning record sales and linguistic complications, marked the end of contractual restrictions imposed by record label, Warner Bros who had trademarked the name ‘Prince’. Providing him free reign to release albums in quick succession to release himself from his contract.

Labels v Streamers

Despite these previous examples, the current media frenzy around Ocean’s album drop can be attributed to the timing of these releases. Simply put, they coincide with a significantly growing movement within the music industry as traditional record labels battle with new and emerging streaming services for control of the market share.

If speculation on Universal Music Group’s ban is correct, it could mark the potential end of the relationship between record labels and streaming services. Furthermore, if artists and albums are limited to particular platforms, it could severely impede on the market reach and success of releases.

The legal perspective

At the heart of this issue are the legally binding contracts and relationships that artists, record labels and streaming services share.

Whether a label can effectively ban a fleet of chart-topping artists from fulfilling their existing contractual releases with streaming services and prevent future exclusives is a legal question that is yet to be answered. More than ever, it is critical for artists, individuals and businesses to understand the extent of their contractual obligations to avoid future legal conflicts and disputes.

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Jennifer Wang

Jennifer is a Paralegal, working in our content team, which aims to provide free legal guides to facilitate public access to legal resources. With a keen interest in media and IP law, her research focuses on the evolving role of the law to navigate new and emerging information platforms.