by Bill Greenwood
Frank Ocean certainly seems to have gotten the best of the world’s biggest music company, pulling the wool over Universal Music’s eyes with the self-release of new album Blonde only days after his contract-fulfilling visual album Endless. That means that, according to Billboard, instead of receiving only 14% of Blonde’s revenues under his old contract, Ocean will now get to keep 70%, while Universal is left with what many consider a subpar album linked to a tedious video that is only available for streaming and not for sale. It certainly feels like a victory for Ocean, and taken as a modern day David vs. Goliath story, it’s hard not to cheer for him.
But here’s the rub: Regardless of whether Universal has grounds to sue him (which, according to Billboard, they certainly might), Ocean has now made an enemy of a massively powerful music institution. And as Digital Music News reminds us, this comes only two years after Ocean reneged on a deal with Chipotle to record a cover of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which led to a lawsuit and a reimbursement check from Ocean with “Fuck off” written in the memo field.
In the PR field, we’ve learned that it’s incredibly important to treat clients, reporters, and anyone else whose path we cross with respect. While we may have disagreements, some serious enough to end working relationships, we always strive to resolve and/or end things in a positive manner. As such, much of our business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations, even from ex-clients. However, Ocean’s actions show a profound lack of respect for the music business infrastructure that has supported his rise, and any label, publisher, producer, marketer, lawyer, brand, etc. is going to have to weigh that in the future when deciding whether to work with him. In addition, there’s no way Ocean will be getting any recommendations from Universal or Chipotle, and he’ll be lucky if they don’t actively campaign against him, further limiting his options in the future.
Of course, Ocean is so huge right now that it seems he may not need the industry any more, his music’s scarcity serving as the only promotion required whenever he decides to turn the hose back on. And as long as his music continues to sell, companies will line up to work with him despite the risks. But if his star power and fan support ever dry up, he could find himself alone in an unforgiving business.
For a taste of how this all might play out, look no further than the late, great Prince. After putting out some of the biggest albums of his career via Warner Brothers Records, he was angered by the label’s refusal to release his music at a faster clip as well as its ownership of his master recordings, according to BBC News. In protest, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, began appearing in public with the word “slave” written on his face, and released a series of albums filled with lackluster material meant to run out his contract. The whole ordeal confused the public, alienated the industry, and torpedoed his album sales. His prior success kept him afloat as he continued to release music on his own independent label, NPG Records, but he never matched the heights of his Warner days, and in 2014, he re-signed with the label he spurned after it became clear that he would need help with cash and distribution.
Only time will tell whether Ocean’s path will follow the same trajectory, and it’s tempting to believe that his talent alone can keep him both independent and on top. But picking a fight with the music industry is a dangerous proposition, and one that could cast a pall over the rest of his young career. For the time being, he appears to have won the battle. Jury’s still out on the war.