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Frank Ocean's Album Is the Straw that Broke Universal Music's Back (and It May Get Him Sued)
In the end, Frank Ocean won, and walked away with his freedom and his money. Calculating those who lost, however, is a much more complicated equation.

In the end, Frank Ocean won, and walked away with his freedom and his money. Calculating those who lost, however, is a much more complicated equation.

Frank Ocean’s four-year sabbatical from the public eye following his 2012 album Channel Orange ended emphatically and dramatically last week with back-to-back releases: the visual album Endless, released as an Apple Music video stream via Def Jam/Universal Music Group; and the 17-song album Blond, released as an Apple exclusive a day later on Ocean’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry, without Def Jam’s – or Universal’s – involvement.

After an interminable wait (in music industry standards, at least), Ocean fulfilled his contractual obligations, sources tell Billboard, and increased his potential profit share from 14 percent to 70 percent of total revenues from Blond within a 24-hour period, seemingly pulling a fast one on the biggest music company in the world in the process. Def Jam and its parent Universal, stuck with an overshadowed visual album that isn’t for sale, and cut out of any revenue from the “proper” album that’s headed to the top of the charts on the strength of  225,000 to 250,000 equivalent album units earned in the week ending Aug. 25, were left with what amounts to a very long music video and without one of their marquee artists.

UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge reacted swiftly by informing the heads of his labels that Universal was done with streaming exclusives on one platform and on a global basis, which has been at the center of the streaming services’ arms race in the last 18 months, though it remains unconfirmed whether or not Grainge’s policy change was a direct result of Ocean’s strategy behind Blond. But regardless, the damage was done.

Now, the question is, how did Ocean win this battle? Did he? And what does it mean for the other labels, streaming services and the industry at large?

In July, Billboard reported that Def Jam had spent as much as $2 million on recording costs for Ocean’s album, at the time thought to be called Boys Don’t Cry. Now it appears that Ocean, perhaps through an advance via his new deal with Apple (though one source suggests a separate, private benefactor), paid that amount back to Def Jam, absolving him of any recoupable claims from Def Jam/UMG and essentially buying Ocean his own recordings back. Ocean delivered Endless instead, fulfilling his deal and severing his contractual ties to the major.  

But to release another full-length, fully-realized album outside the label’s purview just 24-hours later is controversial, to say the least, and a source tells Billboard that while UMG hasn’t taken any legal action against Ocean or his team — yet — the label group may have grounds to do so.

For one, many record contracts are based on minimum-delivery clauses, meaning that if Ocean’s deal was just for two albums, he typically would have had to deliver them within a set time frame, and at a label-acceptable level of quality, in order to fulfill his contract. In addition, most recording contracts stipulate that a window of time during which an artist can’t release music on any other label, so as not to compete with the current project — in this case, DefJam’s Endless. By delivering Blond within just 24 hours, it raises the question of whether  Universal even knew it was coming – and what they could have done about it regardless.

The messy rollout is Def Jam’s third this year, following Rihanna’s leaked Antirelease via Tidal and Kanye West’s extended-streaming/eventual U-turn of a strategy for The Life of Pablo. But while both were rocky debuts, those two LPs at least went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200; with Ocean, Def Jam won’t even have that consolation.

That makes Grainge’s umbrage understandable, and paints Def Jam as a clear loser in the situation, with the company’s bottom line taking a tangible hit. But it doesn’t necessarily represent a coup for Apple Music, either, as the ire of the industry – and the biggest label in the world – turns toward the house that Jobs built. (Def Jam and Apple Music did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

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