More Frank Ocean

Apple is not threatening Universal.

After all, it’s just business. And in business, you protect your turf.

Prognosticators are saying this is the end, that since Frank Ocean’s second LP of last weekend was independent, not under contract to Universal, we’re at the advent of a new era wherein power shifts from the label to the distributor and the majors decline.

Don’t hold your breath.

Let’s assume “Blond” was truly indie, no one knows for sure. Let’s even assume Frank Ocean played his cards correctly, that he read his contract and saw an escape clause, which is dubious at best. But, if so, don’t expect it to happen again. Read a recent recording contract? Used to be rights were for the world, in physical formats. Now they’re for the universe in all formats now known and to be discovered, usually for the life of the copyright. Those twenty five year reversions that allowed acts like Aerosmith to get another bite at the apple? Pfft…, they’re gone.

Of course if you’ve established independent success you can cut a better deal, with more revenue and a shorter term, even with rights reversion. But if the label built you, it not only wants a pound of flesh, but your whole body.

We’ve been hearing that the major labels are going to be disrupted for fifteen years. Hasn’t happened and still won’t in the foreseeable future. Because of rights, i.e. the catalog, which labels wield like a parent corralling an unruly child, and relationships. Just try getting on terrestrial radio without being on a major, it’s nearly impossible.

It’s always those far from the center, usually not involved in the day to day business, who prognosticate about change and evanescence. Those inside know it’s a fight for survival, and you circle the wagons, load up with ammo and fight back to protect what you’ve got. And the majors have done this oh-so-well.

As for playing out your contract and going indie… Just ask Trent Reznor, he hated Universal but then moved on to Sony after his indie interlude, because running your own ship doesn’t scale. You’re in charge of only one project, a major can spread its costs amongst many acts, furthermore, you can’t staff up in every area. Sure, you can hire indies, but after they get the check don’t expect them to deliver. You’re one of many, you might not have another project for years.

Which is why the majors continue to triumph. Their lunch was eaten by Napster, they got snookered by Steve Jobs and iTunes, and now they’re partners with Spotify. Literally, they’re investors. Which is why when you hear that Spotify is out of contract you should not waste time thinking about it. The majors want Spotify in business. And they also want a free tier, they want their new projects heard, especially at a site that pays better than YouTube, one upon which they can exert their leverage.

But along comes Jimmy Iovine, friend to all.

But Jimmy’s history is winning for himself. Where is Ted Field today?

And the majors granted licenses to ensure competition, but they’re not about to let Apple run the table.

That’s right, Apple was complicit with Frank Ocean, and for that it must pay. Not with a check, but remorse. Lucian Grainge took its golden ticket away, no more exclusives. Jimmy didn’t fight fair and now Lucian is showing his armor.

Very interesting.

But even more interesting is that Apple provides little beyond cash. You get placement on its service, where most people aren’t. Success is about exposure which leads to ticket sales and endorsements. Reduce exposure and you’re collapsing the enterprise. Sure, Frank Ocean is swimming in media today, but the lion’s share of the public either doesn’t care or stole the product. Is this any way to run a business?

And if you want to do it yourself, you fail. Remember the saga of Garth Brooks, who refused to embrace the new paradigm and did it himself? Garth is clueless and lost. His last project failed miserably and he’s missing out on streaming revenue, believing the disc will come back and files will have a renaissance. Might as well invest in BlackBerry while you’re at it. The biggest name in nineties country music has to play by today’s rules, or be relegated to the dustbin. Sure, he can sell concert tickets, but so can Def Leppard and Styx, and you don’t see them anywhere on the chart. Which is fine if you want to ride the road to retirement, but if you’re young you’ve got to still put points on the board, via recordings.

Money changes everything. It’ll get people to work against their interests. Exclusives may put cash in your pocket, but they hurt your career. Music is a mass medium, and if the masses are left out, you’re toast.

So, Apple knows how to distribute. But it is not the dominant player. The majors saw the MTV movie, which is why they invested in Spotify and wanted a competitor to it at the same time. But MTV faded away and the majors remained. Because distribution is not enough. It’s about investing in acts, developing them, exposing them. Sure, you can take the cream off the top. But there’s very little cream and then the froth evaporates. The music landscape is littered with that which hit today and is forgotten tomorrow. Lucian Grainge and his merry band of executives have longer careers than almost all the acts Universal has ever signed, remember that.

So, Frank Ocean is not a harbinger of what’s to come. No more than acts doing direct deals with Wal-Mart were last decade. He’s an outlier. A momentary blip. And to the degree “Blond” punched a hole in the dam, it’s being plugged as I write this.

As for disruption…

It’s about music, not systems. Want to own the world, change the landscape? Write a hit tune that sounds nothing like what’s on the chart and then dominate. That’s the story of the Beatles, that’s the story of classic rock. It wiped the deck clean of the old players, not only acts, but executives. And then Peter Grant employed his leverage to make live a 90/10 split, in favor of Led Zeppelin. All the change came from young ‘uns, not the established players. Kind of like music discovery lives on Spotify, with its algorithms, Discover Weekly and Release Radar. Jimmy pays lip service to discovery, doing it the old way, via hand, but Spotify wins, it’s running circles around Apple because it’s run by the young not inured to old ways.

The enemy is not the major label. And it’s not the streaming service either. The enemy is you, your brain, which prevents you from thinking different, which believes doors are closed and you’re constricted. The music business has been and forever will be one of leverage. He with hits writes his own rules. And he who controls more hits changes the game.

Don’t bitch about minor skirmishes, don’t fight wars that cannot be won or are irrelevant. Spotify payments suck if you’re no one, they’re gargantuan if you’re someone.

So be someone.

That’s your challenge. If you’re trying to win via subterfuge, via contracts, you’ll never succeed. But if you’re emerging victorious via art, you write your own ticket.

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