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ERA welcomes Universal’s possible exclusives ban, as speculation about Frank Ocean release strategy continues

By | Published on Thursday 25 August 2016

Frank Ocean

The UK’s Entertainment Retailer’s Association has welcomed the reports that Universal Music top man Lucian Grainge has officially discouraged the major’s labels from doing exclusivity deals with specific streaming platforms around individual album releases.

As discussed yesterday, the use of album exclusives by the likes of Tidal and Apple Music to build market share has been controversial in some quarters, even if it’s a strategy that does seem to have worked for the DSPs to an extent. Some see the locking of big album releases to single digital platforms as being anti-fan, and of ultimately damaging the wider streaming market, in that it annoys paying subscribers – the record industry’s best customers – who happen to have signed up to the wrong streaming service.

Following the rumours that Grainge had instigated an exclusives ban at Universal, ERA CEO Kim Bayley said yesterday: “We have long believed that a level playing field is the key to healthy competition in the entertainment market”.

And this means no exclusives, she said. “The premium music streaming sector has grown rapidly with a clear promise to consumers that they can effectively access all the music they might want for a single flat fee per month. [But] the proliferation of exclusives means consumers are effectively forced to take out multiple subscriptions to gain access to all key releases. We believe this is damaging not just to individual services but to the market as a whole”.

Bayley concluded: “We welcome reports that Universal is now moving away from exclusives and call on other labels to follow their lead”.

Of course, as also noted yesterday, even if the record companies do adopt a ‘no exclusives’ policy, the sorts of big name artists who the streaming services actually want exclusivity deals with often have the power to force their labels’ hand, with a number of the exclusivity arrangements already seen in the streaming domain being as much management as label led.

And, of course, you have big name artists who are free agents. Universal’s apparent exclusives ban follows the latest big release exclusive, with Frank Ocean providing two new albums to Apple Music last week. Ocean was signed to Universal, and the first of those releases – the special ‘visual album’ – was put out by the major, but the second, the main album, was actually a self-release.

There is now much speculation as to how that happened, in that it seems that Ocean may have cleverly fulfilled his contractual obligations to the major with the pre-release release, allowing him to then self-release and fully control his long-awaited and much anticipated second album proper. Some wonder whether his deal with Apple facilitated that process, either by providing funds to allow Ocean to buy himself out of his contract with Universal, and/or by providing assurance that the singer could release the record without the weight of a Universal marketing campaign behind him.

Either way, even if all the labels were to be officially down on streaming exclusives, there would still be some big name artists able to pull off of deal one way or another if a digital service were to make it worth their while. And, indeed, if Apple Music is willing to continue writing exclusivity deal cheques, there may be more big name artists who are free agents, able to make such arrangements without involving a label at all.

Artists may also come to feel that locking their music to one platform short changes their fans, which might make such arrangements less and less attractive, whatever money or marketing an Apple Music offers. If Ocean’s manoeuvres result in legal action from Universal, which some reckon they might, then artists in contract with a label may be less willing to take on a record company in order to get their way.

Though, if the Frank Ocean sneaky pre-release release thing does result in litigation, perhaps Apple Music – what with its recent move into documentary making – could try to score the exclusive rights to covering that.