Frank Ocean released about as much music over the past week or so as he had in his entire career up to that point. In doing so, he may have pulled a fast one on Universal. The “visual album” Endless was released through Def Jam/Universal Music Group as an Apple exclusive, but Blond(e) was released the next day as an Apple exclusive on Frank’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry, without any affiliation to Def Jam or Universal.
According to Billboard, Ocean increased his potential profit share of total revenues from Blond(e) from 14% to 70% within 24 hours, cutting Universal out of the equation almost entirely. With Endless, Ocean has in theory fulfilled his contractual obligation to Universal, but the album has definitely been overshadowed by the proper followup to 2012’s Channel Orange, which is projected to move 225,000 to 250,000 equivalent album units from streams on Apple Music. So now the label is up shit’s creek with a secondhand album attached to essentially a lengthy music video, and one of their most promising and lucrative artists jumping ship to go independent.
It seems Universal didn’t know about Blond(e) judging from the quick action taken by UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge to ban all UMG artists from doing any future streaming exclusive deals, though it hasn’t been confirmed that move was a reaction to Ocean’s album specifically.
As a recording artist fulfilling the duties of a contract with an album, the label generally has stipulations preventing the artist from releasing another competing body of work within a certain amount of time, and the label has discretion as to whether the album is an acceptable level of quality. So even though Billboard reported that Def Jam blew $2 million on recording costs for what was then Boys Don’t Cry, it appears that Ocean, maybe through an advance via his new deal with Apple or a private investor as some sources have reported, paid that amount back to Def Jam and relinquished him from any recoupable claims from Def Jam/UMG. But the quality stipulation and the timeframe in which the albums were released could give Universal grounds to sue Ocean.
Universal will surely miss out on a lot of potential sales with Blond(e) projected to easily be #1 this week. So it’s not farfetched that they may take legal action. This could be a doozy.