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Def Jam Can’t Compete With Apple

Frank Ocean’s sudden label exit may just be the beginning

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In late 2009, Frank Ocean, once a wandering songwriter, signed to Def Jam Recordings, the label that minted Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Kanye West, and Rihanna. In 2012, Def Jam released Frank’s debut album, Channel Orange, which quickly became an iconic release in the millennial pop canon. Ah, the start of a beautiful relationship, you might assume, or, at least, a mutually beneficial business partnership. WRONG. Last week Frank dropped his second Def Jam LP, Endless — a “visual album” — thereby fulfilling the terms of his contract. A day later, Frank Ocean dropped Blonde, an album released in an independent partnership between the singer and Apple Music. Suddenly, we’ve learned that Frank and Def Jam have parted ways.

So: Frank Ocean left Def Jam, a historically successful record label, for Apple Music, a tech company’s billion-dollar sandbox. Good for him! Def Jam sucks.

Artists and fans hate record labels for various reasons, but record labels are useful — important, even — in the way of artist development and commercial quality control. Rihanna isn’t a star without Def Jam’s having signed her to a contract in 2005, at the age of 16, and developed her into the artist who would release “Umbrella” two years later. Likewise, Frank Ocean cowrote his biggest, breakout single, “Thinkin Bout You,” with fellow Def Jam songwriter Shea Taylor.

But Def Jam hasn’t been very good at developing artists in recent years. Its most notable current artists, Kanye West and Justin Bieber, are both legacy acts who probably cost a lot to record and market, but who also generate the most revenue. Everyone else who is signed to Def Jam — everyone who isn’t Kanye or Bieber — just sits around waiting for the label to botch, withhold, and underpromote their albums, which will inevitably struggle at retail, even if they gain modest traction on streaming and radio.

Def Jam signed Trinidad James on the strength of his indie hit single “All Gold Everything” in 2012, held him for two years, and then dropped the Atlanta rapper with very little to show for its investment. Also that year, the label signed popular Chicago drill rappers Lil Durk and Lil Reese, whose moments have come and, apparently, gone. The singer Jeremih, who had hit singles in rotation for a couple of years, struggled to get his latest album, Late Nights, off Def Jam’s shelf. “If you just give them single after single after single with two verses and a hook, two verses and a hook — that’s good enough for them,” he told Billboard in June 2015. “They just wanna hear the hits, so I give them that.”

I’m not convinced that the holdup of Frank Ocean’s album(s) wasn’t at least partially due to some form of intransigence or incompetence on Def Jam’s part; the antialbum hostility that Jeremih described to Billboard seems like it would’ve suited Frank more poorly than anyone. He left a record label for a less intrusive “indie” partnership with a massive tech company that has more money than God.

In August 2014, Apple bought Beats, cofounded by ex–Interscope Records head Jimmy Iovine. Ten months later, Iovine was instrumental in the launch of Apple Music — then just another subscription-based streaming music option in a crowded room. Today, with Iovine’s connections and industry guile, Apple Music is becoming a de facto record label of its own. In just over a year, Apple has struck deals with Drake, Future, Chance the Rapper, and Travis Scott.

But Frank Ocean was the last straw. In response, Universal Music Group, which owns Def Jam, is quickly mobilizing against Apple Music’s exclusive streaming-rights model, which naturally limits the audience for new music. Without this model, Apple Music would be back to a prolonged competition to differentiate itself from its streaming competitors. With it, there’s a new, unprecedented competition: conventional record labels, which ideally develop artists into stars, versus Apple Music, which pays stars well.

Apple Music’s money isn’t unlimited, and despite the company’s largesse, it’s doubtful that it could fund a whole, sustainable ecosystem of musicians — particularly undeveloped ones — as tech brand ambassadors. Frank Ocean is just the latest of the 1 percent to win the lottery with Apple Music. I bet the rest of Def Jam is hoping to get chosen next.