The Frank Ocean Days May Be Gone, but Streaming Disintermediation Is Just Getting Going

Music Business Worldwide recently ran a storyhighlighting that both Spotify and Apple Music were backing independent artist (i.e. independent of record label rather than an indie label artist) Aaron Smith, including featuring him in priority playlists such as Spotify’s New Music Friday. The piece also included a few slightly indignant anonymous major label comments, but this is not a case of Spotify revisiting its Direct Artists strategy, although that is actually the most important point here. Effectively, the line that delineates label artists is blurring beyond recognition and usefulness. We are entering a new music business world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to say exactly what constitutes a label artist and what is actually streaming services going direct. Also, the irony is that Apple is slowly but surely emerging as the disruptor, having spent the last couple of years establishing itself as the label’s foremost streaming ally.

Apple restarted the exclusives wars

At the start of this month Apple struck a deal with French rap duo PNL. PNL are part of a growing breed of top-tier frontline artists that have opted to retain ownership of their masters. In our just-published Independent Artists report (MIDiA clients can read the full report here) we have sized out the label services marketplace, and when it is coupled with artists direct (i.e. DIY) the independent artist sector was worth 8% of the entire recorded music business in 2018. 

While that number may sound relatively modest, it is growing fast and represents the future. Traditional label deals are not disappearing, but they are becoming just one component of an increasingly complex recorded music revenue mix. This is the industry context that enables initiatives such as Apple’s PNL deal and both Spotify and Apple backing Aaron Smith, who incidentally is signed to artist accelerator Platoon, which is a company that Apple acquired in December 2018.

Independent artists open up new opportunities for streaming services 

When Apple did its exclusive with Frank Ocean back in 2016it caused such an industry backlash that UMG head Lucian Grainge banned his labels from doing exclusive deals and the movement seemed dead in the water. If there was any doubt, Spotify kicked up so much label ill will when it launched its Direct Artists platform that it officially shuttered the initiative in July. However, now we are seeing that there many more ways to skin the proverbial cat. It is perfectly possible to disintermediate labels without having to actually disintermediate them. Doing an exclusive with an independent artist or giving him / her priority promotion is doubly effective for streaming services as:

  1. Record labels have no right to complain because independent artists have just the same right of access to audiences as label artists
  2. The more exposure independent artists get, the more their market share will grow, which will lessen record labels’ market share, which makes it harder for them to resist and easier for the streaming services to start making bolder moves down the line

Ambiguity will be the shape of things

Even this structure plays into the traditional view of labels versus the rest. The new truth is much more nuanced. For example, when Stormzy was duetting with Ed Sheeran at the Brits, signed on a label services deal to WMG’s ADA, was he a Warner artist or an independent artist? He was, of course, both. The evolution of the market will be defined by progressively more of this ambiguity, which will give streaming services equally more ability to not only play to these market dynamics but to stress-test the boundaries. The simple fact is that streaming services will become ever-agnostic with regards to artists’ commercial partnerships and in turn they will become a more important component of the value chain. Apple Music did the PNL deal because they had much more commercial flexibility dealing with an independent artist than dealing with a label artist. At some stage, labels will have to decide whether they want to revisit the exclusives model. Without doing so, they may not get a seat at the new table.