It Was the Year of the Album Exclusive... and the Year They Faded Away

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Frank Ocean performs during the 2014 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 14, 2014 in Manchester, Tenn.

Earlier this year, album exclusives seemed to be the future, only to fall by the wayside. Are they gone for good?

By June it seemed set in stone -- 2016 would be remembered as the year of the exclusive album release. As Drake's record-smashing, two-week Apple Music exclusive Views reigned atop the Billboard 200 (it would spend six months in the top five of the chart, and 10 weeks at No. 1), five of the 13 albums released in 2016 to hit the top of the chart had debuted exclusively through one of two streaming services: Views and Future's Evol on Apple Music; Rihanna's Anti, Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé's Lemonade on Tidal.

For its part, Apple Music premiered north of 35 full-length albums* (more on that below) in the first three-fourths of the year by Billboard's count, five of which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 within their exclusive time frame. But those album exclusives have basically dried up in the fourth quarter, suggesting that either there has been a shift in emphasis or full-length exclusives haven't turned out to be quite the magic bullet that some companies had banked on.

In the second half of the year, both Apple Music and Tidal began to diversify rapidly, with exclusive playlists, live streams, music videos, radio interviews, single releases and original video content increasing in importance. Apple, in particular, continued to land high-profile releases -- LPs from YG, Snoop Dogg, Lil Yachty and DJ Khaled, the latter of which became Khaled's first-ever No. 1 album, all came out first through its streaming service.

But Frank Ocean's back-to-back Apple Music exclusive releases, Endless and Blond, this August seem, in retrospect, to have changed the dynamic. While undoubtedly a coup for Apple (Blond went straight to No. 1 with the third-biggest release of the year to that point), Ocean's 'gotcha' maneuver to fulfill his Def Jam deal with Endless while keeping Blond -- the "real" album -- a secret, only to self-release it (and make a lot more money from it) through Apple a day later, angered Universal Music boss Lucian Grainge, who issued a moratorium on his artists releasing exclusive albums.

Reaction was swift in support of Grainge's edict, combined with the growing sentiment within the industry that such aggressive jockeying for content was hurting fans, artists and labels alike. Troy Carter, global head of creator services for Spotify (which has been stridently anti-exclusive), told Billboard that month that "exclusives are bad for artists, bad for consumers and bad for the whole industry... As a manager, I would want my artists’ music to be everywhere. When you carve it out to one service, you miss out on fans." France-based streamer Deezer released a statement saying exclusives encouraged piracy and created a "barrier" between fans and artists; U.K. trade body the Entertainment Retailers Association called them "damaging not just to individual services but to the market as a whole."

Three weeks after Blond's release, for whatever reason, Apple's previously-steady stream of exclusive albums dried up -- and not just from Universal artists, but almost entirely (Warner and Sony have not publicly banned the practice). Travi$ Scott's Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, released as an Apple Music exclusive via Epic Records on Sept. 2, would prove to be, save for two jazz releases that month, the last streaming exclusive album of the third quarter, and the last to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (Scott's relationship with Apple, which included a Beats 1 radio show and an exclusive video for "90210," pre-dated Ocean's releases.)

In the final three months of the year, NxWorries' Yes Lawd!, released a week early on the platform Oct. 14; the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross-helmed Before the Flood soundtrack, which came out Oct. 21; and Gucci Mane's The Return of East Atlanta Santa, his third album in five months released Dec. 16, have been the only full-length streaming exclusives put out through Apple Music. (It's worth noting that Gucci's experimentation with various streaming services since his release from a three-year prison stint also included a full Spotify marketing campaign for his July LP Everybody Looking, complete with a custom ice cream truck, and a streaming-only release on all services for his October project Woptober.)

So, where have all the album exclusives gone? Apple exec Jimmy Iovine defended the practice in September, saying the company was "feeling our way around and seeing what works," while svp of internet software and products Eddy Cue told Billboard in December that exclusives would continue "where appropriate," adding, "They work really well for everybody concerned -- they're great for the label, they work for the artist and for us." (A rep for the company did not return a request for comment as of press time.)

Tidal -- with its nearly two-dozen artist-owners -- has continued to release streaming exclusive albums from equity holders Usher (Hard II Love, available three days early Sept. 13) and T.I. (Us or Else: Letter to the System, Dec. 16) and negotiated a 24-hour exclusive streaming window for another co-owner, Jason Aldean, when he brought his LP They Don't Know to streaming Oct. 6 after holding out from all services for the album's first month. But additional artist-owners deadmau5J. Cole and Alicia Keys released fourth-quarter albums widely (Hard II Love also went wide on its scheduled Sept. 16 release date and charted for that week). 

With Tidal's comparably low subscriber base -- believed to be around four million globally -- lagging far behind Apple Music (20 million) and Spotify (40 million), the service has little leverage in attracting full album exclusives from artists without equity in the company. And its collective owners' superstar status means there are other creative or one-off projects that can still draw fans to the service without alienating a large percentage of album listeners.

Apple, however, has both the scale and money to make album exclusives worthwhile and had been far and away the most active in acquiring them, making the sharp decline in frequency more conspicuous. Universal's general counsel Jeffrey Harleston is the only UMG exec to have spoken on exclusives since Ocean's release (reps for all three majors either declined to comment or were not immediately available for this story). "The most important thing is that the artist and the label maintain the freedom and flexibility to determine how they want the music presented to the public," Harleston told Billboard in an interview in October. On the fallout after Ocean's albums he added, "We’re always experimenting and adjusting our practices with one goal in mind: to provide artists with the ideal environment to develop creatively and commercially. If something doesn’t meet that goal, we change our practices."

So has Frank Ocean sunk the concept of the exclusive album release? Probably not intentionally, and certainly not by himself. But ironically, he may have helped shine another light on how artists can show their allegiance to a particular streaming service without fencing an album's worth of work into one platform. If Beyoncé returned the visual album to the forefront of mainstream music (with both Beyoncé and Lemonade), Ocean's Endless provided a different take, a companion piece to his album that didn't necessarily relate to Blond, but existed on its own creative merits as well. Since Endless, Drake (Please Forgive Me, Apple Music), Cole (Eyez, Tidal) and Keys (The Gospel, Tidal) have all released exclusive film projects as companions to LPs.

If one thing has been made clear in 2016, it's that artists have more options and outlets than ever before, and more variety in how and where they choose to express their creativity. In a year full of unpredictability, high-profile album exclusives came, conquered, and now already seem to be becoming a relic of the past.

*The definition of the word "exclusive" doesn't strictly translate to the digital music business. A classic employment of it would be West's Pablo or Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book, both of which were initially released to one platform (six weeks on Tidal and two weeks on Apple Music, respectively) for one mode of consumption; namely, streaming-only. But endless variations exist: there are streaming one-company, dual-consumption exclusives (Views was a two-week Apple ecosystem exclusive, available both on iTunes and Apple Music), streaming platform exclusives with wide retail releases (Anti was sold solely through Tidal for 24 hours before going to digital download stores, but remained a streaming exclusive on Tidal for seven days, not to mention its Samsung integration), 24-hour and 72-hour exclusives that at times act as previews (think along the lines of NPR's First Listens), exclusive "versions" of albums (Tidal's exclusive edition of Bon Jovi's This House Is Not For Sale is the only one that includes all seven bonus tracks, for example), exclusive premieres on platforms such as Apple's Beats 1, staggered rollouts building up to a full wide release (Ariana Grande delivered a single a day to Apple Music in the week leading up to Dangerous Woman, which became available everywhere on release day) and exclusive-related marketing pushes -- just to name a few. All of which makes it very difficult to come up with a firm number on how many there were this year.

Billboard Year in Music 2016


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