Remember when Frank Ocean pulled one over on the music industry earlier this year? The enigmatic R&B artist dropped two projects within two days: Endless, the visual streaming-only album that he and his record label Def Jam had agreed upon, and then also Blonde, a surprise second release independently distributed and marketed.
That latter album soared to the top of the charts, and more importantly marked Ocean’s successful untangling of himself from his label—a “seven-year chess game” that involved him slowly buying back all his master recordings, hiring new management, and buying his music back with his own money, Ocean recently told the New York Times (paywall).
It was prompted by a sense that to continue achieving artistic success, he also had to control the financial side of the equation. “It started to weigh on me that I was responsible for the moves that had made me successful, but I wasn’t reaping the lion’s share of the profits, and that was problematic for me,” he said.
Now, keeping a close watch on all the business dealings around his work is of utmost importance to the musician:
I know exactly what the numbers are. I need to know. I need to know how many records I’ve sold, how many album equivalents from streaming, which territories are playing my music more than others, because it helps me in conversations about where we’re gonna be playing shows, or where I might open a retail location, like a pop-up store or something.
By self-releasing a surprise album, Ocean wasn’t just cutting ties with a rigid industry norm. He was taking business into his own hands and reaping millions of dollars from it, and his determined self-management is a lesson to creators everywhere.
Artists in 2016 are waking up to the fact that they need some degree of control over their own content to survive the hectic, opaque world that the advent of digital streaming has created. Chance the Rapper is one example: Like Ocean, he rejected record companies in favor of going his own way. The musician managed to wrangle a successful exclusive deal with streaming service Apple Music while remaining, unusually, unsigned to a label.
Joseph Polisi, president of the renowned Juilliard School in New York, tells Quartz that Juilliard’s curriculum even now gives its music and art students “tools in writing, speaking, and development of business plans” as well as lessons in theory and technique. “We’ve become a more realistic school about the vocational needs of artists in the 21st century,” Polisi says. “And the idea of having greater independence—[students] find it liberating, and an opportunity to have greater visibility than before.”
There’s also obviously the satisfaction of personal control. As Ocean explains it:
This has always been my life and no one else’s. And that’s how it’s always been since the day I came in it.