During Game 5 of the historic 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, as the Spurs were set to take a 3-2 lead that had previously been insurmountable, Jay-Z’s face appeared onscreen. It was a surprise announcement, Jay had a new album on the way, and by the looks of the commercial, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, Pharrell, and the immortal Rick Rubin would be involved.
Magna Carta Holy Grail was his first album in four years, and it became a landmark moment in the industry when it was revealed that he was releasing the album in conjunction with Samsung through a unique deal in which he sold the company 1 million copies of the album for $5 a pop, ensuring he would go platinum before the album was even released. Jay had found a loophole in the system and turned a thing dwindling in worth — music — into a hard product that guaranteed a profit. Jay-Z, the hustler, had essentially reinvented the wheel for Jay-Z, the rapper, presenting an option for artists to utilize in a struggling industry, whereby they could sell their music — wholesale — before even releasing it to the public.
Jay pulled off a strikingly similar trick this year when he released 4:44 in similar fashion, complete with an NBA Finals commercial announcement and another million records sold before the album was even commercially available. Once again, he was maximizing the profits on a product that was long deemed unprofitable, but as it turns out, he may have just been masking his diminishing returns and declining relevance.
That slipping relevance, or at least the perception of it, reared its ugly head when reports broke that his much ballyhooed about 4:44 tour was struggling to sell tickets. Live Nation quickly jumped to douse the flames, claiming the scores of leftover tickets and low prices on the secondary market were all a part of their master plan to beat scalpers and get tickets into the hands of fans.
If that explained the tickets going for less than $10 on StubHub and SeatGeek, it didn’t explain the remaining tickets on multiple stops of the tour, some almost as much as half the arena, still available through the primary ticketing agencies. If the plan was to get those tickets into the hands of real fans, why weren’t those fans buying them, and was this the first chink in the Jay-Z aura of invincibility?
Yes, Jay’s touring has mostly been prepaid just like his album, by way of a massive $200 million deal with Live Nation, practically ensuring that he would net nine figures for his concerts for the next decade. The argument for the strategy is that his presence demands that type of payout, however, he’s not filling the seats or getting Live Nation a full return on their investment, even if they are profiting from the rearranged ticketing system. In order to maximize their profits they have to want sellouts, so every dollar possible can be collected. What’s slowly becoming apparent is Jay has spent the last decade finding new ways to continue to solidify and protect his reputation as rap’s biggest giant and unquestioned king, but he hasn’t been living up to that perception.