A couple of weeks ago a commercial for Samsung mobile phones aired in the middle of the NBA finals. That same commercial will likely make appearances on future MBA finals, in the form of case studies detailing the day everything changed in the music industry. In the TV spot, four architects of modern music surround Jay-Z, listening intently as he says very little about music. Jay does, however, make several bold statements about business, new media, and new ways to maneuver through and manipulate a climate that he describes as “the wild, wild west.”
Eschewing the neo-traditional model of recording music, releasing singles to radio and online outlets, and having the whole album leak as the masters go out to manufacturers; Jay-Z instead sold out in the most literal interpretation of the phrase. Samsung pre-purchased a million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail, at $5 apiece, and will release it free of charge to one million owners of their hardware 72 hours before it is available to the rest of the public. Think about that. One of the most prominent and recognizable artists of a genre that was once synonymous with subversion sold one million copies of his album directly to a multinational corporation. Of course, every major label artist is in bed with a multinational corporation, but this is more sordid: A threesome. MC Hammer dancing for KFC doesn’t sound so bad anymore does it?
In addition to the financial profit, Jay also gets to profit personally by having a fifteenth album be certified platinum before one million consumers actually decide to walk into a store or slide their thumbs across a touchscreen in an active decision to make a purchase. The “#newrules” that Jay tweeted about last week, became something much more literal than a hashtag when the RIAA changed its long-standing policy of not certifying albums until 30 days following their release dates in response to his novel approach to releasing music. This decision will resonate, and no doubt create copycats looking to replicate the genius marketing involved with the rollout of this album that none of us have heard.
What’s more amazing (or galling, depending on your perspective) is that through the loose jam session look of the commercials, simple artwork, and intermittently leaked lyric sheets, Jay-Z is attempting to frame a blatant money grab as a new detour from the intersection of art and commerce. Jay-Z wants us to believe that what, on paper, looks a lot like payola, is the work of an artistic maverick. Even more amazing than that is the possibility that he could be right.
What if Jay-Z has completely sold out, while making art purely for art’s sake? Was Magna Carta Holy Grail tainted the moment Jay accepted five million dollars from Samsung, or is it possible that he has used his cache to get the money upfront while making music that doesn’t need to consider commercial viability. I mean, it is already platinum, right?
Jay-Z has been a contradictory figure in Hip-Hop since he made his mark with 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, and told us that he wasn’t a rapper, just a hustler who happened to be have a preternatural ability to string words together. He later shared tales of his Hard Knock Life, while simultaneously declaring himself God. Now he wants us to believe that he is the quintessential artist while still stacking every dollar bill he can.
If the music doesn’t live up to the hype, and the lyrics look better on paper than they actually sound, this could backfire on Jay in a major way. For all of the silly talk involving the Illuminati, this is as close to actually selling your soul to the devil he can come. If the former drug dealer, turned emcee, turned business, man can shove the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle and make art while making bedfellowswith a company shilling cellphones, than maybe he really is the greatest of all time.