Et tu, Kanye?
It seems that the music game as a whole is moving away from streaming exclusives. With the exception of Jay-Z, who actually owns a streaming service himself, artists have collectively determined that holding out on their fans is no way to make money in the weird, ever-shifting landscape of digital record sales.
So it should come as no surprise that Kanye West, one of the biggest-selling artists out now, would want out of his exclusivity deal with Tidal — the service headed up by his friend/mentor/big brother Jay-Z. Last month, his lawyers sent letters to the company stating that West was owed over $3 million in royalties due to the popularity of his The Life Of Pablo album bringing in 1.5 million new subscribers. They also claim that he hasn’t been paid for the music videos that now live on the platform.
The letters requesting the back royalties were sent over a month ago, though — well before the release and even the announcement of 4:44, Jay’s new album that seems to take shots at Kanye. It’s highly doubtful that this is personal; it’s just that when business and personal collide, there is bound to be friction.
Interestingly, West and Jay have used music to clear the air at least a couple of other times, such as on “Big Brother” from Graduation, where Yeezy lamented Jay’s aloofness when it came to concert tickets and the elder rapper’s jacking of ideas. However, it would seem Kanye’s 20-minute rant at a sold out arena was a bridge too far.
With tensions brewing between the two bros for some time after the massive success of their collaborative project, Watch The Throne, fans have of course speculated that more is going on behind the scenes. After all, it was less than a year ago that Kanye was hospitalized following erratic behavior on his tour to promote Pablo, including airing out Jay-Z over “politics and the bullsh*t,” and revealing that Blue, Jay-Z’s daughter, and North, West’s own child, have never had a playdate.
Obviously Jay was annoyed by Kanye’s airing of private laundry in public, offering up this line on the intro to his new, platinum album 4:44, “Kill Jay-Z”: “But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinkin’ / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, f*ck was he thinkin’?” Given Jay’s recent admission that his original proposal to wife Beyonce when they began dating was, “Don’t embarrass me,” Kanye’s transgression probably rankles quite a bit. Then again, the Jay-Z shots might be good for Kanye himself.
However, taking all the information into account, it really does appear that Kanye is seeking to force a release from his Tidal exclusivity contract — or at least make it worth his while. While Jay-Z has multiple revenue streams thanks to his various business ventures and investments, Kanye has always been art first, commerce second. And though he’s made some notable power moves, such as switching from Nike to Adidas and subsequently driving the latter sneaker brand to overpower its rival at market for the first time in a generation, Kanye really hasn’t got any notable investments in his portfolio along the lines of part ownership of an NBA team, owning part of Live Nation, or his own streaming service.
So for certain, Kanye would want his art to be shared with the largest number of people possible, both in the interest of raising his profile as a serious artist, and to maximize potential streaming revenue. Taking a look around, even Drake has moved away from “windowed” releases, ending that relationship with Apple before the release of his latest album, More Life. Taylor Swift ultimately capitulated to the demands of the market, bringing her full catalog back to Spotify. Prince’s estate has done the same.
$3 million is nothing to shake a stick at, especially in times as uncertain as these. With the whole record industry scrambling to find ways to sell a product that is essentially free (they can’t chase you down and demand recompense for every snippet of a song you hear from a passing car, right?), it only makes business sense for Ye to want to reach as many potential fans as possible.
So, Tidal will likely either pay West or release him from his contract. It seems doubtful anything more comes of Kanye’s rants or Jay’s “shots” on 4:44. While it would be interesting to see what a Jay-Z vs. Kanye West rap battle would look and sound like, Kanye is 40. Jay is 47. They are living proof that rap can age gracefully, but they’re probably both too old to consider using the medium to publicly bicker when a few phone calls would have the same result. After all, “nobody wins when the family feuds.” And while a reconciliation at this point seems pretty far-fetched, if Jay could make up with Nas, anything is possible.