As you’ve no doubt heard by now, last night during the NBA Finals, a commercial aired announcing the upcoming release of Jay-Z’s next record Magna Carta Holy Grail (word play!) on July 4. So far so boring. But there was a twist! The album is going to be available exclusively for the first 72 hours to Samsung Galaxy owners, one million of whom will be able to access it through a specially designed app for the phone. Savvy marketing, right? Jay-Z is nothing if not a consummate businessman, and what’s the harm in pre-selling a million albums of your record? That is, besides the fact that it’s a corny-ass punk move.
The backlash to the stunt was swift online, as was the backlash to the backlash. As The Atlantic points out, this isn’t even the first time Jay-Z has pulled off such a deal.
Back in the heady days of 2003, when Jay was releasing The Black Album and openly saying it would be his last, Jay made a deal with Nokia to pre-load the album on Jay-Z-branded versions of the Nokia 3300 phone. They called it “The Black Phone.” He had his own cell phone. No one complained that loudly then. The Black Album went on to be one of Jay’s most successful and critically acclaimed records. Jay-Z is a pioneer of bridging the hip-hop cell phone divide and we have to accept that.
Ten years ago we were all a lot less media savvy though, weren’t we? And we certainly didn’t have social media to trumpet our confusion about the intersection of art and commerce like we do now. What’s our excuse now?
The blurring of what the rules are now, when most people won’t buy records anyway, is a point Jay himself makes in the commercial:
“We don’t have any rules. Everyone is just trying to figure it out. That’s why the internet is like the wild west, the wild, wild west. We need to write the new rules.”
Just like the wild west, like when armed bandits would execute daring train heists on the condition that if the amount of loot they made off with wasn’t sufficient to meet their needs they’d get a check written by their corporate caretakers back in the big city.
In essence, that’s what Jay-Z has done here, securing a promise from Samsung that his new record will ship one million copies, making it go platinum, before a single actual fan has expressed an interest in it. It’s obviously a canny business move, probably for both parties involved, but it seems that Samsung isn’t exactly getting what they paid for. The association with Jay-Z is only worth it if the brand they’re hitching themselves to is the cocksure king of the hip-hop world—what’s the upside up in teaming up with an acrobat who won’t do a cartwheel unless there’s a safety net and a team of paramedics on hand just in case something goes wrong?
Similar stunts have been pulled off in the recent past. Prince had an album bundled with UK newspapers. Soundgarden back-ended to platinum status deal with the video game Guitar Hero. As the Boston Phoenix‘s David Thorpe wrote at the time:
It’s strange to think that an album could go platinum just by being unloaded on a million people who might not give a shit about it. But, hey, congrazzles, your gimmick worked! Next, we’ll have dudes going 20x platinum by putting their discs between burger buns — rock your mouth with the Aerosmith Platinum CrunchWhopper Extreme!
Speaking of mouths, Jay-Z has long been the epitome of putting his money where his actually is—this is the exact opposite of that. How is this any different than conservative groups pre-ordering copies of prominent Republicans’ books in bulk to game the system into getting them on the best-seller list, then giving them away at church groups? To use an analogy that Jay-Z, famed New York Yankees fan could probably appreciate, it’s the equivalent of the phoney Red Sox sell-out streak attendance records, in which they’d give away big groups of tickets to corporate sponsors in order to make it seem like there was never an open seat in the house. It’s why you can’t even call a sold out concert a sold out concert anymore.
In short, it’s phoney as fuck, to use a technical term, and coming from an artist who’s built his entire shtick on authenticity, it’s no surprise that there would be a backlash. This should be the final nail in the coffin for any misgivings we had before now—not just for Jay-Z, but for the whole thing, the music business, commerce, art in general—but it won’t be, of course. Any con usually takes at least two parties to pull off successfully: the one doing the grifting, and the one eager to get their shit took.