Jay-Z's deal with Samsung to release Magna Carta Holy Grail may have bigger repercussions than we realize.
It was strange news to hear that Jay-Z had retired from rapping in 2003, as if being freed from the pressure of making records was comparable to ending a lifetime's work of plumbing or driving 18 wheelers cross-country. One sensed he was withdrawing from rap not because it had filled him with a lifetime of labor, but because it was increasingly becoming a distraction from other kinds of more lucrative labor.
Relative to the business of building the Barclay's Center, running an international clothing line, advising Budweiser, and launching his own sports talent agency, making music begins to seem more like a pastime than a vocation. Watching Jay-Z rap now is like watching someone return to their long-lost hobby after a few years away, expecting something monumental to result.
The 21st Century variation on the concept album is an investment platform. To demonstrate value today, music has to conjure the living spirit of a product ecosystem.
When Jay-Z announced his next album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, would debut exclusively through Samsung platforms, it seemed like two worlds were merging: the superfluous hobbyist and the international entrepreneur. The 21st Century variation on the concept album is an investment platform. To demonstrate value today, music has to conjure the living spirit of a product ecosystem, which lures investors like Samsung to underwrite the cost of producing a record with the pomp and perfected simplicity one hopes will come from Jay-Z's estimated $20 million deal.
We don't make music for one another anymore, but for the service of multinational corporations with a good to sell. In decades past, the recording was the good and musicians only needed to play up a fabricated psychodrama about themselves to add to the sense of spectacle and importance accompanying their newest release. And after the newness wore off, one was left with a bunch of songs that were mostly not worth the effort.
It has become a sport of nostalgia in its own way to deep dive into old Billboard Top 100 Charts from one's birth year and discover just how bland and unlistenable most of what passed for important and popular actually was.
There is a wasteland of old musical brand platforms whose work is almost unlistenable--from the year of my birth, there is Barbara Streisand, Andy Gibb, Kenny Nolan, Hot, Jimmy Buffett, all names that inspire a small sense of gratitude for the fact that their music hasn't persisted. It was never their music that made them so appealing, but their PR campaigns.
The music became a symbolic justification for why everyone was more or less listening to the same thing at the same time, but returning to it years after everyone else has moved on reveals it to be just another piece of generational junk with no discernible function.
It's hard not to hold that image in mind when thinking on the conflict over Pandora royalties that sprung up in the last few days. It began with the company petitioning Congress to allow it to lower its royalty payments to artists, which prompted a stern editorial from the surviving members of Pink Floyd in USA Today, and continued with Cracker's Dave Lowery admitting he'd been paid $16.89 for more than 1 million plays of "Low" on Pandora.
The conflict is troublesome in many ways, a conflict between people who thought they'd written the anthem of their generation and deserve to be repaid accordingly, but come to discover their work's been sold to the Internet equivalent of a junk collector.
Unlike Samsung's portentous Jay-Z announcement, services like Pandora and Spotify don't amplify the zeitgeist of a generation but instead offer guided tours through the arcane and the obscure, an algorithmically curated flow of generation-definers compressed into an hour that makes your Thursday evening hour on the treadmill slightly less tedious.
Services like Spotify and Pandora offer cheap tricks and they price accordingly, paying roughly 1/10 of one cent per stream of a song, which their business plan offsets primarily through charging advertisers to have their commercials interrupt the stream of feelings once every hour or so. The advertising model of doing business has become so entrenched in the way we access media today that it is almost impossible to imagine doing without it, from broadcast television to Internet browsing itself. Any business that depends on advertising as a primary source of money is acknowledging there is more value in the future purchasing behavior of its audience than in accessing the current work.
Unlike Samsung's portentous Jay-Z announcement, services like Pandora and Spotify don't amplify the zeitgeist of a generation but instead offer guided tours through the arcane and the obscure.
Pink Floyd acknowledged the strangeness of this value proposition with an analogy: a grocery store that can't afford to buy food to keep its shelves stocked. Imagine one where you could take as much food as you wanted for free but only if you agreed to look at a few commercials on the way out the door.
Services like Pandora work precisely because they repackage goods that have already lost almost all of their value. If in 20 years time there are still a million people who seek out and listen to some track from Magna Carta Holy Grail, those listens will also be almost completely worthless because the music wasn't distributed to be heard in the first place. It was made to create a cool rationalization for commerce. In Jay-Z's case he becomes a reason to buy a Samsung phone, and once there are no more phones left to sell, the whole world can listen to Jay-Z and it won't be worth much of anything.
There will be some new musical psychodrama used to sell some other generation on its own zeitgeist, revisiting the things that moved older generations to buy stuff will be an indulgence of kitsch, rather than a form of participation in music, which has historically been something we do together and not something that needs buying in a shop.
Until then, Jay-Z will lead the way in forever destroying the line between art and commerce. He already told us once: He isn't a businessman, he's a business, man.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.