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.