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The Selling of An Album: Jay-Z’s American Gangster

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When Jay-Z (née Shawn Carter), the rapper turned music mogul and top Forbes hip-hop money maker (banking an estimated $34 million in 2006), first announced that he was inspired by the film American Gangster and was coming out of retirement, once again, to record an album — like many of his true fans, I was excited. Others brushed it off as a marketing scheme. To come out of retirement because he knew that the movie, of the same name as his album, based on the life of Frank Lucas, an infamous Harlem drug lord turned snitch, played by Denzel Washington, was going to be a smash.

If that is the case, it proves Jay-Z’s business acumen all the more. Where’s the bad in timing a record release to a sure-to-hit movie? Though it’s not the official soundtrack, best selling movies usually have best selling soundtracks, and since this is a soundtrack by extension — ah, well, you get the math.

There’s a few other things that Jay-Z understands about the music business, but I’m not too sure he’s on point with some of his thinking. Long a target of the black market, in which bootleg CDs of official CDs are sold on the street, Jay-Z has always been cautious about leaks (in fact Jay Smooth of illdoctrine vlogs about what Jay-Z could learn from Radiohead’s distribution of their own album in a digital format in this instance).

In that regard, weeks ago I preordered Jay-Z’s album from iTunes. But the day of the album’s release, Nov. 6, the album was not available on iTunes. In fact I had to check my preorders in my account in order for it to start downloading. I couldn’t understand why the album was on sale at Amazon and not on iTunes. This required further investigation on my part.

While the album is available as both a CD and MP3 download on Amazon, the MP3s are only available if you purchase the entire album. On iTunes, on the other hand, the album is not available at all, which means only people who preordered as I did were able to purchase from iTunes. Here’s a bit more about why.

Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has announced that the LP will not be for sale through iTunes — not because of disputes over DRM or pricing like the usual iTunes-related complaints. Rather, he doesn’t want the album to be broken down into individually-purchasable tracks.

“As movies are not sold scene by scene, this collection will not be sold as individual singles,” Carter said in a statement sent out earlier this week. Instead, eager listeners will need to purchase the full album from other retailers like Rhapsody and brick-and-mortar stores. [ars technica]

Now of course this can only work if the album is actually an album. In the case of Jay-Z, at least this time around, it is. It’s a concept album, chronicling the rise and fall of a successful drug dealer. But unfortunately for Jay-Z, iTunes is in the business of selling singles. And I’m going out on a limb to say that even if he wanted to sell the album in its entirety as we see on Amazon, it wasn’t something that Apple was willing to do.

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What Jay-Z seems to be forgetting here is that P2P and Torrent sites haven’t ceased to exist, and that people will make individual tracks available to friends on sharing sites such as these and other online storage sites. In fact, they might even make at least streaming of the songs available on imeem, a media sharing site for audio and video that uses a media player.

The music industry’s understanding of how social media is affecting consumer behavior continues to elude me (Club Monaco — yes the clothing company — is hosting a conversation on this very subject in New York on Monday, with Ian Schafer, CEO and Founder of Deep Focus, an entertainment marketing company). On one hand, when they stop threatening sites like YouTube and imeem and partner with them, you think they get it. Then when they make moves like Jay-Z’s recent move, you understand that the need to control comes from an understanding that there really is no control. At the end of the day, the consumer is in control, and ultimately, entertainment companies are going to need to listen to the consumer.

Once the final digital sales roll in, they definitely won’t reflect the true number of fans who have acquired this music digitally. In fact, many fans will be upset when the album isn’t available in formats they’re used to. Those fans will be the very ones who seek other means — or simply write the album off altogether.

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About the author

Lynne d Johnson is a Content + Community Consultant developing content and community strategies that help brands better tell their stories and build better relationships with people toward driving brand awareness, loyalty, and purchase intent. She has been writing about tech and media since the Web 1.0 days, most recently about how the future of consumer interactions will be driven by augmented reality and wearable tech.

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