How broken is the music business?
This broken: On Friday, or rather at midnight on Thursday night, Jay-Z released his new album 4:44, the rapper and entertainment magnate's first new full length since 2013.
Not surprisingly, the big deal follow-up to Magna Carta … Holy Grail is available as an exclusive available only to subscribers to Tidal, the rapper's own music streaming service. In competition with much larger streamers Spotify and Apple Music, the Made in America poobah, who this year will also headline the festival he annually curates on Labor Day weekend on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia – has one unique weapon.
That's the ability to make customers come to Tidal to hear his own music and that by his close associates like Rihanna, Kanye West and his wife Beyonce for initial periods of exclusivity.
Fine, okay. No surprise there. The streaming services' exclusive deals – like ones Frank Ocean and Chance The Rapper struck with Apple last year – are annoying if you're a user of the competition. But if you want to hear a blockbuster release that's on Apple or Tidal badly enough and you're a Spotify user, you can always sign up to get the big deal record you're dying to hear.
That's can get expensive, and it does seem dumb to subscribe to three on-demand $9.99 per month services that, 99.99% of the time are offering the same music, albeit in endlessly different playlist configurations. But if you think about the amazing consumer-friendly deal that streaming offers – access to all of the music in recorded history for $10 a month, rather than shelling out for individual releases – coughing up an extra sawbuck doesn't seem like such a bad option compared to the days when you actually had to buy music to hear it.
But it's not so easy in this case. That's because access to 4:44 is not just about Tidal, it's also about Sprint. Back in January, Jay-Z inked a deal with the mobile carrier, who acquired one third of the company. If you've passed a Sprint store in Philadelphia in the past few weeks, you've seen the marketing campaign hyping 4:44's release.
And it turns out, you can't get to hear 4:44 if you sign up for Tidal now, unless you also use Sprint for you wireless service. That seems extraordinarily dumb to me, since an opportunity is obviously presenting itself for Tidal to swell its subscription numbers among fans who want to jump on board and hear an album that's being hailed as Hova's return to form. Kendrick Lamar, who is commonly considered the greatest rapper alive, tweeted: "4:44. WOW. MASTER TEACHER."
I personally figured out what 4:44 exclusivity really means in practice on Friday when I went to listen to the album on the Tidal app on my phone. I became a subscriber when the service launched, but my subscription had lapsed, when the credit card I used when initially signing up passed its expiration date. I hadn't renewed it, because … well because I don't really need Tidal in my life on a daily basis, when I've also got Apple and Spotify and Amazon Music going on my phone and Sonos system at home.
Fine, I thought, I'll just sign up again now.
No dice. When I pressed play on the first track, "Kill JAY-Z," I got the "Learn More" button, which told me: "JAY-Z 4:44 is only accessible top Sprint/TIDAL customers and all pre-existing TIDAL account during this exclusive period." The fact that I'd previously been a paid subscriber does me no good. I'm a newbie to them. And newbies who didn't read the fine print closely enough in advance and sign up before 12:01 a.m. on Friday don't rate.
Unless, that is, you're willing to also sign up to become a Sprint customer. Really?! Are people going to change their wireless service, and pay the penalties that come with exiting out of a contract with another carrier, just to hear a blockbuster album in a timely fashion? Who likes Jay Z that much? Not even Beyonce, it would seem, based on listening to Lemonade.
Soon enough – whether its next week, or next month – 4:44 will go wide and be available on the competing services, and be available to a wider audience. That's inevitable. In the interim though, the opportunity for Tidal to allow non-Sprint people sign up and get the album is being forsaken. To me, that's a head scratcher.
What's the point, then, of shutting out listeners now? In some ways, the Tidal/Sprint-only deal does work like a band playing a big band that sells out a too-small venue in record time. It creates word of mouth, and makes those who can't get access envious.
The annoying strategy is, in some ways, fiendishly effective. 'Jay-Z Album 4:44 Explodes on Twitter Despite (Or Because Of?) TIDAL, Sprint Exclusive Release' reads the headline on music industry-watching web site Hypebot.com, which reported that it generated more than 810,000 tweets in its first 12 hours of limited release.
So there's no question that on this July 4 weekend, people are talking about 4:44. You know what would be even better? If they could actually listen to it.