Enjoy Jay-Z's New Album—It May Be the Last of Its Kind
Back in March, when Drake released his project More Life, he did something unusual: He didn’t make it an Apple Music exclusive. Despite having a long, successful history with the service—he actually helped announce its launch in 2015—he released the “playlist” on Spotify and Tidal as well. It broke streaming records. After a 2016 that saw more than 40 albums released as exclusives for one streaming platform or another, it was as clear an indication as any that their allure was fading. Labels aren't keen on them; artists aren't either. Even Apple is backing away from them like Homer Simpson into the bushes. In a word, they seem to be over. Unless you’re Jay-Z.
Early yesterday morning, the artist formerly known as Shawn Carter topped off a Father's Day weekend of welcoming twins and bailing out dads by announcing a new visual album, 4:44, that would be arriving June 30. According to the album announcement, made with a snippet of the track “Adnis” (below), it will be a Tidal exclusive—available only to current subscribers and Sprint customers, who are eligible for a free six-month trial of Tidal’s premium HiFi service. Is that a needlessly convoluted way to hear a new Jay-Z album? Yes. Is it the kind of thing only an artist who also founded the streaming platform in question can pull off? That too. But it almost might be one of the last high-profile streaming exclusives you see.
Last year, streaming album exclusives were all the rage. Drake’s Views debuted on Apple Music and set up a residency on the Billboard 200. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo both debuted on Tidal. But later in 2016, things started to turn. Frank Ocean pulled off a passive-aggressive okey-doke for the ages, fulfilling his Def Jam contract with Endless and then immediately giving Apple Music the exclusive on his independently owned (and superior) follow-up album, Blonde. That hit parade led to Lucian Grainge, head of Def Jam parent Universal Music, issuing an order that Universal artists could no longer do exclusives, a move that music analyst Mark Mulligan says had "a huge impact" on the popularity of exclusives. Soon thereafter, Lady Gaga took a typically Gaga stand against exclusives: “I told my label that if they signed those contracts with Apple Music and Tidal, I’d leak all my own new music.”
Meanwhile, Spotify has shunned the concept of new-release album exclusives. As the streaming service with the most users, it's never really needed them to bring in listeners. The company has, however, offered to promote new albums to its 140 million users—like it did with Katy Perry's—as a way of showing its muscle in the music industry. Spotify is also, according to a TechCrunch report this week, experimenting with sponsored songs, selling record labels prime placement on Spotify's free service. Both of these methods bring attention to both the streaming platform and the artists on it, but do so without restricting the music to a single service.
Things are different for Jay-Z, not only because his hyphen is back. As a founder and “co-owner” of Tidal, he's not just an artist but an entrepreneur focused on increasing the value of his company. Considering Sprint picked up a 33 percent stake in that company earlier this year, 4:44 is a great return on investment—and an even better one given that he owns his record label, Roc Nation, and can thus release his new music wherever he wants. If labels don’t like doing exclusives and Apple itself is laying off of them because of it, the golden age of the album exclusive maybe drawing to an end for all but independent artists like Jay, Frank Ocean, and Chance the Rapper (who also released an album last year as an Apple Music exclusive).
The larger question, though, is whether this will be mutually beneficial for Jay-Z, Tidal, and Sprint. Presumably, the original point of exclusives was to get listeners to sign up for new streaming services. In a world dominated by Spotify, a new album by Frank Ocean or Beyoncé was a reason to sign up for Apple Music or Tidal. For a while, that trick worked. But those albums always ended up on other services—or simply for sale as digital downloads—and by now most people have settled on their streaming platform of choice. Labels and services may still appeal to listeners with new albums from time to time, but as Mulligan notes, even if exclusives are not dead "Jay-Z is not going to put them back in good health."
Still, you'd have to think Jay-Z and his camp believe there's room for growth; it’s hard to imagine he’d only want 4:44 to be available to Tidal and Sprint's 45 million customers. (He’d probably also prefer it not just get pirated like crazy, as was the case when 500,000 people illegally nabbed The Life of Pablo after its Tidal debut.) That growth won't come from Jay-Z superfans, though; anyone hardcore enough to switch mobile carriers for a new album is probably already on Tidal, where Jay's catalog lives exclusively. And while some existing Sprint customers will take this opportunity to try out Tidal, they might not stick around after their six-month trial is up. So in the end, this deal is unlikely to bring in that many more users to Tidal or Sprint—it'll simply cross-pollinate the ones they already have.
That’s always been the problem with exclusives. They’re good at bringing people in, but it’s almost impossible to tell if those new customers stick around. When Jay-Z released his last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, by selling a million copies to Samsung, he gave his album a built-in audience. (And gave himself an instant platinum album.) This time around, though, it's hard to see what this does for Sprint or Tidal other than provide a perk for their existing users. As exclusives start to lose their shine, this release may work, but it’ll be amongst the last of its kind to do so. That’s just business, man.