Jay-Z, Kanye West deal with chain store upsets independents

Artists seem not to have learnt the lesson of earlier attempts to make exclusive arrangements with one retailer, which is that they can seriously alienate fans and record shops.
Jay-Z in concert. He and his fellow hip-hop star Kanye West have announced that their collaboration Watch the Throne.
Jay-Z in concert. He and his fellow hip-hop star Kanye West have announced that their collaboration Watch the Throne.

Buying a record, for some people, means more than simply dashing into a store and purchasing the latest chart-topper. It's about spending time browsing the shelves in these cathedrals to modern music, talking to like-minded souls, beginning new journeys of musical exploration.

Or that's how it seemed in the brilliant film adaptation of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, in which John Cusack believes records are a statement, not a commodity. One wonders what his character would have thought of Kanye West and Jay-Z's release plans for their eagerly awaited collaboration, Watch the Throne. Last week, the hip-hop stars decided the CD would be distributed solely through the American chain Best Buy - "the world's leading technology store" as the company loudly proclaims on its website.

The decision has provoked a backlash in America, with a host of independent music stores writing an open letter to the two stars, complaining that the deal will do "great damage to over 1,700 independent record stores - stores that have supported you and your music for years".

In fact, some of the signatories have threatened to pull the rest of the hip-hop stars' back catalogues from their shelves in protest until the pair, as the letter says, "hear us and take the time to rectify this matter".

It's easy to suggest that, of the millions who will buy Watch the Throne, only a small number will actually do so via their local independent record stores anyway - preferring instead the likes of iTunes or a major retailer. That, unfortunately, is the way record sales work these days. But while independent stores might not be so important to the fortunes of Kanye West and Jay-Z in 2011, they most certainly were when the artists were beginning their careers and needed someone to champion their sounds.

What's more, the two most powerful men in hip-hop would do well to learn from other established stars who also took similarly controversial routes to market. Bruce Springsteen, for example, gave Wal-Mart exclusive rights to a discounted 12-track anthology of his work back in 2009. It seemed a strange move at the time; Springsteen is seen as the champion of blue-collar America and yet Wal-Mart refuses to recognise unions. And sure enough, after something of a fan backlash, Springsteen was forced to concede in The New York Times that "it was a mistake... given its labour history, it was something that if we'd thought about a little longer, we'd have done something different". Not that he gave any of the proceeds back, of course.

Similarly, Starbucks entered into deals with Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to distribute their music. It seemed an obvious move at the time: play their new albums in the stores, hope that people sipping their lattes like what they hear, and make the records available right there in the cafes.

Yet McCartney's album, Memory Almost Full, gathered dust in the coffee shops, largely because Starbucks seemed more au fait with how to market coffee rather than music and nobody appeared to know the record was out. Simon, meanwhile, ended up suing Starbucks for poor promotion, eventually seeing her case dismissed for a second time last year.

At least there was some value to these records. Prince actually gave away his 25th album Planet Earth with copies of the UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday in 2007 before it received a proper worldwide release a few weeks later. It helped the sales of the paper that week, but not Prince's reputation as something of a money-grabber.

And that's the problem with this kind of deal. Music fans like to believe they're buying into the creativity of the artists. Getting cosy with big brands (though, to be fair, the major labels are big brands in themselves) is less about making sure your fans get to hear your exciting music and clearly more about making as much money as possible from a commercial link-up.

So one wonders why big artists sign these deals in the first place. The stars are sneered at, they rarely produce big hits and they end up getting publicised for all the wrong reasons. One can only imagine the Jay-Z/Kanye West deal with Best Buy is big enough to make it worthwhile.

Published: August 2, 2011 04:00 AM


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