Most kings get their heads cut off — or at least, so goes the chorus of Jay-Z and Chris Martin’s duet “Most Kings.” For the Empire State of Mind rapper, though, the sentiment appears to be figuratively true of late.
Last week, a group of independent record store owners released an open letter to Jay-Z and Kanye West in protest of the duo’s plans for collaborative album Watch the Throne, due out in August. At issue: a four-day window granted to Apple’s iTunes from August 8th to August 12th, in which the retailer will be the record’s exclusive seller. From August 12th to August 24th, Best Buy will be the only place fans can buy a deluxe CD edition of the album. Representatives from the indie stores (full text of their letter here) were joined by others including Amazon Music’s director in condemning the strategy.
But how fair is the criticism? Jay-Z’s wife, Beyoncé, followed a similar strategy with the recent release of her album, 4, striking a deal with Target to be the exclusive retailer of a deluxe CD edition. Amazon itself launched a bold promotion around Lady Gaga’s release of Born This Way in May, selling the entire album for just $0.99 — effectively giving itself an exclusive (because who would want to pay another retailer $12 for the same thing?) Gaga also partnered with Best Buy to give away copies of the album to the store’s newest smartphone buyers.
I’m not saying that any of these strategies are fair to independent record stores. But what does seem unfair to me is the singling out of Jay-Z and Kanye West, as opposed to Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or any other artist who engages in an exclusive promotion. Perhaps retailers are more reluctant to criticize the aforementioned artists because they sell more records than Jay-Z and Kanye; perhaps the issue at hand has nothing to do with the artists and everything to do with Apple, which seems to be eating everybody’s lunch in the music industry.
The question is bigger than any single artist, and has everything to do with independent record stores’ lamentable loss of leverage in negotiating such deals. I don’t know what the solution is, but in an era where artists are getting squeezed more and more by declining revenues from music sales, I find it hard to blame Jay-Z and Kanye West (or Lady Gaga or Beyoncé, for that matter) for trying to get themselves the best deal possible — and in the process breaking and making new rules for music promotion. And for a businessman like Jay-Z, I’d expect nothing less.
This story was originally published on Forbes.com by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. For more on the business of Jay-Z, be sure to check out Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office.