THE BIGGEST, SPLASHIEST and almost certainly most expensive music marketing campaign of 2013 was supposed to peak at the stroke of midnight on July 4th, when 1 million owners of Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones would get the opportunity to download an app version of Jay-Z’s 12th studio album, Magna Carta…Holy Grail. But fans expecting the process to be painless faced a surreal series of obstacles, from servers being overloaded to aggressive demands to share private information, including the GPS-determined location of the phone, identification of phone calls, the ability to “modify or delete the contents of your USB storage” and “full network access.” “He’s president of what’s hip and cool about hip-hop,” says rapper Killer Mike, a Jay-Z fan who was frustrated by the app. “To use his face to get this information is very disingenuous.”
The deal was supposed to be a triumph for both Jay-Z and Samsung – the tech giant paid $5 million for the right to give away the album five days before its official release. While Jay-Z’s reps have insisted the Magna Carta app asks for no information that credit card companies don’t request as a routine matter, many in the music industry question why a hip-hop star and a smartphone company need to know where customers are and who they call. Neither Jay-Z nor Samsung have said how they plan to use the information and declined to comment for this story. (Jay-Z’s response to a privacy question on Twitter was simply “sux must do better.”)
Some in the music business suggest users’ locations are harvested so Jay-Z and his reps can better understand where fans consume his music and communicate better with them. For Samsung, the world’s biggest tech company, the idea of exchanging something a fan might want for personal information would be a matter of course. “It’s a free app,” says Parag Chordia, chief scientist for Smule, which creates music apps including I Am T-Pain. “If you want to collect information against that, that’s a pretty common thing.”
Billboard determined that the 1 million copies of Magna Carta Samsung gave away were ineligible to be counted on its charts, a move Jay-Z vocally opposed via Twitter. The Recording Industry Association of America, on the other hand, not only certified the app copies as shipped albums, it changed its long-standing rule that an LP must take at least 30 days to qualify for platinum status – making Magna Carta the first album ever to go platinum in a day.
When Samsung approached Jay-Z’s reps early this year, “they got it immediately,” says a source familiar with the negotiations. The companies hammered out a deal in mid-June, which included not only $5 million to buy and distribute 1 million Jay-Z albums but also a hefty marketing budget. Adds the source, “That kind of marketing campaign was something they could have never afforded if they just did a normal record rollout.”
For Samsung, the deal presented an opportunity to steal some of smartphone rival Apple’s cool. “There’s a very obvious competition between Samsung and Apple,” says a source at a major record label. “For Samsung, it’s really putting a stake in this space, and doing it with one of the most iconic brands in contemporary music.”
And Jay-Z isn’t the only marquee artist exploring the album-as-app idea: Lady Gaga will reportedly center her upcoming album on an app. “One of the frustrating things about the music business is, we don’t try enough new things,” says Jim Urie, president of Universal’s distribution division. “It’s fantastic that an artist like Jay-Z is willing to take risks.”
Despite the PR hit, it’s hard to see the deal as a bad one for Jay-Z, who, at press time, was set to sell around 450,000 more copies of the album via normal channels in its first week – allowing it to debut at Number One after all. But given the privacy issues and the technical glitch es, some wonder if Samsung will achieve its long-term goal to become more of a music player. “You’re putting your tech nology on display in a big, bold, pub lic way,” says a music-business source. “You cannot have the technology fail. It’s really on Samsung’s shoulders that it didn’t go well.”