IF YOU ARE AN American then July 4 is a portentous date and, as such, deliberately chosen for the pre-release of Jay-Z's new album, Magna Carter... Holy Grail. Today at 12.01 EST the first million US users of assorted Samsung Galaxy devices were able to download the album for free, using the phone's Magna Carter app to unlock the album three days ahead of its official release. For those of us who live outside of the US and are not enjoying an Independence Day holiday, the news that Samsung have spent five million dollars to buy a million copies of the album to give away in such a cavalier fashion raises a whole different set of issues. Most genuine music fans will feel, at the very least, a little bit uneasy with the idea of an album being given away as part of mobile phone package, posing questions about the status of the album as an artistic statement.
In itself the idea of giving an album away to its consumers is hardly new. Prince sold his 2007 album, Planet Earth, to the Daily Mail newspaper, who gave it away as a free CD; Radiohead fans paid what they saw fit for the same year's In Rainbows. Like Jay-Z, Prince and Radiohead got paid. For that reason, it's not the idea of the free album per se that we baulk at; it's yet another technology company treating music as a mere accoutrement. And yet how different is Samsung's gambit to Apple selling music when what they actually peddle are gadgets?
In many respects, Jay-Z's move is a brave one. According to Forbes magazine this direct-to-consumer delivery mechanism benefits producer and consumer, not just the middleman. Jay-Z himself – speaking in the promotional film unleashed last month (see embed, below) – implies that his release strategy is intended in part to outmanoeuvre internet piracy.
"The internet is like the wild west," he said. "We need to write new rules." Quite what these new rules are remains unclear, muddied by the fact that Jay Z adds that he wants to "give the album to the world and let them share it."
If nothing else, of course, the album's release is a publicity masterstroke. Having the artwork for Magna Carter... Holy Grail displayed in Salisbury Cathedral alongside the real Magna Carta is a hilarious wheeze, and Jay-Z's genius for self-promotion may yet do wonders for the 800-year-old document. The Dean of Salisbury declared herself "delighted" at the idea.
The hip-hop superstar will also hope to have a million fans thanking him for a free copy of his latest album, although the campaign itself has not been without its glitches, with US trade bible Billboard adding that the sign-up process for the free download raises "privacy issues". Today, further turmoil also emerged with users on Twitter reporting that the app due to deliver the album had frozen causing several cases of downloadus interruptus.
So, ultimately what does the partnership between Jay-Z and the Korean-based technology giant actually mean for music? Is it the first victory of Samsung's campaign to challenge Apple's dominance of the music market? Possibly. Meanwhile, it's just the latest case of a corporate brand trading on the credibility and talent of an artist, where the art itself is reduced to the status of non-specific "content", squished to fit the requirements of technology providers who hold all the cards.
It's a sign of the times. The only thing missing thus far from the babble and furore around the release of Magna Carter... Holy Grail – an album which on first listen (we're playing a download right now) sounds inspired and wide-ranging – is a proper appreciation of the music itself.