Samsung's Jay-Z giveaway: New music biz cash cow or one-hit wonder?



Jay-Z is dropping a new album next month, and it isn't launching in record stores or on Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes: The first fans who'll get to hear it (legally, at least) are Android smartphone owners. Samsung Electronics will give away 1 million copies of the hip-hop mogul's humbly-titled Magna Carta Holy Grail, rolling out a limited-edition Jay-Z application to Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note II owners at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 4, 72 hours prior to the record's official release date. Samsung and Jay-Z officially confirmed the partnership Sunday night with a three-minute commercial aired during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, days after the rapper posted a photo of a Samsung smartphone on Twitter, urging followers to "tune in" to the game.

The Wall Street Journal reports Samsung is paying $5 for each of the albums it gives away. While it's still exactly unclear how Samsung will distribute the app or if it will offer premium downloads once consumers have snapped up the million free copies, it's unlikely the Magna Carta Holy Grail giveaway signals the end of the manufacturer's partnership with Jay-Z: The New York Post reports their deal is worth as much as $20 million, with a source adding "You can speculate that he'll want to develop some kind of new music-streaming service to promote his acts and music on mobile devices."

Speculation aside, the partnership is fascinating on a number of levels. For Jay-Z, it represents a multi-platform promotional opportunity but also guarantees $5 million in record sales prior to Magna Carta Holy Grail's official retail launch. For Samsung, it boosts the Galaxy line's cachet as an iPhone alternative and also establishes the manufacturer as a legitimate player in an increasingly competitive mobile music segment upended by new services like Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Play Music All Access and Apple's forthcoming iTunes Radio. And for the record industry, it signals a new digital revenue stream to offset years of declining physical media sales.  

Or does it? The Samsung deal makes sense as a vehicle for someone like Jay-Z--an established artist who's enormously popular, enormously talented and enormously media-savvy. Any new Jay-Z music is an event, meaning Samsung can get a lot of mileage out of offering Magna Carta Holy Grail for free before anyone else has it. But how many other contemporary performers breathe the same rarefied air? A scan of the current Billboard Top 200 albums list reveals precious few working artists with the creativity, longevity and marketability to justify a similar $20 million mobile investment: Jay-Z's wife Beyoncé is a definite contender, as is his summer touring partner Justin Timberlake. Taylor Swift, maybe? The charts say "Yes," my ears say "No." Definitely not Justin Bieber: He's loathed by too many (and for good reason), and his 15 minutes are almost up anyway. Not Kanye West, either--his latest album Yeezus hit stores this week, and while it's brilliant, it's also far too bonkers for a promotional giveaway, and besides, West is too controversial to star in a television ad campaign.

That means the Samsung/Jay-Z mobile music alliance isn't just the first of its kind--it also could be the last of its kind. Even if the deal is wildly successful, it may be impossible for another mobile company to replicate. There are just too few legitimate pop music superstars and too many flashes-in-the-pan to imagine a scenario where these kinds of partnerships become commonplace and a recurring source of music biz revenues. Maybe the title Magna Carta Holy Grail isn't just braggadocio after all.--Jason