Jay-Z brings new Sprint-endorsed album '4:44' to Tidal and reignites debate over exclusivity

As if he’s not busy enough with his new twins, Beyoncé’s husband and the father of three Jay-Z announced Monday morning that he’ll be releasing his new album, “4:44,” on June 30.

The platinum-selling rapper and founder of the brand Roc Nation will deliver his first studio album in nearly four years through an exclusive arrangement with the streaming service he co-owns, Tidal, in partnership with one of its primary investors, the phone carrier Sprint.

The news was a marketing coup for Sprint and Tidal, and one with which Jay-Z is relatively familiar. His last work, 2013’s "Magna Carta Holy Grail," was first made available to customers of electronics company Samsung.

This time around, Sprint has pledged to donate $2 from every new line activation to its charitable arm dedicated to providing low-income high school students with Internet access.

But the move has also appeared to irk a lot of his fans, many of whom are still smarting from an earlier Jay-Z initiative: pulling all of his albums from Tidal’s competitor, industry leader Spotify, in April.

On social media, the backlash on the “4:44” exclusive was swift (if sometimes ungrammatical): “Jay z album a tidal exclusive he dont want anyone to hear it apparently,” wrote one fan, echoing the thoughts of many.

The outcry serves as a reminder of the continued battle for streaming-service dollars. Stuck in a tug-of-war among big-money interests, fans are being asked to commit to streaming platforms or sign carrier contracts — and give personal data — in exchange for their enthusiasm.

Jay-Z isn’t the first to exclusively deliver his new work to a particular music streaming platform for an indeterminate period (a press release did not indicate when — or if — “4:44” would be released in other formats or through other services, though new or existing Sprint customers will receive free access to Tidal for six months).

The Canadian rap hit maker Drake has a multitiered arrangement with Apple Music, as does pop magnate Taylor Swift. Beyoncé also issued her most recent album, “Lemonade,” as a Tidal exclusive. In the past, some exclusives have been limited to a few days, while others have persisted for a number of weeks.

Fans who are already committed to a competing service aren’t the only losers, said Laura Martin, senior entertainment and Internet industry analyst for investment banking firm Needham & Co.

“I think this is is bad for the music business,” she said.

Citing Apple Music’s recent investment in securing exclusive releases, Martin said Sprint and Tidal’s move is “a worsening, if you will, of what Apple started, which is paying for music exclusives to try and drive Apple Music subscriptions.”

Plus, it's confusing. “If they used to listen to Jay-Z on Spotify, all they know is they put in ‘Jay-Z’ and nothing’s there,” Martin added. “And how many people are really going to be in the middle of their contract term and and say, ‘OK, I’m going to cancel this and go get Sprint instead’?”

One Twitter user made a prediction: “Jay-Z’s next album will be exclusive to TIDAL and Sprint customers for 6 months. Guess which album will be the most pirated of the year?”

From Tidal and Jay-Z’s perspective, the move certainly makes sense. When rapper Kanye West released his most recent album, “The Life of Pablo,” as a Tidal exclusive, subscriptions to the service jumped from 1 million to 2.5 million, according to an analysis by Goldman Sachs.

(Simultaneously, the album was illegally downloaded via Bit Torrent more than 500,000 times soon after release, according to Torrent Freak.)

Entertainment attorney Julian K. Petty, who represents rap artists including Vince Staples, A Tribe Called Quest, Earl Sweatshirt and others and is partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody, said he advises his artists to strike a balance.

“Whatever is beneficial and lucrative to the client while at the same time not compromising the relationship with the fans, I’m all for it,” Petty said.

“When you look at Drake’s deal, that’s an overall, multi-pronged, multimillion-dollar deal. They’re driving traffic to the service, they’ve invested in music videos and different promos — it’s a great look for everybody.”

On Tidal’s platform, the teaser for Jay-Z’s forthcoming album was presented as a kind of loss leader for the cellphone carrier. It was couched inside an ad for Sprint that said, “Switch to Sprint and get six months of Tidal in the U.S.”

But, added Petty, the biggest opportunities are available only to A-level draws — those who are able to earn enough streaming plays to offset few platforms without sacrificing chart position.

“Not many people can do that in this environment,” Petty said. “Even though streaming is doing well now and the business is starting to level out, folks are trying to get their things everywhere.”

randall.roberts@latimes.com

For tips, records, snapshots and stories on Los Angeles music culture, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter and Instagram: @liledit.

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