Free Music? Yes Please! Rapper Jay-Z has sold a million copies of his upcoming album already - to Samsung. The mobile giant plans to give the album to select smartphone customers for free. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with music critic Jessica Hopper about the unique ways music is being distributed today.

Free Music? Yes Please!

Free Music? Yes Please!

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Rapper Jay-Z has sold a million copies of his upcoming album already - to Samsung. The mobile giant plans to give the album to select smartphone customers for free. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with music critic Jessica Hopper about the unique ways music is being distributed today.


Now we want to talk about the way people are getting new music across the globe. Earlier this week, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z announced he's teaming up with Samsung to release his next album "Magna Carta Holy Grail." Here he is advertising that release.


JAY-Z: The idea is to really finish the album and drop it, giving it to the world at one time and then letting them share it when it goes out.

HEADLEE: Samsung plans to give away one million copies of Jay-Z's album to its subscribers. They paid the star $5 million for the right to do that. That's according to the Wall Street Journal. Jay-Z is hardly the first artist to experiment with new ways of releasing his tracks.

Other musicians have put their songs on sharing sites like Spotify and SoundCloud in order to reach the widest audience possible. But to help us understand what all this means to us, we have Jessica Hopper with us. She's a music critic and columnist for the Village Voice and the music editor for Rookie magazine. Welcome to the program.

JESSICA HOPPER: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Let's begin with Jay-Z and this deal with Samsung. What's in it for him to release his album this way?

HOPPER: Well, other than, you know, the rumored $15 million that he got on top of the 5 million, this is a way to really reach maximum audience. Radio doesn't have the potency, even the Internet doesn't have the potency because people are really self-selecting about what they pay attention to, but commercials are everywhere and, you know, they can get messages on their phone from Samsung.

This is a way to reach a really wide swath of people and it would seem, even though Jay-Z is, you know, a true superstar of our era, even superstars need that extra push. And the thing that Samsung can offer that, you know, a lot of other corporate partners can't is that they have an enormous advertising budget something like, you know, 4.6 billion is what I think Billboard reported this week. They can afford to put a lot more money towards promoting Jay-Z than Universal, his record label, or any of his other corporate partnerships.

HEADLEE: Well, does this remove that - the need for a record label, then? I mean, eventually, do we just move to say, you know, the hip-hop artist Macklemore who makes his own album and then doesn't need a record label to distribute it?

HOPPER: Well, I think, you know, Jay-Z, it's still important for him to have records on the ground obviously because he just, two or three months ago, did a deal to move Roc Nation over to Universal. So obviously real-world record sales and all the machinery that's needed to push those out are important to him. But this is a way to just reach a lot of people and you see a lot more artists debuting things through commercials, you know, namely Beyonce who, through Pepsi and H&M commercials, did her most recent singles.

You know, Pitbull recently partnered with the Zumba fitness classes to premiere and promote a single that way and make appearances at Zumba fitness events. You know, and Justin Timberlake, the big seller of the year was through a partnership with MasterCard, debuting music in their commercials.

HEADLEE: And also, of course, rapper Kanye West. He had a music video projected on the side of a building. The video for the song "New Slaves" premiered as a projection in more than 66 cities. But even despite that, his album was leaked on the Internet before the release date. I mean, does any of this protect these artists and their record labels from illegal downloading or the music getting shared for free?

HOPPER: No, it's just a given. And what people do is they try to keep things from leaking until, like, the last possible second. But once it's out there, it's out there, and they're still going to go to number one, regardless. It's just, I think people are trying to prevent the amount of damage from illegal downloading, but it's - I think everyone knows it's fairly futile.

HEADLEE: You know, a lot of people thought of the Internet and things like Pandora and other online sites as a way for independent artists, maybe, to get a foothold without having that million dollar distribution and promotion budget. Is that actually the case? Do independent artists and lesser-known artists have a better chance these days?

HOPPER: Well, certainly, you know, Spotify allows people to find more music or, you know, other things like, you know, just being able to stream records on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, things like that, you have the opportunity to really cruise around and browse. But, you know, with things like Spotify you can get, you know, millions of plays and, you know, you're seeing, maybe, pennies. So while it's exposure, it doesn't necessarily translate into album sales or other aspects of your career building, just purely people having knowledge of your music.

HEADLEE: So let's take that one step further. I mean, you're a music critic. Is all of this good for the music business in terms of making good music, finding great artists or are we really just talking about, you know, millions of dollars to Jay-Z and splashy openings?

HOPPER: I don't know how necessarily, you know, Jay-Z partnering with Samsung is going to benefit anyone other than him, per se, or maybe those lucky first million downloaders. You know, I mean, it's ultimately beneficial to Jay-Z because, you know, supposedly Samsung paid approximately $5 per album download, which, you know, the royalty rate for Jay-Z is probably just a little bit more than what it is for most major label record deals. Which means, maybe, royalty rate of 10 percent on each record, which he would have to sell 5 or 6 million records, most likely to make what he's making just in this Samsung deal for a million records. So, you know, it's really just Jay-Z's benefit. But like you said, he's not a businessman; he's a business, man.

HEADLEE: We need the comma there that we can visually see to get that joke, but...


HEADLEE: But let me bring this back, again, to the person listening on my iPod or say on my Samsung, or however I get my music now; where I listen by Spotify on my computer or Pandora. In the end, what does all this mean? All these different ways of releasing new music, listening to your music, does this change the way the rest of us either discover music or consume it?

HOPPER: I mean, it certainly changes. How we do consume music is constantly evolving and we are going to continually be presented with different kinds of mobile platforms and advertising, you know. Different artists and corporate brands are going to find infinite new ways to try to reach us and get us to spend money and pay attention to what they're doing.

And so right now, as Jay-Z says in this little Samsung infomercial, you know, it's the Wild West. People are really trying to figure out a way to work around the fact that people just want to download music for free. I don't know if this really changes how we're going to hear or enjoy or love music, change our relationship with it. It's just going to get more mobile and more corporate.

HEADLEE: And more commercial. I mean, if people are releasing their albums through ads, that's incredibly depressing, Jessica.

HOPPER: Well, you know, music has always been tied in with advertising. you know, think about all of the great people who did Coke jingles in the sixties and seventies. You know, I mean, maybe it was a little bit less insidious then.

But, you know, people are just trying to find a way to mount these huge, you know, spectacular arena tours. And even younger bands - I'm working on a story right now about bands in advertising and that the stigma of being tied in with, you know, corporate sponsors or doing ad spots has really receded as people have struggled to find a way to make a living as musicians, as record sales have dwindled. And artists would have to stay on the road two hundred days a year to try to make a living and it's just exhausting.

HEADLEE: Jessica Hopper, music critic and columnist with the Village Voice. She joined us from member station WBEZ. Thank you so much.

HOPPER: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.