Jay-Z has had a rough month. Just as he was getting ready to unveil his new fragrance line at Barneys, the store was caught racially profiling and falsely arresting its African-American customers. This is obviously a sticky situation for any brand associated with the store, but it’s even worse for someone who, for all intents and purposes, is his own brand. How many headlines have you read with the names of Barneys store clerks, the arresting police officer, or the CEO of Barneys? Chances are you can’t name a single one, and it’s because each of them has a distinct and separate brand to hide behind when the excrement hits the fan. The clerks and the CEO have Barneys, and the officers in question have the NYPD. Jay-Z has, well, Jay-Z. He seems to be responding well—cautiously evaluating the situation and donating profits from his new line to charity—but the fact that he’s in this situation is something that all musicians or entertainers should note.
Big personalities have always been an important part of the entertainment industry, and they’re even more essential in today’s climate. At its core, the business is about branding and marketing artists, not the songs they create. The songs are certainly the key products, but the brand rests solely on the artist. Before you can sell a ticket, you need to prove that you have someone worth listening to. When even the most popular songs fail to accomplish this, they’re gone in the blink of an eye. (Remember Rebecca Black? I hope not.) This reality is both a blessing and a curse, as artists are subject to unilateral praise when something goes right and unilateral blame when it doesn’t. If a concert’s bad, it’s rare that one blames the sound engineer, and if a record’s awful, we almost never blame the label.
As an artist, your livelihood depends on the faith people have in your personal brand. Mel Gibson didn’t forget how to act, but fans found it impossible to separate his personal bigotry from his profession (with good reason). This is where the full scope of Jay-Z’s problem comes into play: In addition to being a musician, he owns a record label, founded a clothing line, and dabbles in real estate and sports. He has taken his identity as an artist and entrusted it to people over whom he has little to no control. There are large corporations behind most of his ventures —especially those that involve manufacturing— and everything they do in their professional capacity comes back to either haunt or benefit Jay-Z. When you are the brand, the buck will unequivocally stop with you.
The music business is one of the few businesses that still relies on unconditional trust between producer and consumer. The decision to buy an album, especially when it is so freely available at no cost, is one that occurs when the listener feels enough of a connection to become personally invested in an artist’s vision and career. Listeners will forgive the occasional bad album as long as this connection remains. When an artist grants the usage of his or her name or image to disparate commercial entities, he or she risks losing complete control of that image. It’s why so many musicians are weary about being used in advertisements, and those who do tread so carefully. Jay-Z, the productive powerhouse that he is, has made the decision to get involved in a variety of cross-promotional projects, most of which benefit him immensely. Unfortunately, situations like the one with Barneys are a by-product of such a widely spread personality. I hope for his sake that he continues to handle it well; his good name is the one thing he can’t afford losing.
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.