Small Shops Aren’t Fans of Jay-Z’s Distribution Deal

Ever since Ron Hill opened Basement Mix Records with his brother in 1997 on a side street in East New York, Brooklyn, he has made it a mission to promote up-and-coming local artists — including, back in the day, the first album by a chart-climbing rapper from a few neighborhoods away by the name of Jay-Z.

“This is their backyard, so you know we have to make it happen for them,” Mr. Hill, 48, said on Thursday at his store on Crescent Street just off Atlantic Avenue.

Which is why Jay-Z’s exclusive distribution deal with Best Buy and iTunes for his coming album with Kanye West — which forces independent retailers to wait two weeks to stock the definitive version of the album — has him riled.

“We help break these artists,” Mr. Hill said. “We set platform and stage for people to hear them and for them to play us like this…”

On Monday, a digital version of the album will be released exclusively through iTunes, with the standard version being released four days later to retail outlets. But the deluxe version of the album, which includes six bonus tracks, will be released on Aug. 12 exclusively to Best Buy; the chain will have 10 days to sell the album before any other retailer.

An open letter addressed to Jay-Z and Kanye West and signed by 200 independent record stores, including Mr. Hill’s, was published by Billboard last Thursday, calling the deal “short-sighted”.

Michael Bunnell, a founder of Record Store Day, an umbrella organization that represents the independent stores that signed the letter, said the recent trend of big-name artists aligning with large retail stores to push album sales saddled already suffering independent stores with more pressure.

“These stores are family owned and still have a passion for what they do,” said Mr. Bunnell, 61, who has owned the Record Exchange in Boise, Idaho for 34 years. “They don’t sell appliances on the side.”

Mr. Hill, whose store doubles as a barbershop to stay open, says that he would have ordered 300 copies of the album, but that, given the deal with Best Buy, he is scaling back orders by half.

He held nothing personal against Jay-Z or Kanye West, he said, and sympathized with their desire to sell as many albums as possible. He simply wishes they gave him a chance to compete with bigger retailers.

“All I want is to be on the same playing field,” he said.

In an interview with Angie Martinez on the hip-hop radio station Hot 97 (WQHT-FM) on Monday, Jay-Z acknowledged the independent retailers’ concerns. But he said a same-day release to all outlets would inevitably lead to leaked songs during the process of shipping the album all over the country, which would take several days. Ensuring releases go to one retailer first, he said, would prevent that and allow for higher sales.

“We made this album and it took us eight months,” he said. “We should be able to release it the way we like, without everybody being up in arms.”

A customer at Basement Mix, Darryl Scott, 28, conceded that he had sometimes obtained albums months in advance on the Internet and that illegal pirating and leaking were serious problems for artists. But he said exclusive deals alienated local stores like Basement Mix, where he has hung out since he was a teenager and found a community centered on the music he loves.

“At Best Buy, they scan the album, stick it in the bag and call for the next guy,” Mr. Scott said, adding that he planned to wait until Aug. 23 to buy the deluxe version of “Watch the Throne” at Basement Mix. “At places like this, it’s not like that. People will actually stop and take the time to talk to you about the music.”

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