Jay-Z’s life reads like a fairytale.
Born in a housing project in Brooklyn, abandoned by his father and involved in guns and drugs from an early age before finding redemption in music, Shawn Carter set up his own record label – Roc-A-Fella – when no-one was interested and became one of the most successful rappers in history. Latterly, to complete the Hollywood story, he married fellow global icon Beyonce, who recently gave birth to his first daughter, Blue Ivy.
Soon, you too will be able to live the dream – as reports suggest that Mr Z’s backroom techies are currently testing Empire: a game designed for Facebook wherein the challenge is to complete tasks and earn points in order to escape the ghetto, journeying from Brooklyn rags to Manhattan riches. Of course, while music is the central tenet of Carter’s success, his story has always been about so much more than that – as the existence of the game itself hints at.
He now has to be viewed as one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs and managers out there – particularly strong on the management of himself as a living, breathing brand that takes so many shapes, from the label to his clothing line Rocawear, his 40/40 club chain and his cosmetics firm Carol’s Daughter. Now it appears that gaming is the next area he has trained his sights on.
Hip-hop has always had more than its fair share of moguls, compared to other genres of music, with the likes of P Diddy, 50 Cent and Dr Dre all exploiting their credibility and “cool” through alternative avenues – a business necessity as the direct value of music has plummeted in the past few years.
Dr Dre recently sold a 51% stake in his hugely successful Beats headphones company to HTC for a staggering $191m, with much (if not all) of the company’s success emanating from style and Dre’s endorsement, rather than the coveted cans’ audio capabilities. Even Britain’s Tinchy Stryder has got in on the act, making more money from his Star In The Hood clothing range than his music.
Perhaps the prevalence of media and merchandise moguls in hip-hop is down to the genre’s acceptance and promotion of ambition, in contrast to the self-conscious fear of “selling-out” that characterises, for example, much of the indie scene.
Jay-Z was one of the first musicians to sign a “360” deal – a full-service arrangement covering music, merch and gig-tickets – with a non-traditional record company (in his case, Live Nation), and he has always been one step ahead of the pack with regard to managing his brand, building an empire and spotting where the money is.
He has also always managed to balance his wealth with notions of being true to his roots and staying “street” (or, at least appearing to do so – a great trick), not unlike Snoop Dogg and Dre. Many young musicians would do well to observe how canny Carter has been over the years in this difficult strategy. Perhaps Britain’s young entrepreneurs should be given a copy of the game when it emerges, and encouraged to recreate it… minus, perhaps, the detour into drugs and gun culture.