Jay Z Is Launching A Spotify Competitor. Will Tidal Live Up To The Hype?

CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE
CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE

Should you care about Tidal?

On Monday, Jay Z announced his plans for Tidal, a subscription streaming music service he bought not too long ago for a cool $56 million. The cache here is in its celebrity roll-out, as the company will be majority-owned by artists, many of whom appeared at this flashy, bizarre press conference wherein all musicians present signed a vaguely defined “declaration” and in the promotional video that teased Tidal’s big reveal. In the clip, all Illuminati members are presented and accounted for, including Kanye West, Rihanna, Daft Punk, Nicki Minaj, and Madonna.

Tidal will cost $9.99 a month for a base subscription and $19.99 a month for premium access, more than twice the going rate of every other music streaming service on the market. Unlike its competitors — Spotify, Pandora, Songza, and so on — Tidal will not offer any free option.

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So on a scale of “not a big deal” to, as Jay Z hyperbolically declares, “going to change the course of history,” where does Tidal fall?

“I would say a solid five,” said Eric Harvey, columnist for Pitchfork on music, technology, and marketing. “What they’re saying is: artists are making all the decisions. Tacitly, what they’re saying is, this isn’t coming from Silicon Valley. This is coming from artists putting their heart and soul into the music. But what it’s really doing is what Jay Z does nowadays: it serves the one percent of artists who are able to make their own way in the record industry.”

Harvey categorized the goal of the video — “You have 16 of the world’s biggest pop stars meeting in what looks like the Davos Economic Summit” — as positioning Tidal “as the artist’s service.” Jay Z is pitching Tidal as being about supporting musical artistry and the creative people responsible for it. This is certainly the popular narrative of the moment; it echoes Taylor Swift’s decision last year to pull her entire catalog from Spotify, though naturally Jay Z rejects the suggestion that he was influenced by her decision; he told the New York Times that his plans “have been in the works for a year.”

“What’s unique about Tidal is, it’s coming after a lot of artists have spoken out against their music streaming for free on Spotify or very low revenue on sites like Pandora,” said Harvey. This is a fitting timeline for the Knowles-Carter clan; as much as they talk the talk about being cutting-edge artists, they’ve spent at least the past five years or so waiting for popular opinion to tip over the edge of the edgiest ideas before claiming those ideas as their own (see also: Beyoncé waiting until the end of 2013 to publicly self-identify as a feminist, Jay Z holding off until Obama supported same-sex marriage to come forward to say he supported it, too).

By marketing Tidal as ‘artists vs. companies,’ they’re really eliminating all of the nasty infrastructural and economic realities about how the music industry works.

But what Tidal hasn’t announced yet (and probably never will, as it’s proprietary information) is a very basic number: how much will artists make per stream? The alleged issue with Spotify is that artists make fractions of penny on the play. But all Tidal is promising is that these 16 artists you see in the video, artists for whom record sales and streaming probably account for a very small piece of their total profit-pie, will have 3 percent equity in the service. That’s… it.

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“This is the exact point that gets completely left out of their initial pitch to the public,” said Harvey. “I can’t really see myself in Jay Z or Kanye, and I don’t think most artists can, either. [For] the vast majority of musicians who might be interested in getting on such a service, they don’t get a say in it.” Even if they can get their music on the platform, “it’s impossible to get them promoted. if you don’t have a full-time marketing team working for you, you’re really just circulating in the background.”

Tidal’s marketing pits musicians against “freemium” streaming services like Spotify, which has a free tier with advertisements and a paid tier without. Spotify has 60 million users, only 15 million of whom pay $9.99 a month for the premium, ad-free version. Spotify’s public stance is that, without a freemium model, piracy will rule the day and no one will make any money at all. Tidal is operating on the notion that, in theory, with a service you can’t join unless you pay $9.99 a month, artists will get a bigger cut because no one is listening for free. But the reality is that most of this money isn’t going to the artists, and it never was: it goes to the record label.

“Labels have been ripping off artists for decades,” Harvey said. “Unless you’re at the level of Taylor Swift and you can name your rate, when you’re signed to Sony or a major label, the label is keeping the royalty money. The music recording industry is built on this kind of exploitation.”

“I think by marketing Tidal as ‘artists vs. companies,’ they’re really eliminating all of the nasty infrastructural and economic realities about how the music industry works nowadays,” Harvey said. “There are still so many intermediaries who get a cut before the actual musician or songwriter or publisher gets some of that money. Tidal is not going to solve this issue.

“Jay Z is saying, ‘ignore all this other stuff, we are just artists creating art, and we deserve to have our music valued in a way that we think is equitable.’ And he’s leaving out all these other things, like these artists are massive global superstars who can dictate their own terms. Yes, they’re artists, yes, they technically do the same thing as an indie band, they’re technically performing the same labor, but on a vastly different scale. I don’t blame smaller artists for kind of saying, ‘next.’”

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Jay Z and his Tidal-launchers-in-arms spent Monday hyping Tidal’s 5:00 p.m. announcement, changing their Twitter avatars to a neon aqua reminiscent of the blue highlighter in ClarisWorks. A person could have expected that, at exactly 5 o’clock, the catalogs of each of these Tidal-affiliated artists would vanish from Spotify and other streaming services, disappearing at the stroke of five like Cinderella’s ballgown at midnight. But nope: you can still listen to Jay and Bey and the rest of the crew on Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, you name it.

Pulling their music to coincide with Tidal’s launch — essentially forcing fans to sign up for the service or live a musical life without these sweet sixteen stars — “would seem like it would be the gangster thing to do,” said Harvey. “But the problem is, a lot of these artists signed on in Tidal probably have licencing deals with major music corporations and they don’t have that choice, because they still make a lot of money on Spotify.”

The idea that all musicians should be able to live fully off of the products of their creativity is a massive fantasy.

As for why Swift, the most vocal opponent of the freemium model, isn’t a part of the Tidal team, Harvey speculated that “She might also have a deal with Apple coming up, inasmuch when Apple launches their thing. Maybe Taylor was like, ‘Apple got to me first.’” Apple, along with Beats (which Apple bought for $3 billion about a year ago) has a streaming music service in the works. Apple is teaming up with Beats engineers and executives to develop a subscription service as well as a new-and-improved version of iTunes radio. The buzz on the service so far is that, much to Apple’s disappointment, record labels are unwilling to lower licensing costs enough to make an $8 a month model feasible. Like Tidal and unlike Spotify, Apple will offer no free tier.

Apple CEO Jimmy Iovine is reportedly trying to poach artists from Jay Z’s first-tier group by promising more money upfront, a rumor which Jay Z did not bother to deny in his recent interview with Billboard. In the same interview, Jay Z could not “say definitively” that artists would make more money from Tidal than from Spotify. Instead, he made this elliptical statement: “Will artists make more money? Even if it means less profit for our bottom line, absolutely. That’s easy for us. We can do that. Less profit for our bottom line, more money for the artist; fantastic.”

But what does that even mean, when all these artists are also shareholders? So either they make more money per stream by giving up money from the bottom line, or they profit more from the bottom line but less from the stream. Money is money and it’s all going back to Jay Z or Rihanna or whoever else; what Jay Z doesn’t really address is what’s in it for all the other artists.

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That the Apple-Beats service is on the horizon is yet another reason for the average musician or music-lover to not get too excited about Tidal, which boasts an interface that is virtually identical to Spotify’s (black background, white text) mixed with the “curatorial uniqueness of Beats,” without providing any of the algorithmic radio station stuff you’ll find on Spotify. “It’s really hard to reinvent the wheel with these platforms,” said Harvey. “You’re basically working off an Excel spreadsheet for music. Turning into something revolutionary is really tough. Google is a multibillion dollar corporation that owns YouTube; they can sink years of time into building the new wheel. Apple can do the same thing, too. These start-ups are kind of limited.”

The words that keeps popping up around this conversation about musicians and compensation are “fair” and “value.” Jay Z told the Times that “Everyone knows that the pay system is unfair to artists”; Swift has repeatedly said, “I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created.

But do modern musicians have an outsize sense of what their compensation should actually be? Do these artists have an inflated notion of the financial value of any given song they produce? Music as we’ve known it for the past 70 years or so,as a physical, tangible thing you pay a significant amount of money to own, is just that: music as it’s been for nearly a century, not music as it always been and as it always shall be. Maybe it is unreasonable for the average musician to expect to make a living entirely off of people paying to listen to recorded music. Jay Z refers to his fellow stakeholders at Tidal as “artists.” Well, plenty of artists — poets, painters, playwrights — don’t make a living entirely off their art.

This is what Jay Z does nowadays: it serves the one percent of artists who are able to make their own way in the record industry.

“Music as a physical object was really a 20th century thing, and that’s it,” said Harvey. “There was a massive boom and bust cycle through the 20th century: before the LP came out, after World War II there was a lengthy trough when no one was buying music… Right before streaming, the industry forced the compact disc on consumers in the ’80s and ’90s and created this huge bubble. These first week sales for *NSYNC and Eminem were in the millions, but that’s because the distribution system was on lock, and you had to pay 19 bucks to hear a single and then a bunch of other junky tracks. That history informs our sense of what the value of music is. For [the Tidal artists] to say they need to be compensated ‘fairly,’ fairly is a very historically contextual idea. The idea that all musicians should be able to live fully off of the products of their creativity is a massive fantasy that was created during the industrial lockdown of music distribution.”

CREDIT: Screenshot/YouTube
CREDIT: Screenshot/YouTube

In addition to promising an artist-centric service, Tidal offers users a few other features of questionable value. There’s exclusive content, in case you’d be down to part with an extra $10 a month to get a Daft Punk documentary you never knew you maybe wanted. Perhaps most pointless is the promise of high-quality audio granted only to users willing to cough up $20 a month for the service. The overwhelming majority of listeners do not notice or care about the difference between a compressed and uncompressed digital file, and the first-order significance of the phrase “high fidelity” for most pop culture types is the Nick Hornby book/John Cusack movie of the same name.

“What Tidal is doing is, it’s pitting itself as the prestige brand of streaming services: streaming service as bottle service,” said Harvey. The high-quality audio? “There’s a lot of snake oil in there,” he said. “Selling high fidelity is really like selling Cristal at the club. It’s a really fancy version of the same stuff that you can get much cheaper otherwise.”

“Tidal is streaming service as bottle service. Selling high fidelity is really like selling Cristal at the club.”

Jay Z semi-acknowledged that he is charging people for something that’s free elsewhere in his interview with Billboard, comparing the Tidal model to the way people “will pay $6 for water. You can drink water free out of the tap, and it’s good water. But they’re OK paying for it. It’s just the mind-set right now.”

“One of the things Jay Z admits is, he doesn’t have to kill Spotify to win,” Harvey said. “And that’s extremely practical for Jay Z, who knows that no matter how famous he is and how beloved his wife and baby are, there’s past dependence that he’s not going to be able to wrench people away,” Harvey said. “Past dependence” is what stops you from starting a new email account even if you’re fed up with Hotmail because all your contacts are already stored there, or, in this case, switching streaming services when you’ve invested considerable time and energy building dozens of playlists on Spotify.

When it comes to the state of music distribution and consumption in 2015, “We’re still kind of in the Wild West,” said Harvey. “We have this new paradigm where everything is acceptable.”