The who’s who of the music business, a finely curated list of the most obnoxious personalities in the field — Jay-Z, Madonna, Kanye West, Chris Martin, Jack White, and a clutch of others — are now co-owners of a new streaming service, Tidal, that, in their words, “will forever change the course of music history”. (Forgive me for not holding my breath.) It’s a service that first began in 2014 and was bought over from Swedish company Aspiro by Jay-Z for $56 million. Tidal could realistically be placed as a competitor to streaming giant Spotify — they do only have around 6,00,000 subscribers at this early stage though, as opposed to Spotify’s 60 million (15 million of which are paying users) — but its founders have stated, amidst much hyperbole, that they’re not looking to compete with anyone.
First the facts and figures: Tidal doesn’t offer any “freemium” services the way Spotify does; users can’t use an ad-based variant of the service for free, so the minimum subscription is $10 a month, the same amount Spotify charges for its paid service. Where they’re trying to set themselves apart is through the $20 service, which provides customers access to music in lossless (FLAC) format, a high fidelity playback that’s a times-three upgrade on the 320 kbps MP3 audio quality you get on regular streaming. It has 25 million tracks and 75,000 music videos on its database. Plus, they’re also offering “exclusives”: the new Rihanna song, The White Stripes’ first TV appearance, Daft Punk’s film Electroma (2006), a playlist curated by Coldplay (because that’s exactly what the world needs) to entice fans to make the switch.
Best of all, they insist artists on Tidal will be remunerated fairly, offering the highest royalty payment structure among all streaming services. It’s one of those bleak realities: streaming is not a very lucrative business; the model just doesn’t lend itself to profitability (and the artist tends to get dicked around). So while Spotify paid the band Galaxie 500 an imperial $1.05 for 5,960 plays of a song (as per an article from 2012 on Pitchfork), they still had to pay out $1 billion in royalties last year.
For starters, it’s great that Jay-Z and his equity partners are providing artists with a greater share of the profits — let’s be clear though; that share is run through the artist’s contractual arrangement with her respective record label (Tidal already has tie-ups with major labels). But do I really want Chris Martin to get more (or any) money? The owners currently are “music’s 1%”, not some unplucked indie bands trying to find their way. Jay-Z has already removed some of his back catalogue from Spotify, so Spotify users can’t legally stream his music (nor, for that matter, The Beatles, Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke). Apple has acquired Beats Music and Beats Electronics and is expected to launch a competing service in the near future. Another service by Google-owned YouTube is also apparently in the works.
Best of all, they insist artists on Tidal will be remunerated fairly, offering the highest royalty payment structure among all streaming services. It’s one of those bleak realities: streaming is not a very lucrative business; the model just doesn’t lend itself to profitability.
Basically, then, I as a user will have to pay $10 (or $20 if I’m an audiophile) and subscribe to Tidal to hear Jay-Z and other “exclusive” content, $10 to Beats for their exclusive content, $10 to Spotify for more still, and still purchase other music to satisfy my ever-expanding and understandable desire to listen to different things at different times in life. Wouldn’t it be easier to just download a torrent? After years spent bemoaning the state of the music business where corporate honchos and major labels rule the roost, we now have an alternative: Major labels striking deals with Google, with Apple, with Spotify, and with the richest musicians alive. (This is, of course, all moot in India, a country whose bureaucratic setup means Spotify hasn’t even entered the market yet.)
But I’m not trying to be overly critical. However questionable their motives or, in some cases, their authenticity may be, Tidal is still owned by musicians. Jay-Z is clear that they’re trying to support not just the face of the music, but the back-end too (producers, the songwriters). Is there any nobility attached to it? Probably not. But then Tidal is not some charity either. Spotify has been criticised for a whole host of things, from Taylor Swift removing her music because it could be streamed for free by users to Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich objecting to the raw deal it provides small artists, to Mike Vennart (of the now defunct band Oceansize) asking their fans to avoid Spotify because of the way it treats the artists, going as far as imploring them to download Oceansize’s music illegally if they have to instead. So Tidal, a service owned by people who we assume get it, acts as a legitimate alternative to Spotify and similar services, wherein the respect afforded to the artists has been placed at the forefront (of its PR spiel at least). They’ve made all the right noises about support, so it would be too early to knock them down just yet (tempting as it is). Streaming has become the accepted mode of consumption of music in the modern era for paying consumers so Tidal is not the “future” — it’s not really redefining the model, just tweaking it — it’s the now.