This article originally appeared in Shutter 16 Magazine on April 13, 2015. (click to view)
Waves of both praise and criticism are crashing over rapper and entrepreneur Jay Z as he defends his acquisition of music streaming service TIDAL, which he and his co-owning celebrity cronies tout as a higher-quality, better-for-artists alternative to other streaming services like Spotify. They have made the promise to audiophiles to provide access to its 25 million tracks in HiFi for just a penny under $20 a month and promised artists that TIDAL pays the highest royalty rate of any streaming service out there, but are these promises the company can keep?
With no free tier option for TIDAL, critics say that the service just won’t leave other streaming services in its wake like Jay Z seems to think it will. Spotify has insisted that its free tier is necessary to lure paid subscriptions (which are the same price as TIDAL’s standard definition tier at $9.99), and without a similar hook for TIDAL, many say it’s dead in the water.
Okay, enough with the maritime puns; I’m clearly out of my league.
I predict that TIDAL will not differ enough from rival Spotify to make waves—change the course of music streaming. In a world of casual music-listeners who just have their music playing for background noise on crappy speakers in their phones or decades-old car stereos, the “Lossless” benefits of the HiFi tier of TIDAL will be lost in the mix like the highs and lows in a 96kbps mp3. The audiophiles may cheer for the option of a high-definition streaming service (while they wait for those giant FLAC files to load on their devices), but their cheers will likely be drowned out by the cacophony of their neighbors blasting free tunes on Spotify from their half-blown iPhone speakers.
While I won’t resort to out-and-out ridicule of Jay Z and his “cult” of entrepreneurial musicians, I agree that the star power behind Jay Z’s plot to take over the world of streaming audio subscription services may do more harm than good when saying to the world that artists should be paid more for their music. I agree with the sentiment that fans should stop being cheap-asses and pay for a damn song every once in awhile if they want their favorite bands to keep recording songs, but the delivery of the “give us more money” message by a panel of millionaires was maybe a little hamfisted.
This kind of stand taken against consumers devaluing music by expecting it to be free would resonate much better with the general public if the faces of the company were real, in-the-trenches, up-and-coming artists who are legitimately struggling to make a decent living with their music. Right now, the Millenials are just rolling their eyes and composing trolling tweets using the #TIDALforALL hashtag.
One point Jay Z hits spot-on is the fact that the public’s perception of music needs to change. Spotify touts itself as a legal and sometimes-paid alternative to piracy, but the difference is that no one is arrested and fined for using Spotify like they used to be for using peer-to-peer piracy networks. Spotify is almost legitimizing the pirate mindset and making it socially okay to pay nothing to consume a product that was very expensive to produce (even my miniscule local band’s 5-song EP cost us over $7K to record and distribute). At hundredths of a penny per stream (if that) paid to the artist for each free spin on Spotify, the legitimized pirate is not doing the artist any favors, really. They can’t even buy a coffee at Waffle House with that 10 cents Spotify paid them for you listening to their newest hit 20 times. Granted FM radio spins never paid artists, either, but radio was never on-demand.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m very happy that the record labels can no longer fleece us for “$12.99 & up” for a CD full of crap from a one-hit-wonder without the chance to preview the tracks first. It’s nice to buy what you want à la carte. I just agree with Jay Z that it says a lot about the public’s value of music that people will pay upwards of two dollars every single day for a one-time-use bottle of water when there is free water from the tap, but those same people balk at paying just 33 cents per day for access to 25 million professionally-written and recorded songs. I don’t see hoards of people storming Perrier or Dasani demanding that they offer a free tier of water bottles to every consumer. Don’t even get me started on the multitudinous catalogue of frivolous things that humans buy every day single instead of paying for the music they love. (I’m looking at you, Starbucks!)
Another obstacle between affordability for the consumer and fairness for the artist is the record labels. TIDAL, Spotify and most of the other similar services pay the record labels for the use of their catalogues of music, and I would bet that very little of that purchase price trickles down to the artist. However, it’s not only the artists that aren’t getting paid from streaming: services like Pandora and Spotify have been in the news for failing to turn a profit despite their huge user base.
A report by Generator Research in 2013 concluded that “no current music subscription service—including marquee brands like Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody—can ever be profitable, even if they execute perfectly.” I guess Jay Z and I are not the only people who think the streaming music business model needs a hefty overhaul.
In summary, TIDAL might be a tiny bit more fair to the artist than Spotify and its ilk, and the HiFi FLAC file options may please a few seasoned ears, but consumers at large will continue to consume music for free while sipping their Caramel Macchiatos as long as they’re able. Until a fresh, new face emerges to change the skyline of the music streaming frontier, it looks like TIDAL and its peers will continue to have 99 problems.
TIDAL’s U.S. Website: http://tidal.com/us