So by now you’ve all likely heard of Tidal. If not, let me catch you up. In early April, Jay-Z and an all star cast of co-owners (including Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Chris Martin, Usher, Madonna, and quite frankly, too many to name here) launched a new music streaming service called Tidal. The aim being to take the control away from the record companies and Silicon Valley, and put it right back where it should be,in the hands of the artists. Tidal came in with a crash, and had quite a polarising response. Many of us were excited, but the loudest voices were of course the critics, who weren’t too fond of a panel of multi-millionaires putting on an event to essentially ask for more money. Artists are more and more feeling like they’re getting the short end of the stick when it comes to music streaming services and the royalties they are paid. So, can Jay-Z usher in a new era of the music business where artists get a much larger amount of control, and in turn, a bigger piece of the pie? Is Tidal as disruptive as Jay-Z claims? Let’s explore...
First, what is Tidal’s value proposition? Well, aside from some exclusive content from some of music’s biggest talent, curated playlists, and a doubly expensive lossless tier to stream higher quality files, there isn’t much difference from some of your other favourite streaming services. There is no free option on Tidal, like you get with Spotify, and some other services, and the entry level pricing tier is about ten bucks a month, and that allows you to stream MP3 quality files. And for twenty bucks a month, you get the same service, but with higher quality lossless audio files.
Here’s the problem I’m seeing with that… The vast majority of listeners are listening on little earbuds which makes hearing any difference between a high quality MP3 and lossless audio incredibly difficult; and secondly, most of us have capped data plans from our mobile providers. Streaming hours of lossless audio files (which are about ten times the size of MP3) to your phone on a three-gig data plan is going to get awfully expensive. Beats (or whatever Apple will decide to name it) has curated playlists, so nothing new there. This leaves exclusive content as the only real differentiating feature holding any value, at least to me. The question there is, can Tidal maintain exclusivity?
The fact is, most artists are under contract to the major record companies who all own various pieces of some of the other streaming services. I think it will be highly unlikely that the labels will offer all their music to Tidal first, which leaves just the biggest artists who have control over their own masters and, I suppose, Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s label. But even when Jay is dealing with the music he controls, I don’t think he’ll give exclusivity to Tidal for more than a week or so. The thing is, the streaming side of the music is getting bigger than ever, and unlike iTunes’ virtual monopoly on digital music sales, everyone jumped into streaming early to ensure no one service could hold a monopoly. If the market share for music streaming is spread across four or five services, it will make sense for labels and artists to let everyone get their content in order to maximise the audience. So, unless you can’t wait a week or two for that new Rihanna single, or, I hate to say it, find an MP3 rip online, Tidal isn’t offering a ton of added value over any other service.
What I do find commendable though is these artists are taking a stand to re-establish the value of music. As a professional in this business, this is a positive thing for all content creators, and really anyone who makes a dime off the music business. But I’m not sure consumers care about rich artists making more money, and I think for the average listener, there’s a major disconnect between them and your everyday working musician, just trying to make a living.
The perceived value of music has largely disappeared, which means making a living in music is nearly impossible for all but the top tier of musicians. So while Tidal is a step in the right direction, the younger generation of listeners have been brought up for the last fifteen years in an era of free music, and I don’t think the value is there to get them to change their perceived value of the product we all sell.
Bottom line, if you’re a paying Spotify customer, then maybe that exclusive content is enough of a reason to make the switch. Tidal won’t cost you any more, and it does look like you’ll have access to some really great content, so for some, Tidal will be a welcome change. For most, I think it’s just more of the same. Having said that, I’ve spent enough time in the studio with Jay to know that he’s a brilliant guy, and has a pretty solid batting average when it comes to his business deals. So I would never count him (or Tidal) out. But I think this group has an uphill battle to grab some of the market share from the established services.