99 Problems with Tidal Music (And Price is One)

If you missed the #TidalforALL hashtag dominating social media yesterday, here’s what the fuss is all about (quick version): Jay Z announced the re-launch of Swedish-based streaming music service Tidal (which the rapper now owns, courtesy of a $56 million buy-out.

So what — just another streaming service, right?

Well, not quite. Tidal has been billed by Hova as the first-ever “artist-owned” subscription service. Flanked yesterday by a “who’s-who” of top artists — Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, and Queen Beyoncé among them — Jay Z’s plans for Tidal are, in short, a streaming service with the ability to provide exclusive first-access to content before the likes of Spotify and whatever the hell Apple does with Beats Music; and, for the audiophiles out there, Hi-Fi sound. 

Tidal has two streaming plans — the moderately priced $9.99 “standard def”, and the $19.99 hi-fi version of its subscription service.

If the latter price sounds a bit ridic; it’s because it most certainly is.

Hi-Fi streaming is wonderful — if you’re at home, with a PC connected to your soundsystem via an HDMI cable (assuming your PC has an HDMI out). The rest of the time, you’ll be paying $240/year for audio that, literally, won’t sound one scintilla different. Your iPhone and Galaxy and most certainly those wireless headphones many of you (including me) are walking around with these days won’t benefit; therefore, if you’re on-the-go more than at home, the Hi-Fi plan likely isn’t for you.

If it’s exclusivity you’re looking for, you also may want to hold out on that subscription just yet. While someone of Jay Z or Beyoncé’s caliber have greater control on their own music, many artists simply do not — their record labels do. This means, they control distribution; and unless Tidal is prepared to shell out money their way (which means less for the “artist-owners”), labels don’t have much of an incentive to give Tidal exclusive access to anything.

And before you buy the “Tidal will save the music industry” shtick, consider this:

Based on what I learned in college about the music business (I was a radio broadcasting student), artists make their real money in touring & merchandising, and not in album sales or royalties themselves. Reports have Tidal’s current user-base at around 35k; that’s compared to 15 million paying customers on Spotify, plus an additional 45 million that listen via the ad-supported option. Yes, Spotify is a rip-off, royalty-wise, for all but the biggest artists (there’s a great article on this over at The Kernel) — but, you can’t argue with the reach they have. I’m not sure how any artist not in the top 1% would sacrifice publicity for slightly-higher royalty payouts.

So does Tidal music help the “little guy”? If it does, the “how” is not apparent at this time. What is clear is that Tidal will put more money in the pockets of artists like Jay Z and Kanye — which, I’m definitely not against doing; but certainly not in the name of “saving music”.

I should say, that one day after Tidal’s re-launch, there is limited information available about the company’s plan to help artists recoup royalties that are, by all accounts, rightfully theirs. Should more details emerge, and as the streaming service has time to find its niche, I will certainly revisit Tidal in the future.

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