Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Tidal: a big wave or a drop in the streaming ocean?

The success or failure of Jay Z’s new streaming service will come down to three groups: fans, labels & the 99 per cent of acts who were not at the launch

The gang's all here: the artist-owners line up at the Tidal launch in New York last night

Tue, Mar 31, 2015, 10:12


You’re going to be hearing a lot about the Tidal music streaming service in the next few weeks. This is chiefly thanks to the fact that Jay Z is the man steering the ship. He persuaded a whole bunch of famous friends to show their faces (or masks and motorcyle helmets in the cases of two acts) at the big launch yesterday. The video of the cringey press conference is the best thing you’ll see online today. Or tomorrow.

What we know about Tidal is that it’s a service originally launched by Norwegian music tech company Aspiro six months ago and acquired for $56m earlier this year by Project Panther Bidco, a company controlled by Jay Z. Tidal was one of two music services from Aspiro, who also had an ad-free service called WiMP. Both Tidal and WiMP, according to The Verge report on the acquisition, “angle themselves towards the more committed audiophile, offering daily track recommendations, curated playlists, interviews with artists, and audio available to stream and download in the lossless FLAC format.”

But beyond the presence of and imprimatur of such stars as Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj. Beyonce, Jack White, Rihanna, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Usher, J Cole, Acade Fire, Jason Aldean and Calvin Harris, details are largely sketchy about what exactly punters are going to get from the service under the control of its new owners. We know from the artists’ statement that Tidal is “an artist majority owned company with a mission to reestablish the value of music and protect the sustainability of the music industry rooted in creativity and expression.” We don’t know, though, exactly how much these established, successful artists are going to get from the service, though we do know that their declaration, the Gettysburg Address of music announcements (unless they bring back Oxegen), does promise to give us “music presented and heard the way the artists intended”. Which is nice.

The service’s website is a little more forthcoming about what to expect than that all-singing, all-dancing launch (as all hacks know, launches rarely offer anything real beyond a few sandwiches and sausages rolls if you’re lucky). The site talks about “the first music streaming service that combines the best High Fidelity sound quality, High Definition music videos and expertly Curated Editorial.” So far, so Pono with a dab of Life+Times to it.

As things currently stand, the existing 540,000 Tidal users in 31 countries are paying €19.99 a month to get access to 25 million high-quality tracks and 75,000 music videos. This price point is higher than what’s on offer from the established players like Spotify and co, as well as what we’ve heard about the forthcoming Apple/Beats mash-up, though Tidal is planning a €9.99 service as well. Obviously Tidal 2.0 will be hoping that the involvement of those A-list artists will lead to more punter engagement with, of course, more exclusives down the road to persuade people to go with the tide.

It remains to be seen just how far that tide will reach. There are three particular entitles who will have the biggest say in what happens with Tidal and none of whom are stakeholders in the service: the labels, the punters and the artists who were not featured last night.

Most of those artists mentioned above – each of whom are believed to have received a three per cent stake in Tidal in exchange for exclusive content, according to Billboard – already have signed contracts with record labels. This means that their back-catalogue and any forthcoming albums due under those contracts will be controlled by labels, who will want to leverage those releases in any number of different ways to get the biggest return on investment. An artist like, say, Usher or Nicki Minaj may say to their label that they want to give Tidal the nod on a new release before Spotify. but the reality may well be something different as the label look at how the numbers stack up. Will Tidal cover the massive legal costs if the acts seek to move off those labels to give the streaming service the love? Let’s hope Jigga has a contingency budgetline for that.

Then, there’s you and me, the punters. Are we prepared to pay more for better sounding streams? Are we going to take a chance on a service which does not come with a free tier? Are we happy enough with the current players in the market or are we open to churning? After all, all the research and anecdotal evidence to date shows that we’d be happier to pay less every month for our subscription, but the industry has been loath to change, as Apple found out during their negotiations with the labels for their soon-come service. Will the fact that these megastars want us to pay more for music streaming really wash?

Of course, it’s actually the third entity who’ll have a very significant say in the success or otherwise of Tidal. That’s the 99 per cent of music acts who are not part and parcel of Tidal’s starry launch line-up. What do they reckon to all of this? Will they get onboard the bus or will they also want their three per cent before they favour Tidal over Spotify (they’d better hurry because there’s not much left to go around)? If Tidal is so artist-friendly and is bringing in more cash per paying punter every month, will it pay out better royalties than the existing players? If so, why wasn’t this a big feature of the launch? Or is Tidal really just about making the music industry’s one per cent that much richer?