The tide’s not turning – yet: Jay-Z launches streaming service Tidal

There’s a new player in the music streaming scene, and that badboy is Tidal, Jay-Z’s relaunched music streaming service which is poised to shake up Spotify’s grip on the market, or at the very least, stimulate about a week’s worth of intense debate about the ethics of music streaming and the how we pay for our ‘digital art’. If you’ve lived under a rock the past few days, let us bring you up to speed. Basically, Jay-Z decided to drop $54 mil on a tiny Norweigan streaming service and its parent company Aspiro and turn it into Tidal, the “first artist-owned global music and entertainment platform”. Tidal launched with a fanfare of A-list supporters (Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Coldplay, Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Jack White and Daft Punk to name a few), some of the lamest sentences uttered in human history (“bringing humanity back to being artists” – WTF?) and not to mention a shudder-worthy social campaign (No Kanye, I will not be making my profile picture blue and hashtagging #TIDALforALL. You’re drunk.) Tidal’s promise is “high-fidelity sound, high definition music videos and expertly curated editorial”. It’s been two days, and already there are people from either camp rattling their fists at each other and debating the viability of the service.

The key ‘selling points’ of Tidal are:

  • Better dosh for the musos: The artists own the music themselves, apparently through equity in Tidal, giving them a bigger cut of the pie
  • A two-tier pricing model (that’s on the exxy side): $9.99 a month for a basic subscription, and $19.99 a month for high-definition, CD-quality ‘lossless’ audio (and no free tier a-la Spotify’s free-plus-ads service – so Swifty, kindly heel your frothing-at-the-mouth lawyers)
  • Exclusive content: there’s some decent, can’t-find-it-anywhere-else content (all of Swift’s catalogue, plus exclusives from Jack White, Arcade Fire and Daft Punk to name a few) with more promised in the future (it seems that dealing in exclusives is a strategy favoured by Jay-Z, who released his last album Magna Carta Holy Grail exclusively for Samsung Galaxy Users before anyone else could hear it)
  • There’s a great blog section (interestingly, mostly written by freelancers) with interviews from Courtney BarnettModest Mouse and Jimmy Page, guides to SXSW and more (but for now, this is freely accessible.)

So far so good, right? Putting aside the fact that it’s a bunch of the biggest names in music essentially engaged in one big circle-jerk, it’s all fine and noble. Yes, it’s great that artists will get paid more for their contributions – but it’s some of the biggest artists in the world we’re talking about here, and it’s likely a case of ‘the rich get rich, and the poorer get poorer’. The extent to which artists will be paid more is unclear and anecdotal right now, and in any case, Spotify doesn’t appear to be quite the cheapskate we thought it was (remember the Spotify-didn’t-pay-Swifty-enough saga, which has been revealed to be a bit of a numbers game.)

It’s not clear how independent and new artists will be supported and promoted on Tidal and we’d really like to see Jay-Z leverage his influence to create a platform that benefits aspiring artists, not just Rihanna and Calvin Harris. In a nutshell, it feels like a bunch of celebrities patting themselves on the back for being humble and awesome, but ultimately doing something that’s self-serving – creating a premium service for premium pay, for premium people.

Putting aside the exclusive content and the ‘artists getting better paychecks’ argument, Tidal’s key differentiator is its high-definition, ‘lossless’ audio. So does it really justify the price tag? Well, the average person, using the average headphones, realistically won’t be able to tell the difference (that’s pretty much the bulk of us.) There is hope for audiophiles (the kind of people who’ll drop $10k on a home stereo set-up,) where with the right equipment, the CD-quality audio apparently delivers. Interestingly, this premium offering has some market-experts thinking that Tidal is aiming to compete around, rather than with Spotify, creating an aspirational brand for its ‘I’ll have the best and nothing but the best’ listeners.

But let’s come back to these “exclusive releases.” What’s exclusive in 2015, anyway? Word on the street is that the Daft Punk exclusive 2006 video, Electroma, was already available on YouTube, and for the truly dedicated, pretty much anything can be downloaded in some work-around, dodgy way about 3 seconds after a first release online. Unless they start taking away more from Spotify (say, if Random Access Memories or the White Stripes discography was removed,) the exclusives may not be a massive drawcard for Tidal.

Tidal is intriguing, but it hasn’t really given us a good enough reason to pay more for music and make the effort to migrate from Spotify or other streaming services – yet. That said, there’s a lot of potential in Tidal and we’re interested to see where it goes next, particularly if we can see it using its leverage to support up-and-coming artists (say, through interesting strategies like microfunding and crowdsourcing,) using socials in new and interesting ways (allowing the Tidal community to engage with artists and other users seamlessly and in real-time,) offering a flawless, high quality user experience with the application itself, as well as genuinely compelling offerings (exclusives that really push the boundaries and get us excited, like some Netflix Original releases.)

With Spotify’s first-mover-advantage and its existing, 15 million user-strong footing in the market, ultimately it comes down to time, and how compelling Tidal’s value proposition is, to see whether it begins to pull users from Spotify and make a real niche for itself. So watch this space.

For now, it’s back to my Taylor Swift-less Spotify. Swifty, you and Tidal may have won this round – but next time you have a hit song out that I want to listen to, as a child of the 80s, so help me God if it comes to it I’ll pull out my old tape recorder and tape your latest hit from the radio. You have been warned.