Leading up to the launch of Tidal, the newest entrant into the growing industry of streaming music, the company’s high-profile investors sent out the message that Tidal would revolutionize how people consume and interact with music. Their innovative techniques, they proclaim, will improve the musical experience for everyone, from artists to listeners (#TIDALforALL).
Tidal is attempting to differentiate themselves from their competitors in multiple areas. They claim to be “the first music streaming service that combines the best High Fidelity sound quality, High Definition music videos and expertly Curated Editorial.” They are also promoting a bevy of Tidal-exclusive content, including new songs from Beyoncé and Rihanna alongside artifacts like footage of the White Stripes first TV appearance and Daft Punk’s film Electroma.
The main point of differentiation, though, is its price. For access to all of this high-quality content, Tidal charges a subscription fee, offering packages priced at $9.99 and $19.99 a month. This strategy with regard to pricing is a clear challenge to the freemium model that Spotify employs, which has left many artists and record executives dissatisfied due to low compensation payouts per stream (compared to the revenue from outright sales).
Jay Z, the lead investor and public business figurehead at Tidal, stated to Billboard that he and his fellow artist-investors “didn’t like the direction music was going,” and so they set out into the streaming business to “make people wake up and try to improve the free vs. paid system, and promote fair trade.” Tidal believes that charging all customers a monthly fee for streaming will help optimize the market relationship between music consumers and creators, resulting in higher compensation for artists and higher-quality content for listeners.
That point sounds well and good on its face; obviously artists need to be fairly compensated for their work in order to incentivize further artistic creation, and all people would benefit from the existence of higher-quality art. The problem is that Tidal’s business activities do not align with their stated objective. Due to Tidal’s positioning of their product as a luxury good by pricing it at a premium relative to competitors (not to mention that the benefits of their lossless audio and HD video are most apparent when consumers also possess high-priced complementary products), they are purposefully placing their collection of art into an exclusive class stratum.
By segmenting art into class distinctions, and therefore explicitly excluding some people from experiencing certain art, the artist-investors at Tidal are severely limiting the amount of positive impact their art could have on the world in favor of potentially greater profits for themselves. The fact that such prominent artists have backed this strategy is extremely troubling, as choosing to deny certain people basic access to one’s art on the basis of their wealth is arguably the worst, most self-serving thing any artist could possibly do.
The notion of Tidal being artist-controlled is another idea that’s good on its face, but the apparent dominance of corporate interests over artistic ones over the course of Tidal’s rollout, along with it being run by mostly older, richer artists and the lack of any details about how indie artists can get their stuff on the site, makes it look like the (established, wealthy, mostly older) Tidal shareholders are just out to protect themselves and their incomes as they become increasingly irrelevant.
Some less-commercially viable musicians have shared in this skepticism of Tidal’s true motives. In an interview with Bullett, Marina Diamandis of Marina & the Diamonds said of Tidal:
“It feels very corporate. I would buy into it if it wasn’t just Jay Z and all those guys. Sure, they’re really respected musicians, but they’re all globally renowned business men and business women. They all have a lot of money. For me, it would make more sense if the message was about supporting the artist, which I think is within their message, but they should actually include artists like include Beck, The Distillers or The Maccabees—include bands who’ve made great work, but maybe aren’t on their level in terms of commercialism.”
Tidal seems like the old guard trying to shoehorn their once-profitable but outmoded business model into the current Internet era and protect their own interests instead of truly innovating and trying to make it easier for all artists to create and earn a decent living doing it going forward.
And again, the actions of Tidal’s investors not only hurt the artistic community by holding down a large group of artists, but hurt society as a whole by barring certain (poorer) people access to art. As Diamandis went onto say in her interview:
“‘#TIDALforAll.’ For all? Like, everyone has $20 per month to spend? You’re trying to tell me that this is a democratic, positive way for everyone to consume music and it’s just not. You’re not selling that—you’re selling something that’s $240 a year.”
While it is fair to say that there is currently nowhere near an ideal system in place to optimize the streaming music market (and it is also fair, I would argue, to say that this market could not possibly be optimized without significant government intervention, i.e. the government owning and operating a free, ad-less version of Spotify), it is clear that the arrival of Tidal has actively made the situation even worse than it already was by essentially promoting greater inequality, which is bad overall for the general population, and particularly damaging for the art community.
The worst may still be yet to come, though. Jay Z has started removing portions of his back-catalog from rival streaming services, possibly indicating that other Tidal investors will soon do the same and cause the competition between streaming services to ultimately devolve into music-hoarding, leaving the world a collection of fragmented libraries scattered across multiple platforms. They say that a rising tide raises all boats. But this Tidal wave may just sink them.