A few weeks ago, Samsung silenced the rumors that it would be buying the music streaming service Tidal from rapper Jay Z. Samsung’s withdrawal from the deal with Tidal is likely the nail in the music streaming service’s coffin. Tidal’s resume includes accidentally releasing Rihanna’s ANTI a few days early, charging people for The Life of Pablo before it was available, ousting a set of top executives, attempting to sue Tidal’s previous owner for misrepresenting its subscription numbers and accumulating only a tenth of the amount of users Spotify has. Plus, if you are like me and you purchased the 30-day subscription to Tidal exclusively to stream Kanye’s TLOP, then you already experienced the clunky user interface of a product that was rolled out too early.
Tidal isn’t terrible. It’s just not as good as Spotify and Apple Music — the two other applications that provide the same service. It’s hard to search for the music you want, it doesn’t seem to have as good of playlists and it sometimes quits randomly. It might just be that I’m used to Apple Music, but I can confidently say I had no urge to jump ship from Apple Music to Tidal (especially with Views From The 6 right around the corner).
The Tidal saga is somewhere in between a sad story about a failing business and a giant, expensive joke about Jay Z’s hubris. Soon, Tidal will not exist. Jay Z will be out some hefty chunk of money, and the people at Spotify and Apple Music will maybe have a little “our competition just combusted under the weight of itself” party before returning to duke it out over T-Swift streaming deals and OVO Radio drops. Largely, the music industry will move on. But Tidal’s death will come as a serious missed opportunity for musicians, especially those who are up and coming in the new digital music age.
Prior to the digital music revolution sparked by Napster, record labels snagged artists in exploitive record deals and profited off the backs of their talent. Digital music technology shook the music industry to its core, cutting profits for all parties involved. In spite of plummeting profits, there was hope that after the dust settled, the artist might be able to gain a bit more control over their music. The hope was that as it became easier and easier for artists to promote their own sound, the big, bad labels would have less leverage. To some extent, that has happened, and is happening; artists from Radiohead to Lil Yachty are finding Internet-based self-promotion as more than enough to reach their fans. But as Apple Music and Spotify get bigger and bigger, it’s possible that artists’ temporarily-seized power will slip from them. Apple Music has already offered exclusive streaming deals with artists, where a given album is released on Apple Music before its made available publicly. While it may mean labels have less control, it’s possible the control has just shifted to a different group of old people in suits with only bottom lines on the mind. Where does Tidal fit into all this?
Let’s pretend Tidal grows to command a significant chunk of the music streaming industry (let’s call it 12 million subscribers and rising with the industry trend). Jay Z (who, in this case, is both a businessman and a business, man) becomes the owner of one of the most successful streaming services in the world. An artist who came up through the innovation-induced earthquake that was Napster and the MP3 would now be at the helm of a service that appears to be the foreseeable future of music distribution. Tidal’s claims to be an “artist owned coalition,” and its revenue streaming royalty numbers back it up; Tidal gives a little less than seven times more money in royalties per play to its artists than Apple Music or Spotify. Tidal also offers a high-fidelity streaming option, which streams the music as close to the quality the artists intended when they recorded it as possible.
In an ideal world, Tidal is the foil, or at least one ingredient in the antidote, to profit-driven labels controlling the distribution of music. In all likelihood, Tidal is not going to survive, because it’s just a really bad business. But a world where it did (and where we wouldn’t need to watch Taylor Swift’s rendition of Drake’s rendition of Atlanta rap music on Apple ads) would be better for the music industry.