Well, the world of music streaming managed to get more interesting last Monday with the formal introduction of Tidal. Wrapped up in an awkward mess of a press conference, which has managed to pick up its fair share of constructive and comedic criticism, is a new music streaming option that is majority-owned by some of the biggest artists in the music industry. While the current views of the service range from the mostly negative to the downright confused, there’s no denying the fact that any press is good press and Tidal has certainly benefited from the response to the service’s announcement.
But in a world where music streaming has exploded – meaning more people are willing to spend little to no money on music today in comparison to peak of the CD, let alone the peak of the iTunes – is there room for Tidal? Let’s first examine what the service has to offer:
Following suit with the short-lived Beats Music before it was bought up by Apple, it is solely subscription-based outside of a 30-day trial. The two-tiered options range from the $9.99 “Premium” to the $19.99 “HiFi”, with the difference being the quality of the music and the videos. In fact, if you know anything about the service, then you are aware of the “HiFi” buzzword of sorts. Rather than the standard 320kbps bitrate heard through the service’s standard option, which is the norm for a high-quality mp3 as well as the “Extreme Quality” option for Spotify Premium members, Tidal’s HiFi sound offers lossless FLAC files with a bitrate 1411kbps – over four times as much, as you math-lovers might have noticed.
It is here that Tidal can begin to be broken down into its more interesting parts. The increase of bit rate is incredible, there’s no denying that, but the audience to truly appreciate it isn’t there. In fact the service is aware of this, as they have a blind A/B test where you can attempt to tell the difference between each bit rate of five random songs and it’ll rate if you were successful or not. Even if you have headphones or speakers capable enough to project the smooth lossless nature of Tidal’s HiFi sound, you’ll also need to be prepared from the bandwidth side of things as well. If your Internet connection has buffering tendencies with Spotify’s normal quality (a measly 160 kbps), then you should shell out some extra cash on your bandwidth before committing to the HiFi’s $20/month option.
In addition to the technical side of things, the music catalog is also incredibly important. Tidal just launched with 25 million, which doesn’t look bad compared to the established Spotify and it’s over 30 million tracks. The service is also pushing towards Tidal-exclusive music, a competitive move that hasn’t been used too often in the music streaming business. Currently the inclusion of Taylor Swift’s albums stand as the only definitive (and I use that term lightly) exclusive that the service has, however owner Jay-Z certainly isn’t ruling out the possibility of releasing his own records through Tidal as well.
Of course this increased focus on music exclusivity could fan out like a weak flame, or Jay-Z could (unfortunately) be on to something that’s more of a reactive move against a changing market than a proactive one. If he were to lead by example and allow more artists, specifically those at the press event last week (Jack White, Daft Punk, Kanye West, to name a few), to release their albums exclusively through the service then it wouldn’t be long before other services followed suit. The privilege of listening to whatever you want, when you want to, would fall by the wayside to the competition, which is a forceful approach to get money out of the pockets of fans. The music industry doesn’t share similar ground as the film or video game industries, which manage competition such as this in a way that ideally benefits the fan as well as the business, because music doesn’t hold the same inherent value as those mediums.
While this may seem a bit extreme, consider the fact that Forbes has labelled the group of musicians at the Tidal’s funding core as “The Avengers of Music”. Unfortunately when The Avengers of the comic and film realms have their disputes here and there, but ultimately save Earth/the Galaxy numerous times, these music-based Avengers don’t need to be heroes like their comic book namesakes. I mean come on, they are millionaires. While it is noble that Jay-Z can stand up and demand better royalties for the artist, he’s arguing for the same reason that Taylor Swift fights Spotify: profit.
Granted, if I were either of them I’d probably want as much profit as I could get, seeing as they are both superstars and they would be making a lot more money if CDs had never died. That said, screw them. They’ve made their millions, in fact they are two large pieces of the industry’s Superstar Economy problem. Similar to the global economy, where the top .1% controls 81% of wealth, the top 1% of musicians control 77% of the wealth within the music industry. While I’m not asking for musicians to give their income away, the best way to balance the distribution of wealth is the offer an equal chance to any artist that is talented enough to seize it. The “big break” into the industry can still be alive and well with music streaming, and it would come at a much smaller cost than the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were stereotypically thrown at new bands on rise before the Internet. If Tidal wanted to focus on getting artists their fair share, then sponsoring an “up-and-comers” streaming contest of sorts would be a great and unique first step towards truly doing so.
Tidal can certainly offer a lot to the conversation of music streaming, especially since it holds the unique title of being an artist-majority owned service. What it does with the momentum it has gained out of the gate remains to be seen. As of now it appears to be as focused on the upper echelon of music listeners as it is on the top tier of musicians, while somehow hoping for some sort of mass market appeal. This reason alone makes the price of entry too steep for the average streaming consumer, which is why Spotify doesn’t seem too scared about the new competition. If it manages to stay afloat long enough to truly develop into its own platform, its potential could range from setting another harmful precedent against music listeners to lighting an appropriate fire in the name of streaming competition.
Fingers crossed for the latter, if anything at all.