With Jay Z at the helm, Tidal targets Spotify, Apple

31 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

People really don’t like Jay Z’s ‘pretentious’ new streaming service Tidal.

“We didn’t like the direction music was going and thought maybe we could get in and strike an honest blow and if, you know, the very least we did was make people wake up and try to improve the free v paid system, and promote fair trade, then it would be a win for us anyway.” That’s Jay Z in Billboard, explaining the logic behind Tidal, the streaming service he officially launched on 30 March. The rapper has vowed to create the first major artist-owned streaming service, announcing Kanye West, Madonna and Rihanna – as well as many other members of pop music’s elite – as joint owners of Tidal. There’s also, for example, Jay Z’s desire to make Tidal a sort of creative salon, where “artists come here and start making songs that are 18 minutes long, or whatever. Others among the African American community in the US have criticised the likes of Rihanna, Jay Z, Kanye West and Beyoncé who were mostly silent about issues such as Ferguson, but have chosen to promote Tidal instead. I know this is going to sound crazy, but maybe they start attempting to make a Like a Rolling Stone.” Bravely, Jay Z suggested “this platform will allow art to flourish”.

Jay Z may be hoping to create a tidal change in the music industry, but it looks like he will have a long way to go to counter audience perceptions before he can begin to reap financial rewards for his friends. There are videos at the top of the home page (including an “exclusive” of Daft Punk’s 70-minute film Electroma, which only counts as exclusive if you ignore the fact that you can find it on YouTube), rather than artists, albums or tracks, but it’s not all that different from Spotify.

It offers higher quality sound – CD quality, lossless FLAC, rather than MP3 – which has set some of the audiophiles quivering, but it’s worth thinking carefully about whether that’s really worth £20 a month (it’s half price for a lower-quality service, with no free option). As Stephen Witt explains in his excellent forthcoming book about the MP3 revolution, How Music Got Free, lots of research shows the human ear is pretty much incapable of detecting the elements of sound that MP3 files shave off – the average piece of music contains far too much information for us to actually process. Most of the promises made about the best possible sound are the sonic equivalent of promising you the biggest Sunday newspaper ever: yes, but you’re still throwing away six sections without even looking at them.

But there are also things I wouldn’t have expected to find – as I type this, I’m listening to an unofficial recording of Bruce Springsteen playing at the Roxy in LA on 7 July 1978. Jack White’s selection of what’s playing at Third Man studios is, as you’d expect, a potluck haul of garage rock, vintage R&B and rock’n’roll. But Coldplay’s playlist of songs that made the band has the feeling of something knocked together in 10 minutes by the work experience kid – Bob Marley, Oasis, Radiohead, U2. But the comparison doesn’t work: the bottled water companies have managed to persuade the public they offered something better, but the paid-for music companies have completely lost that battle.

They are not in any position to guarantee exclusives to Tidal; furthermore, the financial might and huge reach of Apple means iTunes is still likely to be the go-to place for the big album launches (and with Apple due to launch its own streaming service, there’s going to be lots more competition in this field, too). One of the more telling remarks in Jay Z’s Billboard interview was buried deep in it, when he directly addressed the question of what exclusives Tidal could realistically aim for. “You know, there’s a thing now, it’s called the album cycle. You put your single out, promote it, then another single – I think that now for an artist an album cycle doesn’t have to end,” he said. “They’re on Instagram and Twitter and all these things, so we’re just talking about ways of extending that album cycle, and it could be anything.

Anything they want to offer, you know; just be as creative as possible, that’s the only charge, really.” That’s a very, very long way from the idea that Tidal might be the first place you get to hear the new Kanye album. For a start, even with its £19.99 a month subscription fee, it has to develop a massive user base before it can start making any significant payments.

And if the relationship between music and tech over the past 15 years tell us anything, it’s that those who come late to the party barely get past the porch: we watch videos, overwhelmingly on YouTube; we stream, overwhelmingly, on Spotify; we buy downloads, overwhelmingly, on iTunes.

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