Something mysterious happened on Twitter recently. Several big name artists changed their profile pictures to a pale blue square, and started tweeting about something called TIDAL. ARCADE FIRE told fans: ‘Together we can make music history. Show support and make your profile picture blue. Turn the tide. #TIDALFORALL’. NICKI MINAJ tweeted ‘Change your avi in support of what is fair, of what is the future. The tides have changed, Barbz.…,’ and KANYE WEST said that ‘Together, we can turn the tide and make music history. Start by turning your profile picture blue. #TIDALforALL‘.
With this level of star support and aspirational language, you might think that Tidal is the latest protest movement or human rights campaign. It’s not. Tidal is actually a brand new music streaming service. On Monday the 3oth of March, we were treated to Tidal’s web broadcast of its launch, featuring a lot of marketing-corporate jargon, a Friedrich Nietzsche-referencing speech from ALICIA KEYS and an introduction to Tidal’s owners: KEYS herself, ARCADE FIRE‘s Win Butler & Regina Chassagne, BEYONCE, CALVIN HARRIS, COLDPLAY‘s Chris Martin, JACK WHITE, KANYE WEST, DAFT PUNK, MADONNA, JASON ALDEAN, J. COLE, JAY Z, DEADMAU5, NICKI MINAJ, RIHANNA and USHER. So beyond the star power and the slightly gross tactic of imitating the language of charity campaigns to boost your marketing campaign, what does Tidal actually offer?
Artists reclaiming their art or just rich people trying to get even richer?
Despite the ultra-glossy launch, there’s not an awful lot of information about Tidal available. What we do know is that there will be two pricing-tiers (a basic package for $9.99 per month, and a high-fidelity audio version at $19.99 per month), with no free advertising-supported service like Spotify’s. Beyond that, there’s not much except an awful lot of rhetoric to help us understand what Tidal is. We’re promised ‘unique experiences,’ whatever that actually means. We’re also told that Tidal will be ‘the first ever artist-owned global music and entertainment platform.’ Whether that means a revolutionary model where all artists get greater ownership of their music, or simply that Tidal is owned by some very rich people who happens to be artists remains to be seen. THE HAXAN CLOAK has already accused Tidal of ripping off his music without payment, which isn’t a great start for the platform’s attitude to musician solidarity. What we don’t know is what Tidal plans to pay artists per stream, and whether it will be more than Spotify’s much criticised rate. Moving into the realm of speculation, many people wonder if Tidal’s main selling point is that it will be able to boast exclusive access to a number of albums that its competitors will not. As soon as its launch was announced, there were rumours that KANYE WEST and RIHANNA’s highly anticipated new records would be released exclusively on Tidal on the same day (in the end this didn’t transpire: yet). There was also speculation that TAYLOR SWIFT’s in demand back catalogue, pulled from Spotify last year, would be available on the new service.
Game-changer or accelerated return to illegal downloading?
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about something that arrives with such fanfare and very little concrete information, and if Tidal were actually to put more control and money in the hands of musicians that would obviously be a fantastic development. However, another danger is that this marks the point where streaming service catalogues start to split up and fragment. If more and more artists start to sign exclusivity deals with different services, it’s easy to envisage a time in the near future where music fans will need accounts for various services to listen to the albums they want to, much like the way a television fan needed to purchase several different channels to watch the programs they wanted to in the satellite tv era. However, we live in the internet age, and the likelihood is that having to pay for multiple streaming accounts is too much for most music fans to tolerate, and many will simply go back to illegal downloading.
So whatever ground streaming services claim to have gained in the war against illegal downloading could easily be lost. There’s also the issue that this fragmentation and exclusivity deals will work much better for bigger artists. So TAYLOR SWIFT can license her albums to whatever streaming service she wants for whatever amount of money she demands, knowing that her popularity puts her in an enormously strong negotiating position. Your favourite indie band however, will have to sign for a streaming service for whatever money they can get, knowing that a divided market leads to a divided audience, and therefore less exposure and access to potential new, gig-going, LP-buying fans for their music. With Soundcloud and YouTube also entering the streaming market, things are set to change dramatically. Whether that’s for better or worse remains to be seen. But whatever you do, don’t get confused and accidentally donate to the #TIDALforALL campaign you might see trending on Twitter. The owners are the Top 5 earners in the music business, at least. JAY Z was recently estimated to be worth $510 million. He’s probably fine.