Tidal Might Not Be Completely Evil

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It was a scene very easy to ridicule: sixteen multiplatinum musicians lined up on a stage, announcing the launch of a new streaming music service that costs twice as much as Spotify, and promising to “change the course of music history” before signing a high-minded Bill of Rights like they were the friggin’ Continental Congress.

Tidal is a streaming music service recently purchased by Jay-Z, who brought in a lot of heavy hitters, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Jack White, Kanye West, Daft Punk, and Alicia Keys, as partners. It purports to be the first artist-owned streaming service, and promises to pay artists more fairly than services like Spotify or Pandora, which famously streamed singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc’s song “Wake Me Up!” 168 million times and paid him a paltry $4,000.

Most people saw that objective as a tone-deaf plea for more money from the people who need it least; indeed, the people on the Tidal stage are just about the last 16 people artists to make real money in the music business. Oh, Madonna and Kanye don’t have enough money, so they want me to pay $20 a month?

 

My first reaction to this reaction: if you had told me when I was in high school and college (the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) that I could pay $20 a month to listen to literally anything I wanted literally anytime I wanted literally anywhere I wanted, I would have jumped at that deal. The older I get, the less dedicated a music consumer I seem to become, but through my teens and twenties I spent at least $50 a month, every month, on CDs and records. And I promise you, if I had had more, I would have spent more.

So the idea that people are bristling with indignance at the idea of paying $20 a month for a limitless music catalog that they can carry in their pocket says a lot about how dramatically people’s relationship to music has changed since the advent of mp3s and filesharing.

I personally am unlikely to subscribe to Tidal or any other premium streaming service, because 99% of the music I listen to is music I already own, either on vinyl (which is what I listen to most often), ripped CDs, or digital downloads. (Paid digital downloads, I should clarify; though I have danced with bittorrent on occasion, laziness generally makes me buy new stuff on iTunes, because it’s easy. But any kind of download of new music is a rarity for me. Most new music I buy is on vinyl.) But that just means I’m of a different generation. I’m not who Tidal is going after, and I have no real rooting interest in whether or not it succeeds, but it does point to some interesting trends in where the music industry is headed.

Firstly, “kajillionaires asking for more money” is the wrong way to look at it. Yes, Madonna has plenty of money. No, she doesn’t need any more. But there are a million less famous musicians out there who can’t even make a living because a whole generation has grown up expecting all music to be free and pitching fits like the ones above at the very idea of paying for it. By moving to a service that has no free option, and releasing ‘exclusive’ content there, these musicians are doing something that less famous musicians can’t: they’re putting real pressure on consumers to pay for that they use. If I decide that no one can stream my music for free, no one cares because I’m not famous, so no one hears my music in the first place, and I die penniless and insane. But if Beyoncé puts something up that you can only see with a Tidal subscription, that might persuade a Beyoncé superfan to subscribe to the service; once they’re on that service they might discover a new, less famous artist they like, and when they play that artist’s music, that artist is (theoretically) going to be fairly compensated, able to make a living, grow their fanbase, and keep the whole thing spinning.

There are certainly a million reasons to think this won’t work, starting with the idea that anything in digital form can ever be ‘exclusive,’ which is ridiculous. As long as music exists in digital form, it will be pirated. And it may be a little overoptimistic to think that people will pay a premium for higher-quality sound files, when most people listen through teeny-tiny earbuds and would never be able to tell a difference.

That aside, other than the few exclusives they are offering, there’s not much these artists can do to coerce their audience to use Tidal; for the moment the bulk of all their catalogs is available on Spotify and there’s not much they can do about it as long as they’re under contract with the major labels.

But that brings up another point, which is the waning need for record labels in the traditional sense. Once upon a time musicians needed record labels because they bore the costs of recording and manufacturing the physical product of a record, shipping that product out to retailers, and then publicizing those releases to get people to buy them. Recording costs have plummeted, as advancing technology makes it possible to record a good-sounding record just about anywhere; manufacturing is no longer even necessary, nor is distribution, thanks to the Internet; so publicity is really the only practical function a record label serves anymore, and there’s no reason to think that Tidal (or Beats Music, or Spotify, or Rdio) can’t take that kind of thing on and cut out the middleman completely.

That sounds great for the superfamous owners of the company, but what about unfamous artists who are trying to break through? Tidal apparently has plans for them too, as Jay-Z mentioned at a long Q&A about the service:

As well as having a discovery program, where established artists can take things that they like and just showcase them. It’s all about paying it forward and working very cyclically and discovering new music. Imagine if Win from Arcade Fire puts up an artist that he discovered in Haiti — and he had this idea, actually, I don’t want to step on his idea — and through the curation process gets something really good and introduces it to the world. And then the world is inspired by that sound. It gets a little ethereal from there, but just the possibilities of what Tidal can do are really exciting, on a creative front.

Who knows if this will actually come to fruition, but it seems to me that consumers will be more inclined to check out new artists endorsed by the people they’re already listening to than just seeing a billboard or banner ad somewhere.

Jay-Z has no record deal, so if he wants to go completely exclusive to Tidal he can do that, and I imagine that as their contracts expire all the other people at that press conference will follow suit, and sign with Tidal (or Beats Music, or Spotify, or Rdio) for more favorable profit-sharing arrangements, more creative control, better sound quality. (Consumers might not care about that last one so much, but you better believe that musicians do.)

From there, things get interesting: once labels are supplanted by streaming services, the market will splinter. Say your three favorite artists are Beck, Taylor Swift, and Jay-Z, because you are off your Risperdal. And let’s say Beck is on Spotify, Taylor Swift is on Beats, and Jay-Z is on Tidal. Are you going to have to subscribe to all three services to hear all the music you want, kind of like they people are now patching together VOD services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO NOW to get all the shows they like? Perhaps these imagined label/services will have to stick to genres, so hip-hop fans can subscribe to the hip-hop label and get everything they need there?

It all still pivots on whether or not a generation that has never paid for recorded music will change its ways. The answer may be to lower the price to a sweet spot where it’s cheap enough that more people will subscribe and thus bring in more overall revenue. That probably can’t happen as long as the traditional record labels are involved, though, as they need a slice of the pie big enough to both pay out the artists AND keep themselves in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.

I don’t know how it will all shake out, but all the signs point to the imminent obsolescence of the record companies, as we have traditionally known them, and to me that is nothing but good news.

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