What Is Tidal? Has Jay Z Revolutionized Subscription Music Services?

At a major press event yesterday, Jay Z relaunched the Tidal brand. But what, exactly, IS Tidal anyway?

Well, in short, Tidal is a competitor to Spotify and Pandora that not many in the mainstream knew about until Jay Z acquired it for a whopping $56 million. His intention with the acquisition seems to be to offer a model that allows artists to actually profit off of their music more so than they have been through the Spotify and Pandora models, which have been scrutinized in the media for low royalty payments in the past.

Of course, no one was expecting that Jay Z’s solution to the problem was to announce that the artists themselves would have a stake in the company.

At the #TIDALforALL launch event at Skylight at Moynihan Station in New York City, Jay Z was joined onstage by Beyonce, Chris Martin, Madonna, Rihanna, Kanye West, Usher, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Daft Punk, J. Cole, Jack White, Jason Aldean, Arcade Fire’s own Win Butler and Régine Chassagn, deadmau5, and Calvin Harris. At first, it seemed that they were simply there to promote the new service, but it was eventually announced that their role was far bigger.

As it turns out, each of the artists who appeared onstage with Jay Z have 3% equity in Tidal, as the company becomes “the first-ever artist-owned global music and entertainment platform.” Alicia Keys would take the stage at the event and declare, “We want to create a better service and better experience for fans and for artists.”

A “better experience,” in this case, means higher sound quality. On the one hand, this new Tidal now offers a $9.99 monthly subscription for standard-definition sound quality, with cuts the normal subscription rate in half to allow the company to compete with Spotify in the marketplace. However, Tidal will retain the $20 HiFi subscription option, which offers “Lossless High Fidelity sound quality. High definition music videos” and “Expertly curated editorial.”

The high-definition audio quality is an experience Tidal hopes will differentiate it from Spotify and Pandora, as more people are shown to be willing to shell out a little more for a high-def experience, whether it’s in television, film, or even music. This is also Tidal’s big incentive to consumers, since they can’t offer the benefit of exclusivity. The artists’ respective record labels would never allow their hitmakers to fork over exclusive streaming rights to a service that has only half a million current subscribers. Hell, even if the numbers go up, it seems unlikely that the labels will change their stance when it comes to their current chart-toppers.

That said, Tidal is looking into more benefits than simply audio quality. Music videos, studio sessions, demo tracks, fan interaction, and other exclusive bonus content is expected to be offered in the coming months. As for now, current perks for the service include Daft Punk’s feature-length film, Electroma, unreleased footage from Alicia Keys’s Madison Square Garden concert from 2012, and Rihanna’s new single, “B— Better Have My Money”. One of the goals here seems to be to encourage artists to be more interactive with their fandom, offering new perks as opportunity dictates. Naturally, these artists have more of an incentive, considering their stake in the company. But this is something that will also allow Tidal to feel more like an online base of operations for major artists, since it would have been simpler to prevent something like, say, the Kendrick Lamar album leak if he had been staggering the release of tracks through a service like Tidal, instead of going directly through his record label (then again, this isn’t really an issue if you believe Kendrick’s album “leak” was a carefully planned released strategy).

At the very least, Tidal will encourage passion for music over passion for profit.

“I think it’s one of the things that sets us aside from someone that’s a tech company that is selling advertisement or selling hardware. Right now, they are writing a story for us. We need to write the story for ourselves,” Jay Z said in a video promoting the service.

He would go on to say, at the event, “This thing was the thing that everyone wanted and everyone feared. If these artists can sit in the room together … the game changed forever, and it happened today.”

Tidal Launch Event NYC #TIDALforALL

Credit: Roc Nation

In essence, Jay Z may have just revolutionized the streaming subscription music market by making the artists such an integral part of the operation itself. It’s offering an unprecedented level of respect to the artists, enough so that Taylor Swift has agreed to allow her music to be streamed on the service. This is significant since Taylor had her music pulled from Spotify on the belief that it marginalized the work of the artists. While part of it was a matter of profits, it was also about the principle of streaming companies undervaluing an artist’s contribution. Alicia Keys’s speech at the event touched on this, noting that Tidal sought to “preserve” the value of music.

It was a statement that very much lined up with Jay Z’s beliefs, considering the fear that, if left unchecked, the current streaming model could be a death knell for the music industry.

“We saw the movement and how everything was going and figured that this could possibly be the last music format that we see in this lifetime,” Jay Z said in an interview with Billboard. “We didn’t like the direction music was going and thought maybe we could get in and strike an honest blow and if the very least we did was make people wake up and try to improve the free-versus-paid system, and promote fair trade, then it would be a win for us anyway.”

“Will artists make more money? Even if it means less profit for our bottom line, absolutely,” Jay Z added. “That’s easy for us. We can do that. Less profit for our bottom line, more money for the artist; fantastic.”

While Tidal is FAR behind services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Beats (hell, even Deezer!), this seems to be less about being No. 1 in the market and more about offering an alternative for people who want to listen to good music without fear that the artists are being marginalized in the process. If it’s a success, Tidal could revolutionize the streaming music market for artists seeking fair compensation for their artistry. And if enough artists demand a change, those other services just might have to play catch-up in order to stay on top of the industry. While that could mean higher subscription fees to offset the cost of paying the artists fair, I don’t think it’d be the end of the world. After all, it’s kind of ridiculous that Pharrell Williams made less than $3000 for over 40 million streams of “Happy” on Pandora.

While it remains to be seen whether or not Jay Z’s approach changes the game, he has potentially changed the conversation, as the focus falls back onto the artists.

But what do you think? Is Tidal going to change things? Or is it just another digital streaming service? Sound off in the comments!

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