Friday April 03, 2015

Is Jay Z's Tidal a music revolution or dead in the water?

Rapper Jay-Z launched the Tidal streaming music service this week.

Rapper Jay-Z launched the Tidal streaming music service this week. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Listen 9:14

They called it "historic." "The beginning of a new era." "The last stand." "A great movement." "A game changer." 

In a video and press conference this week, Jay Z, Beyonce, Rihanna, Jack White, Madonna, Chris Martin, Usher, Daft Punk, Alicia Keyes and the other A-list co-owners toasted the launch of Tidal, their new music streaming site. They say other streaming platforms, like industry-leader Spotify, don't pay artists fairly and that Tidal will be different. The launch was roundly mocked online as being out-of-touch, money-driven, and delusional. 

For double the price of a Spotify subscription, Tidal offers exclusive content and high-quality "lossless" audio, while promising to better compensate musicians for their work. But will music fans and new artists buy in? 

Music critic Geeta Dayal isn't so sure. Brent Bambury got her take on Tidal's sound and fury. 

BB: The artists backing Tidal are talking about it like it's a revolution. Is it? 

GD: I don't think so. I'm enormously skeptical of Tidal. They're entering a very crowded market that's going to get even more crowded in the coming months. This is just more noise. I mean, it's loud noise but it's more noise to add to the pile.

But is it deluded noise? I mean, when you look at the promo video that they showed us this week with their top-tier artists kissing each other on the cheek and clinking champagne glasses and Beyonce - in fur - talking about an "ego-less" and "historic" collaboration, what did you make of all of that sound and fury?

I thought it was just a bunch of pomp and circumstance. You know, that silly declaration that they were signing... I mean the whole thing was just open to being lampooned, and it was on the Internet. But if I was a struggling indie artist right now, my question would be, what does Tidal have to offer me? What does Jay Z have to offer me? I am honestly unclear. The way that Beyonce even worded it, almost making it sound like it was a new era for the civil rights movement or something, this ridiculous revolutionary rhetoric. She's so completely out of touch with what the average musician wants or needs. 

A big part of what they're selling to music fans is this whole idea of "lossless" sound - really high-quality sound. Does that kind of sound quality make a difference to the average music listener, and do they have the kind of technology that they need to appreciate it?

I mean, Jay Z's latest album was awful. Listening to that in lossless audio versus listening to that on a cruddy You Tube stream? Both versions are going to sound terrible. So, honestly, I mean with lossless audio there are records where that matters, and there are records where it may not matter. 

It's better to take a loss. 

Absolutely. Most people do not care about how high quality their audio stream is, as evidenced by how popular listening to albums is on YouTube, or using Bluetooth in your car, so it doesn't really make sense for the average person who is on the go - unless they have some extremely highly ridiculously advanced secret technology that we don't know about which is going to enable this to be possible.

We're talking about Jay Z and Beyonce so they very well may... 

Absolutely, absolutely. Daft Punk, you know, they could be hiding this technology behind those helmets. We have no idea. 

So they're offering this lossless audio at twice the price of a Spotify subscription. How do those two services compare?

I honestly don't think people are going to pay double the amount of money for high quality audio. We have to remember too that Spotify's advantage isn't just that they have 60 million subscribers right now - admittedly many of those are free subscribers. However, Spotify also has enormous technological advantage. Spotify acquired a very smart company called The Echo Nest and they are a music intelligence company that will bring Spotify to new heights when it comes to music recommendations. Because people aren't just tuning into streaming to listen to Taylor Swift. They want to know what to listen to next after Taylor Swift. 

But artists have complained for a long time about the raw deal that they get from streaming - and not just Taylor Swift who famously cut ties with Spotify because she didn't think that it was paying artists enough for their work. A lot of other very high-profile and respected artists have made this point. Couldn't this allegiance of top artists be at some point a good thing for the music industry?

Yeah, I think so. I think what they did demonstrate in a very strong way is the extreme dissatisfaction of the top .00001 percent of recording musicians who are upset with the way that streaming is going. Jay Z has been very forceful in the few interviews he's done when talks about how one artist had 168 million plays and only got $4,000. And he said, 'Well this has to stop. We can't have this anymore.' And then he said, 'Well, you know, people pay six dollars for a bottle of water but they won't pay that for music.' And I'm like, what world is Jay Z living in where water costs $6? He's clearly in this rarefied world that we do not live in.

I keep going back to how much satire there was of the event itself. But some fans really did take issue with the way that it was put out by the artists involved. Arcade Fire asked their fans to show support for Tidal which is wording that's usually reserved for a social movement or a charity, not for a business. What do you think about that? Are artists that out of touch?

Well, I think that they have very strong reasons to be upset about all of the new streaming services and I think many of them definitely feel that they don't have enough control, currently, over the way that music is going. The thing that's weird is as much as Jay Z's been talking about this radical transparency and this new paradigm, he's made absolutely no reference to numbers, to actual royalty rates, none of that stuff. So if I'm an indie artist and my music's on Tidal, what percentage am I getting? Right now we have absolutely no idea. And what does it mean for Rihanna and Jay Z and Beyonce and the rest to all have a ownership stake in Tidal? What are they getting out of it? And also, honestly, if you're an artist on the street, if you're an indie artist, Jay Z? I mean, in 2015 is he somebody you trust more than some random corporate head honcho? I'm not even sure. Jay Z to me is almost indistinguishable at this point from any corporate geezer. 

Meet the new boss same as the old boss.

Geeta, thank you for talking to us. 

Oh anytime. Thank you.