On Monday, hip-hop mogul Jay Z and a parade of superstars announced the official launch of the rebranded music streaming service Tidal in New York City. Alongside the rapper were other pop icons and shareholders in the service: Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Madonna, Beyoncé, and more—with Keys proclaiming the venture as representing the dawn of a new era for the music industry in the wake of the streaming music boom.
“Tidal is dedicated to cultivating a sound business enterprise that promotes the health and sustainability of our art and our industry around the world,” Keys said during her address to the attendees. “We believe it is in everyone's interest—fans, artists and the industry as a whole—to preserve the value of music and to ensure a healthy and robust industry for years to come.”
Services like Spotify have come under criticism from artists who feel they are grossly underpaid for streams. The popular service boasts 60 million users, with 15 million opting for paid service. Tidal currently has just over 500,000 users. There were also intimations that Tidal would feature exclusive artist content, with no exact specifics outlined. Stars like Jack White, Rihanna, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and Nicki Minaj are also to be shareholders in the company; according to Billboard, each artist was gifted 3 percent equity in Tidal.
While it could be argued that the awkward spectacle of the launch was unnecessary and the “for the artist, by the artist” posturing is a bit naïve, the launch of Tidal does present an interesting avenue for certain artists to try to maintain a sustained revenue stream for their life’s work. But does anyone really believe that the public is ready to pay as much as $24.99 a month to stream music just because cool pop stars vouch for it and it offers HQ audio?
Part of Tidal’s big pitch is its emphasis on sound quality—it streams FLAC files instead of the inferior-yet-more-common MP3 format—but there is no clear indicator as to whether the general public will be all that enthused about better audio. For many streaming sites, offering better sound has led to a significant but not remarkable uptick. “Going after the audio enthusiast market, we added 200,000 subscribers just from September through January,” Deezer CEO Tyler Goldman told Billboard. “It’s small—it’s not an enormous audience—but it shows that it was an un-met need.”
Jay Z’s partnerships with corporate giants have often featured campaigns that emphasize Jay’s tastemaker status as an arbiter of “cool” for a generation. His purchase of Swedish tech company Aspiro was relatively low-key (“We wanted to do it right without interference”) leading up to Monday’s glitzy announcement; but it’s pretty standard at this point for Hov to remind you that he’s got some pretty famous friends when he’s trying to bring you onboard his latest venture.
But he’s also got some uber-powerful rivals.
The launch of the rebranded Tidal isn’t the only major shakeup in streaming platforms this year; one of the most anticipated is Apple’s expected relaunch of Beats Music in 2015. The prospect of competing with Jimmy Iovine was one Jay addressed in an interview with Billboard just before the launch.
“My thing with Jimmy is, ‘Listen, Jimmy; you’re Jimmy Iovine, and you’re Apple, and truthfully, you’re great. You guys are going to do great things with Beats, but … you know, I don’t have to lose in order for you guys to win, and let’s just remember that,’” Jay explained. “Again, I’m not angry. I actually told him, ‘Yo, you should be helping me. This is for the artist. These are people that you supported your whole life. You know, this is good.’”
Jay Z’s clout as an artist and visibility as a celebrity give him a certain kind of leverage in the public space; after all, guys like Jimmy Iovine don’t have a devoted base of millions who grew up quoting them. But the fact that he’s an artist—specifically, a very successful hip-hop artist—means that Jay’s unabashed capitalism is sometimes viewed as a hindrance to his integrity. He was famously criticized for declaring “My presence is charity” after activist-entertainer Harry Belafonte took him and Beyoncé to task for what Belafonte perceived as a lack of concern for social advocacy. When Jay Z donated “We Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to the Brooklyn Nets, his sincerity was questioned when photos surfaced of him posing with the players but not wearing the shirt himself. Jay Z’s famous adage that he’s “a business, man” has come to define his public image. In the minds of many, he’s Donald Trump with hit records.
But Jay Z’s never apologized for or shied away from his business ambitions. And no one should ask him to. You don’t have to believe he’s some sort of rap game Robin Hood, fighting the good fight for the benefit of the little guy. He does what he does to succeed—no different than the Lyor Cohens and Lucian Grainges of the industry. However one may feel about Jay Z the philanthropist or Jay Z the celebrity, should we resent an artist who elbowed his way into that kind of industry space?
And this could work. And Tidal could be a largely beneficial venture for artists, writers, and producers. Will it make Jay Z a lot of money? Absolutely. But we seem to be OK with purchasing goods that make someone rich—the public consumes daily. The people don’t appear to care about starving artists any more than we do uber-wealthy ones. It’s hypocritical to be snide about the intentions of superstars when so much of the general public has adopted the idea that it is somehow entitled to free music.
“I’m just saying the producers and people who work on music are getting left out—that’s when it starts getting criminal,” Jay told Billboard. “It’s like you’re working hard and you’re not receiving. In any other business people would be standing before Congress. They have antitrust laws against this kind of behavior. It almost seems like when it applies to music no one really cares who’s cheated. It’s so disorganized; it’s so disconnected from reality.”
Stories of artists knocked about mercilessly by the whims of the music industry are a common part of our culture and have been for generations. Whether or not you truly believe that Tidal can be everything Jay Z proclaims it could be, it is significant that Jay Z continues to push to remain a decider in an industry where artists are typically left out of that space. Jay Z’s success makes him somewhat unsympathetic, but that success is what makes it possible for him to be in a position of commercial influence. In the same way that it seems juvenile to punish LeBron James for attaining enough power to determine his own fate as a basketball player, we shouldn’t be so eager to cynically dismiss Jay Z for putting himself on the path to control what happens next in music distribution.
Whether or not anyone chooses to make the leap to Tidal shouldn’t be predicated on naiveté. Fans can bask in audial bliss while being hopeful that artists are being compensated fairly; but don’t assume streaming Deadmau5 on Tidal makes you part of a revolution. And our estimation of Tidal and Jay Z’s latest move should also not be predicated on a deep cynicism that says he has to remain in an artist’s place or live up to some higher standard than the other businesspeople in the room.
Can’t deny his ambition. Can’t knock his hustle.