Usher, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West, Jay Z, and J. Cole onstage at the Tidal launch event at Moynihan Station in New York. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Roc Nation)

Tidal, the new streaming service recently purchased and launched by Jay Z and his merry band of musical super friends, did not have the best launch event this week. The service was met with rampant skepticism. Critics noted the self-aggrandizing nature of the video that accompanied the launch in which Jay Z said Tidal would “change the course of history” and the service was referred to as the “final frontier.”

The introduction of the streaming service, which will charge $9.99 per month for a standard streaming subscription and $19.99 per month for lossless streaming — that is, streaming with CD-quality sound rather than the compressed stuff our ears have grown so accustomed to hearing — raises many questions, the answers to which have become somewhat clearer over the past few days.

Why would you switch from Spotify or Google Play to Tidal?

Jay Z and the rest of the artists who now own Tidal are banking that you’ll be lured by three main things :

  • A sense of ethics, i.e. a willingness to see musicians actually make some respectable royalties from music streaming, which they currently do not.
  • Exclusive content / hearing directly from artists
  • Assuming you subscribe to the premium service, higher sound quality
Is the audio quality a real issue?

Sure. But this is a perfectly valid question given the massive amounts of criticism thrown at Neil Young’s Pono Player following its debut.

[Related: Neil Young raises $6.2 million, releases a portable music player called Pono, and my 4-year-old can’t tell the difference]

Most of the music on Spotify streams at 320 KBPS, which means that some of the sound quality is sacrificed in order to compress the sound to stream it to you over the Internet. The better the quality, the more bandwith it takes up.

You know how Netflix recently launched an ultra-HD tier for people who want to watch the service in 4K on their fancy 4K televisions? Tidal’s premium service is roughly the same thing, but for music. It’s asking consumers to pay $20 a month to stream CD-quality sound, which is 1,411 KBPS, and the highest-quality sound human ears can actually discern. Anything more than that is just gilding the lily, and no one would be able to tell the difference anyhow.

This is where Young, and his Pono Player, which purported to offer high-definition, or high-resolution sound, got into trouble. He was offering a music player that could play songs, supposedly, at a much higher sound quality than 1,411 KBPS, except no human can tell the difference.

Gizmodo said Young was “peddling junk science” and ArsTechnica called the Pono Player “a refreshing drink of snake oil.”

Comparatively, Tidal seems to be on the up-and-up. You could say its premium service makes sense for audiophiles who already spend obscene amounts of money on stereo equipment. The rest of us plebes can probably get by with the $10 subscription.

Isn’t this just a bunch of already-rich artists enriching themselves?

Tidal is owned by artists, including 12 who are the founding investors, plus four more second-tier investors. Jay Z has said the group wants more artists to invest. They’ve want to include independent artists, even if they’re still figuring out how to do that. Even though Jay Z doesn’t want to admit it outright, Tidal is coming for Spotify’s lunch, or at least a piece of it, albeit in a curated, precious-Brooklyn sort of way. And he definitely thinks he’s got a certain moral argument on his side.

“You don’t want to single anyone out, per se — but currently we pay the highest royalty percentage,” he said at an event at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where he and Tidal executive Vania Schlogel answered pre-vetted questions from a group of students. “And there is no free tier service. If you have 5 people paying for music, and 10 people consuming it, then the artist starts at -5. We start at 1. There is no free tier and we’ll pay the highest royalty percentage.”

Fader transcribed the entire event. It’s worth a read.

So, if Tidal can successfully bring in a bunch of musicians who aren’t necessarily giant superstars, but still have respectable followings, that could be really meaningful.

Schlogel elaborated in an interview with Billboard:

Okay, these are established artists who care enough about the sustainability of the industry, stepping out on a limb and doing this. Of course there are going to be people who are cynical. But look, at the end of the day, if any established artist goes out and gets an endorsement deal — no one’s gonna criticize them for that because that’s how they make money. But if an established artist goes out and steps outside of the box and says, “I’m trying something different,” that invites criticism. There is some bravery for what these artists are trying to do. Its not to fill their own pockets, it’s to create a sustainable industry.

By virtue of that definition, because that is our thesis, if we’re not treating music like a loss leader, then that’s good for indie artists, emerging artists, songwriters, producers. Music is a whole industry and it takes money. The reality is it takes money to create music. It doesn’t just happen for free. We want to make sure music continues to be made, that songwriters are able to actually write songs rather than having to say, “I do a 9-to-5 in New York, and don’t have time to write songs.” That doesn’t make it a sustainable industry.

Why was Alicia Keys quoting Nietzsche at a press conference launching a streaming music service?

If nothing else, we have learned this the bunch takes themselves very, very seriously, which may sound crazy to the public at large. But in a way, Jay Z is appealing to artists first, and perhaps the public’s sense of ethics second. If the point was to say to other musicians, “If you feel this way too, join our team!” they may end up being really effective.

Is this just going to lead to further fragmentation in the way people consume music, similar to what’s happened with television?

Well, there’s already fragmentation. Taylor Swift famously pulled all her music from streaming services, though she has granted Tidal access to her catalog, with the exception of “1989,” her most recent album. The Black Keys did not release their 2014 album “Turn Blue” on the streaming sites, and Beyoncé, Coldplay, and Adele withheld albums from Spotify before granting access to them eventually — a practice known as “windowing.” It’s almost impossible to find all the music you want in one place. Garth Brooks won’t even bother with iTunes — he sells his music directly through GarthBrooks.com, which has its own disadvantages. This is what happened when I tried, repeatedly, to purchase a bundle of Brooks’s music from his site recently:


For musicians who are dubious about free or freemium streaming, or who simply want more control over their art, Tidal could hold some appeal. It depends on how much Tidal takes off, and if it really does offer a better, and more sustainable deal for artists.

Will this whole thing be a colossal disaster?

That’s always a possibility. But there’s a good chance Jay Z knows how to navigate this landscape better than Neil Young.