At 5 p.m. in New York City on March 30, 2015, some of the most famous, wealthy musicians the world has ever known gathered to make planet Earth an offer they thought it couldn’t refuse. The offer came not from schlubs playing covers at open-mike nights, but from Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Madonna, Jack White, Kanye West and Daft Punk, among others. This was pop music’s A-list — artists making millions creating the soundtrack to lives of 6 billion people.
Their offer: Pay us.
What they’re selling is Tidal, a streaming service developed by Jay Z, which would do pretty much what Spotify does free of charge. But, at $10-per-month for compressed formats and $20-per-month for CD-quality streams, Tidal would — in plans only vaguely articulated so far — be owned by artists who get shares in the company in exchange for granting it the exclusive right to play their music.
The assembled luminaries offered something Spotify didn’t: a moral imperative.
“People are not respecting the music, and [are] devaluing it and devaluing what it really means,” Jay Z said, as Billboard reported. “People really feel like music is free, but will pay $6 for water. You can drink water free out of the tap, and it’s good water. But they’re okay paying for it. It’s just the mind-set right now.”
Many of the corners of the Internet suggested these musical Superfriends could, more or less, take their high-minded streaming service and stuff it.
“Only a few minutes ago, the entire music industry stood on a stage in a collective display of how rich and out of touch they are,” Gawker gawked. “They think you are willing to pay up to double the price of other streaming music services to pay for their streaming music service, because they are crazy.”
On social media, the hashtag #TIDALforALL quickly became the depository for off-the-cuff irony about the need for a new way to listen to music that only serves the 1 percent.
“Appreciate the collaboration, but #TIDALforALL more than anything benefits the artists that own it, not the consumer,” one Twitter user wrote. “So why should we care?”
Such criticism ignored the fact that, if musicians already making a great living fear streaming, those musicians struggling to make ends meet might have all the more reason to worry. Yet, the mounting attacks on Tidal turned into ad hominem attacks on Jay Z — with wife Beyoncé, half of the reigning king and queen of hip-hop culture, if not popular culture writ large.
“I think Jay Z is about to find out the limits of his celebrity,” David Pakman, a venture capitalist and former digital music executive, told the New York Times. “I am sure he will lure exclusive content onto the service but that will reach a limited audience.”
Even singer Lily Allen got in on the hate-fest.
“Maybe I’m missing something, and really its amazing and will change everything for the better,” she tweeted, “but, yeah i must be missing something.” (Allen later backtracked, saying in a subsequent tweet: “I think i may have spoken too soon, and that there is a lot to celebrate where TIDAL is concerned.”)
Yet for all the cynicism its launch provoked, Tidal comes at a time when musicians are thrust into a race to the bottom to get their music in front of listeners and find a way to get them to pay for it. With sales of physical music in the toilet — and Spotify paying as little as 0.6 cents per stream — artists have had to explore other ways of turning a riff into a dollar. Some hit the road. Some explore licensing for television, film and even advertising — a hustle once sniffed at by many.
Others — perhaps most notably, Taylor Swift — have pulled their music from Spotify in search of a better deal.
“Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently,” Swift wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece a few months before she said goodbye to the streaming service. Though Swift wasn’t at Jay Z’s news conference, some of her music is already available on Tidal.
“Music is art, and art is important and rare,” Swift added. “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.”
Tidal, it should be noted, is not Spotify’s only potential competitor. Apple, now owner of Beats, will be launching a streaming service — and don’t forget about Rhapsody and Google Play Music, among many others. It remains to be seen if Tidal can offer artists a better deal — and whether fans are aware enough of the brutal economics of streaming for artists to turn Tidal into a tidal wave.
“You go to work you get paid,” Jay Z told Billboard. “That’s fair trade. It’s what our country is built on.”