You would think Jay Z would be too big to fail. But apparently, you would be wrong.
In March, the man with the Midas touch launched Tidal, a high-fidelity music and video streaming service, at a major media event surrounded by some of the biggest names in pop music, among them Madonna, Jay’s wife, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Rihanna and, incongruously, Jack White, all of whom are shareholders in the new company. Keys quoted Nietzsche, and frames the event as some sort of blow against the empire on behalf of musicians. She was not specific regarding how a new music streaming company would be part of the implied revolution.
In April, Jay Z offered a tweet that posited Tidal as a game-changer, when it comes to royalty rates paid to artists, which are notoriously slim in the case of Tidal’s forbears, Spotify chief among them. “Tidal pays 75% royalty rate to ALL artists, writers and producers – not just the founding members on stage,” Jay’s tweet read. Impressive, but sadly, not exactly true. Tidal will pay 75 percent royalty rate on the music it offers, but most of that money will go to the record labels, who will then dole out a much smaller percentage to the artists, according to Tidal chief investment offer Vania Schlogel, who clarified Jay’s tweet during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. This means that Tidal is not setting any new trends when it comes to royalty rates paid to artists by streaming services.
Jay Z, who has been successful from the moment he became a businessman, seems to have at long last displayed a chink in his armor. Tidal has earned him a major critical backlash.
It didn’t help matters that Tidal was launched via an entirely hubristic news conference that found some of the wealthiest people in the entertainment industry gathering together to lament the paltry royalty rates doled out by streaming services. Those lousy royalty rates are a serious issue, but they are a serious issue for artists who fall outside of the protective financial bubble of mega-stardom. Are we really supposed to feel sorry for Madonna, who is worth $800 million, to say nothing of Jay Z and Beyoncé, whose combined worth is estimated at $1 billion, according to Wealth-X.com?
Tidal took a serious bashing in the music press, and not primarily from journalists – mostly, musicians were the ones making the noise. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie was perhaps the most on-point of the bunch: “If I had been Jay Z, I would have brought out 10 artists that were underground or independent and said, ‘These are the people who are struggling to make a living in today’s music industry’,” Gibbard said in an interview with the Daily Beast.
“Whereas this competitor streaming site pays this person 15 cents for X amount of streams, that same amount of streams on my site, on Tidal, will pay that artist this much … I think they totally blew it by bringing out a bunch of millionaires and billionaires and propping them up on stage and then having them all complain about not being paid.”
Not to be outdone, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons vented spleen to the same publication.
“What I’m not into is the tribalistic aspect of it – people trying to corner bits of the market, and put their face on it,” Mumford said. “That’s just commercial (expletive). We hire people to do that for us rather than having to do that ourselves. We just want to play music, and I don’t want to align myself with Spotify, Beats, Tidal, or whatever. We want people to listen to our music in their most comfortable way, and if they’re not up for paying for it, I don’t really care.”
I signed up for Tidal, primarily to see what all the fuss was about. I found a collection of music that was paltry, compared to the one I’ve amassed through my subscriptions to Rdio and Spotify. The streaming quality for the standard audio subscription did not strike me as superior to the other streaming sites. The video component, however, is more impressive – these actually are high-definition, and feature some of the “exclusive to Tidal” content Jay Z has bragged about. (Although the video of Nikki Minaj and guest Beyoncé acting their way through “Feeling Myself” did little other than remind how truly and cloyingly self-aggrandizing music videos can be.) Other exclusive content at present includes videos featuring Jay Z, Jason Aldean and a few others, none of whom remotely fit the struggling artist bill.
Pricewise, Tidal isn’t breaking down any walls, either. The subscription rate for high-def audio and video streaming is $19.99 a month. Regular lousy-sounding – or standard quality – streaming will pull $9.99 a month from your pocket. You can sign up for a free trial period, but you’ll need to throw down some plastic to do so – the onus will then be on you to cancel your membership, lest you be automatically charged the monthly fee. None of this is any different from any of the streaming sites I’ve encountered.
So Tidal would appear to be more of the same. High-def audio is better than standard audio, certainly, but you will practically trip over the number of digital radio stations already offering free high-def audio, if you do a simple Google search.
What does Tidal get you that you can’t get elsewhere? The pleasure of giving Jay Z and his shareholders more money. That’s about it. That group represents the richest 1 percent of the music industry already, so why bother?
Artists aren’t getting anything they can’t get elsewhere, either. It’s the same old song. The artist-friendly revolution, if it ever comes, will not be streamed.