tidal blueout

We used to listen to a few songs repeatedly. Now we can listen to more songs, with fewer repetitions.Washington Post

In its latest campaign, TIDAL describes itself as “the future of music streaming.” The service was relaunched this past Monday, months after a $56 million dollar buyout of its Swedish parent company, Aspiro, by none other than Jay-Z’s S. Carter Enterprises, LLC. The move, along with support from and/or co-ownership by prominent artists including Kanye West, Daft Punk, Calvin Harris, and Jack White, is expected to significantly increase TIDAL’s number of users — which currently sits relatively pitifully at around 17,000.

TIDAL’s standard streaming is on par with Spotify Premium, price-wise, with similar downloading and offline-streaming permissions and library-size (25 million tracks reported by TIDAL, 20M by Spotify). TIDAL does not offer a free option (though they are currently providing new users with a free trial period) and instead stresses its high-fidelity lossless option priced at $19.99 per month.

From the numbers, this did not immediately cause penniless audiophiles to flock to the scene. TIDAL did, however, catch the attention of Mr. Carter, who has now set out on a mission to take the platform mainstream, starting with a swift social media takeover not unlike those employed by solidarity movements.

TIDAL now has deals with many major record labels and recording artists who will be releasing new material via the service before letting it stream elsewhere. It is co-owned by artists organized into shareholder tiers and also claims to give higher cuts from streaming to artists and labels. They’ve pitched it well; I can’t help but think, here lies an opportunity for artists to reclaim music streaming.

It’s a heavy debate, and the side I often choose to argue surprises some. I speak from the perspective of an observer who, given the option, chooses not to stream. I have a Spotify account because a friend once sent me a playlist via the platform, but I don’t use the service.

Prior to September 2014, the option was not as widespread in my native Canada as it was elsewhere. Spotify, the Sweden-based company that “revolutionized” the music industry, was relatively unheard of outside Scandinavia, Western Europe, Oceania, and the US until mid-2013 when it expanded into countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Mexico. At Christmas of that year, executives were toasting to the addition of Caribbean and African nation-states, among others.

While Nicaragua was jamming to some 20 million tracks, I arrived a freshman in Berkeley — a campus that placed 13th in a list of top streaming schools — sporting a carefully-curated iTunes library 6000 strong. Maybe it’s a matter of early exposure — to this day, streaming feels wrong to those of us who took quickly to MP3s and other digital formats.

Björk, when explaining why Vulnicura was not released on Spotify, put it this way: “It’s not about the money; it’s about respect, you know? Respect for the craft and the amount of work you put into it.”

To this end of artistry, preview platforms (NPR First Listen, NY Times Press Play, Pitchfork Advance, and Hype Machine Premiere, among others) are an excellent application — in the digital age, these serve the same purpose as listening booths at a record shop. Further, some of these services also do not allow you to skip from track to track, preserving creative decisions. If managed properly, these streams become unavailable after the release date.

The long-term, on-demand availability of full discographies on streaming services like Spotify and Rdio, oftentimes without charge, is something else entirely. For most, the main selling point of these services is convenience. For others, it’s the non-existent or severely discounted flat rate at which they receive 20 million tracks on demand. These features have fundamentally changed the way we listen to music.

Streaming services, one could argue, exist in a realm where art is accessible, not excludable; shared, not “owned.” But there are better options for exploration: discovery-based aggregators such as Hype Machine, digital troves such as Soundcloud, and radio (old-school and Internet) are known to have suggestion algorithms superior to streaming-based services.

We tend to fall into two camps on the issue: casual listeners are quicker to embrace the latest convenience in listening culture, while more conscious listeners are likely to feel uneasy, cautious about new developments. Figures reported to us by our musical idols do little to ease the fear that streaming exploits artists, composers, lyricists, production crew, and session musicians. Says Jay-Z in an interview with Billboard, “I can go on tour, but what about the people working on the record, the content creators and not just the artists?”

Canada was Spotify’s 58th conquest. Which, at first seems odd, but it is then revealed that the delay is associated with royalties and cuts. A May decision by the Copyright Board of Canada to pass the controversial Tariff 8 was the catalyst in this move. All music henceforth streamed in the country amounts to $0.00012 per play for the artist — one of the lowest rates in the world.

Even with bottom-of-the-ladder royalties, streaming services have not proven profitable. Founder Daniel Ek has stated that Spotify’s success and better payouts remain in the future. In this interview with CNN, he puts the number at 40 million paid subscribers, while the service reported 60 million subscribers total this January. With one in four paying for Premium, it could take decades for the service to generate sizeable returns for its clients. The expansion of existing streaming services and the entry of new ones, such as TIDAL, are largely funded indirectly or by speculative investment.

Despite this, an Apple Beats revamp is still in the works with poster child Trent Reznor — it keeps getting halted in its attempt to lower the price of service below $10mo. Is this combination of cutthroat competition and increasing industry corporatism among major labels the “race to the bottom” of the music industry?

The mission of making arts accessible to all is not ill-founded, but in a capitalist economy, its implementation is tricky. We treat music as a product, not a service: we pay for the material and the labour put into creating it is not always reflected. Both the product and its creators are economically exploitable, teetering between being treated as a basic necessity and as an exclusive intellectual property.

At the price of a single CD per month, streaming has made music more affordable now than it has ever been.

It would seem that there is no going back, but we are quick to forget that streaming first championed itself as an alternative to early 2000s downloading platforms such as Napster. Which is to say, though it is a stretch, it is not impossible to adjust consumer expectations.

There are beneficial uses of streaming. Ultimately, it is a well-intentioned technological effort to make music more accessible, and I expect TIDAL — based on its collective ownership, claimed payouts, and elimination of a free option — to move casual listeners towards more conscious consumption, at the very least. With well-endowed individuals covering its large upfront costs in a competitive market, TIDAL already has one advantage against other streaming giants, and yes, there is potential for it to be the “future of music streaming,” now.

That is, if it stays true to its claims and doesn’t sabotage itself.

Article by Joanna Jiang

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