TIDAL Wave or Shallow Pool?

Will Jay-Z’s new streaming service deliver real change — or just more of the same?

What is Tidal? If you cared enough to click the link, you probably know that Tidal is the streaming music service, owned by Jay-Z and a number of other high profile artists, that “relaunched” today with a splashy press conference. An over-the-top array of music superstars joined Jay on stage, including Beyoncé, Usher, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West, J. Cole, Jack White and robot suit-wearers Daft Punk.

Jay bought Tidal’s parent company, Swedish music streaming company Aspiro, earlier this year. Tidal has technically been live since the fall of last year, but the promotions today are supposed to officially launch the site.

Tidal has a few selling points — the service offers two tiers, a $9.99/month tier that looks like pretty much every other streaming service, and a $19.99 tier that features high quality audio. Deezer tried something similar with “Deezer Elite” for its U.S. launch last year — and how many Deezer Elite users have you met in your travels?

Then, there are promises of exclusives, which make sense given all the high profile artists involved with the service. The only problem is that, as I’ve discussed before, exclusives aren’t all that valuable in the music world. Artificial scarcity in a world of unlimited content makes no sense at all. If Tidal can hoard content such that it becomes the only place to go in order to hear the vast majority of high profile artists, it has a shot, but that would mean defeating a number of streaming services already in the market. Tidal has exclusive concert videos from a handful of artists, as well as a playlist Beyoncé made, but I don’t know if that’s worth it for many people.

Watch the throne… [Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Roc Nation]

Is Tidal all that different from (Spotify, Rdio, Beats)? At this point, not really. The desktop site does include high quality official video, which is nice, but it wasn’t such a challenge to open up a YouTube window if you really wanted to watch a video. Otherwise, it’s more of the same — a bunch of playlists, new releases, and searchable catalogs. It seems as complete as all the other services. The user experience is fine. If you’ve used any other streaming service, you know what to expect.

I don’t think Tidal is trying to steal customers from Spotify or other streaming platforms. The market of people who have never used a streaming service is still massive, and up for grabs. One thing Tidal doesn’t have is a radio function, which puts it at a significant disadvantage when it comes to pulling in casual users who just want a lean-back, Pandora-style experience.

Tidal also supposedly pays more and is “artist-owned,” although the artist owners in question are people like Madonna and Kanye West, both of whom showed up for today’s press conference along with a number of other high-profile artists. Given the lack of ads and free tier (although they are offering 30 day free trials), scaling up to the point where they can pay artists substantially more than other services might be difficult.

One of the selling points is that Tidal is “artist-friendly,” but as plenty of people have pointed out, if the average person cared all that much about artist royalties, Napster never would have happened.

Rihanna and Deadmau5 at the Tidal press event [Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images For Roc Nation]
Billboard: “So, Tidal launches today. Creatively, what do you hope happens, beginning tomorrow?
Jay Z: Artists come here and start making songs 18 minutes long, or whatever. I know this is going to sound crazy, but maybe they start attempting to make a “Like a Rolling Stone,” you know, a song that doesn’t have a recognizable hook, but is still considered one of the greatest songs of all time, the freedom that this platform will allow art to flourish here. And we’re encouraging people to put it in any format they like. It doesn’t have to be three minutes and 30 seconds. What if it’s a minute and 17, what if it’s 11; you know, just break format. What if it’s just four minutes of just music and then you start rapping?”

I was actually planning on an April Fools prank where I broke the news that Spotify was buying SoundCloud, but this could be just as good. One thing that no streaming service has done is work with unofficial content, be it songs that an artist threw together in a studio and wants to release right away or remixes or anything of that nature. If Tidal can work with artists to release music that doesn’t fit the normal release format, that might be a massive selling point.

Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce take the music business seriously [Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images For Roc Nation]

Should we believe the hype? Look, we were all weirded out by that press conference. I saw Lady Gaga play piano at the Vevo party and got drunk at the Beyond Oblivion shindig — a great launch with tons of famous people does not a great product make. The product as it is now is decent, but not great. Having Kanye tweet about something gets you about a week of attention, if that.

In a way, Tidal is a product without an audience. Hardcore fans probably already use Spotify or Rdio and there’s not much to convince them to shift. Casual fans are using Pandora for background music. Older fans are probably beyond the point of signing up for something because someone famous promoted it. Younger fans weren’t really represented on stage, except by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Rock fans only got Arcade Fire (BTW, Win, please square your comments about broke artists “selling out” by accepting free burritos with your decision to own part of a streaming company) and Jack White, who now has interests in both vinyl pressing and streaming music. He’s the music version of the corporate exec who gives money to both parties, just to be sure.

The one big question is whether all the competition in the market will ever drive down prices. Apple wasn’t about to get to a cheaper tier for the Beats launch, and no one has cracked the $9.99 price point. By having a free tier, Spotify is still in a stronger position.

So, get it or skip it? By all means, get the free trial and give it a go. If you’re a real super audiophile, it might be worth it. Otherwise…I’d wait to see what Beats does and make a decision then.

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Follow Cortney Harding on Twitter @cortneyharding
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