Lots of people have been chuckling this week over the relative fortunes of Tidal, the music streaming service owned by Jay Z and launched a few weeks back via an extra-goofy meeting of the College of Cardinals. Most of the pointing and laughing is over the fact that Tidal’s app has fallen out of the iTunes Top 700, dropping it well below competitors like Spotify. That pile-on was compounded by the fact that Kanye West appeared to be distancing himself from the service, and the fact that Spotify just got a ton more funding, officially making it more valuable than the entire music industry (which is, of course, an untenable bubble). Not even the rumor that a supposed forthcoming Jay/Beyoncé collaboration album would be showing up as an exclusive on the service could keep people happy. Though it’s only a few weeks old, Tidal is already being associated with the word “flop.”
Not to come to the defense of a billionaire cabal (the members of which should dry their tears with their gold doubloons), but the attacks on Tidal are mildly unfair. It was always going to be a niche product, as the biggest draw is the ability to stream hi-def tracks that are near-CD quality. That privilege will cost the consumer twice as much as a Spotify account (though you can still pay Tidal the industry-standard $9.99 a month for lesser-quality tracks), something that not a whole lot of people are willing to do. Despite the insistence by folks like Neil Young that we’ve been listening to music all wrong for most of the 21st century, only a very small segment of the population cares about sonic fidelity enough to fork over absurd gobs of money for what amounts to a slightly better digital experience. (As many have noted, those who truly care about high-quality sound just go ahead and opt for vinyl.)
So much of the conversation around streaming services is about payment to artists, and the Internet is choked with stories from musicians who have made next-to-nothing despite heavy streaming volume through various services. One of Tidal’s selling points was that it would be better for artists, and they would be sending a greater slice of the economic pie back to the creators.
But conversations about payment always miss the central point: In the overwhelming number of cases, artists are not hamstrung and penniless because of streaming services, but instead remain victims of label agreements and publishing deals. In most cases, payout rates are set by the labels based on contracts with individual artists, so any economic-based anger should be levied at the labels making the deals with Spotify or Tidal, not the services who are merely taking advantage of a broken system.
The busted nature of the music business is why the success or failure of Tidal is meaningless, because streaming is not the answer and will not fix anything. When it debuted, Spotify was treated as the ideal compromise between musicians who wanted to be compensated for their work and an audience who had mostly had access to a massive swath of pop music for well below retail rates. Here was a service that charged only a few bucks (or your attention for some ads), and in exchange you had consistent access to a huge catalog of songs (with some gigantic gaps, of course). Money would be doled out based on some sort of merit-based system, where streaming volume would equal big money for artists—or at least more than they would be making if their stuff was merely uploaded to YouTube or torrented illegally.
But streaming is simply another extension of a music industry that has been fundamentally resistant to change even as the walls continue to collapse around it. Even the benefit-sharing model Tidal presented is something of a misnomer. “For the vast majority of the artists who participate in all-in streaming in the interactive universe, any benefit would probably amount to a rounding error,” explains Casey Rae, the CEO of the Future of Music Coalition, an advocacy group for musicians that has been keeping close watch on streaming issues. “Unless you fundamentally change the division of revenue and how that’s allocated, then you’re not going to have a real perceptible change in the economics for the vast middle category of creators.”
Translation: Streaming will never be profitable for the vast majority of artists, no matter what Jay Z is selling. Unless the whole system is re-invented from the ground up, streaming is merely a minor salve, a distraction to keep us busy until the next great evolutionary leap is made in the music business. Until then, I’ll just keep buying cassettes.