Music

All Talk, No Action: What Jay-Z’s Grandiose Marketing Campaign For ‘Tidal’ Didn’t Tell You

The new streaming service is a commercial venture, not a movement -- and so far it looks the same as all the others.

[Update 19/4]: It’s now been announced that Tidal CEO Andy Chen has left the organisation along with 25 other employees. In a statement provided to Business Insider, the company introduced Peter Tonstad as the new interim CEO and implied this was a deliberate move, though they’re denying suggestions Chen was fired outright.

“He has a better understanding of the industry and a clear vision for how the company is looking to change the status quo. He’s streamlining resources to ensure talent is maximised to enhance the customer experience. We’ve eliminated a handful of positions and refocused our company-wide talent to address departments that need support and cut redundancies. TIDAL’s offices globally will remain and grow: we are already hiring for several new positions now. We’re excited about our future and what’s in-store for fans who want the best listening experience.”

Considering this is all just two weeks after its launch — following an awful lot of criticism from other musicians — it certainly doesn’t sound ideal.

Earlier this year, Jay-Z made news after buying Swedish tech company Aspiro (which owned the quite modest WiMP and Tidal streaming services) for $56 million. It was a signal that, like Dr. Dre and his $3bn ‘Beats Music’ venture before him, Jay-Z was making a play to own the future of the music industry.

Yesterday, he launched his new app, Tidal. It’s a new ‘premium lossless streaming service’. In other words, it’s like Spotify, only the music is played back at a higher quality, and it costs more money to use.

On-demand streaming apps like Spotify and Tidal are increasingly common, and they all do pretty much the same thing: you pay a monthly fee, and you can listen to a huge library of easily searchable songs on your phone or computer.

Since the launch, though, Tidal has been getting pilloried in the press. Many are arguing that, at AU$23.99 a month, it’s chronically overpriced, and speculating that it’s unlikely to find a place in the market since it is virtually no different to other music streaming service (unless you own a pair of immensely expensive headphones and sophisticated ears, in which case, yes, the music may sound slightly different).

Jay-Z doesn’t come across as a foolish person; he’s one of the richest men in popular music, and arguably the most influential rap mogul in the world. So it may be worth having a closer look at what he’s playing at.

The Blueprint: Do We Need Another Spotify?

As the income from physical and digital sales of music continues to dwindle, the music industry has started to embrace online streaming as the best option for the monetisation of recordings.

But Spotify and services like it are yet to delivered good revenues for artists and record labels. The streaming service makes money from advertising, and premium paying members — it’s a growing stash, but not enough for Spotify to meet its costs, and musicians end up getting a pitifully small amount. Taylor Swift quite famously took her music off of Spotify because she felt it would impact her record sales, and because she didn’t feel she would make that lost money back through internet streaming.

Clearly the system isn’t working. That’s what Jay-Z means to change. By making people pay more for the service, the reasoning is that there will be more income, more money for artists, and a more sustainable business model for the music industry.

The problem for Jay-Z is that Tidal just looks like an overpriced Spotify clone, which may be good for some artists, but is bad for the fans. To try and change the perception, he launched a marketing campaign that was, to put it mildly, breathtakingly insane.

Watch The Throne: It’s A Company, Not A Movement 

Before the launch, a series of high profile artists — many of whom had been sold a portion of the new company — began using their social media profiles to promote Tidal, using language that vaguely echoed both the civil rights movement and socialist sloganeering.

They changed their profile pictures to a light blue, and started using the #TIDALforALL hashtag.

Then came the promotional videos, and things started to get really weird. Dressed in fur and swilling from champaign glasses, we see the pop superstars in a some sort of warehouse/hotel/conference room. They start taking to each other with much gusto.

“Every great movement started with a group of people being able to get together and, really, just make a stand,” says Beyoncé, who could either be talking about a new company or the French Revolution.

“We love music, that’s what sets us apart from a tech company selling advertising or selling hardware,” says Jay-Z, ever the pragmatic business man, as he throws his competition under the bus.

“It’s about bringing humanity back into being artists,” says Madonna, incomprehensibly. She tries to clarify, but somehow makes it worse:  “Not technology, art. Human. Art. They’re the carrier. We’re the artist. Somehow things shifted and we went into the background and it has to come forward.”

Kanye West is present and on form, announcing that they’re at the beginning of a “new world”, before inviting comparisons between the invested artists and Iranian Nationalists about to take control of “their own oil”. Somebody please let him know how that worked out.

Pretty stirring language for what is, in fact, a commercial enterprise. But that’s nothing compared to the live press conference that took place yesterday.

Alicia Keys took to the stage, proudly declaring that Tidal was the first ever artist-owned-global-music-entertainment-platform — a statement with so many modifiers that it’s about as impressive as being the first ever gold medalist-named-Peter-born-on-a-Tuesday-who-is-left-handed-and-parts-his-hair-down-the-middle (also, considering that Dr. Dre owned ‘Beats Music’, it isn’t really true).

The rhetoric went into overdrive, with Keys announcing that the app was going to re-establish the value of music for future generations, and mangling a quote by ‘Frederic (sic) Nietzsche’ (not unlike a certain other charismatic leader).

Then, as though they were the founding fathers of a new nation, the pop pantheon signed a ‘declaration’, while the national anthem played — ‘The National Anthem’, by Radiohead. Also, Madonna straddled the table while signed the signed the declaration. It was no less weird than her statements in the video, but I’ll vouch that it was it was oddly arousing.

The amped up language doesn’t stop with the PR campaign; it’s built into the product too. When you sign up to Tidal, the first thing you are asked to do, with all the zeal of a Christian missionary, is ‘SHARE THE GOOD NEWS’.

99 Problems (and a new tech company is one of them)

Jay-Z has organised a clever – if not slightly overwrought — marketing campaign, but it’s also a deeply dishonest and problematic one.

By emphasising the number of artists who ‘own’ Tidal, and amping up the revolutionary rhetoric, Jay-Z is trying to build a movement around a company and make a point of difference in his product: that this isn’t one of those nasty streaming services that rip off artists; that this is a new and different service that is run by the artists themselves, making it moral and good.

However, the actual economic model that Tidal operates on is not demonstrably different to Spotify, other than it being more expensive. Yes, the 16 top tier artists all have a share in the company, and there are some reports that artists will be paid twice as much per stream as they are on Spotify. Twice of almost nothing, however, is still very little. Spotify claim to give artists around $.006 per stream. On Tidal, if the speculative reports are true, an artist would need to have their song streamed just over 1,500 times to make the equivalent of selling one album, as opposed to over 3,000 times on Spotify.

Would it be nice for a handful of the biggest names in music to make a few more million dollars a year? Sure… It is, however, cold comfort to the millions of other artists — anybody not fortunate to have a massive record label forking out the cash to push their songs on commercial radio to billions worldwide  — who will continue to make a few dollars a month from streaming services like this. A replacement for the money lost from CD sales, Tidal is not.

So, despite the rhetoric, Tidal isn’t a revolutionary new way of streaming music and distributing wealth to the artists. The declaration, the videos, the tweets, Madonna straddling the table — it’s all to obscure the fact that Tidal is a company owned not by ‘the artists’, but by ‘some artists’. Kind of like the way Communist Russia was ostensibly run by and for ‘the people’, but was actually controlled by a small executive group which consisted of ‘some people’.

And for you, the consumer, this isn’t a better product than Spotify; unless you’re desperate for hi-fi music, or want to make the rich even richer, it isn’t worth the extra money.

My most furious gripe? Like Spotify, Tidal still doesn’t give you access to the back catalogue of Joanna Newsom. If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby.

James McCann is a writer and comedian.