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Things just went Tidal in the music industry

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Their aim was to create music history, which they did, but with a tsunami of backlash. The roll call of music industry illuminati was beyond even Bob Geldoff’s wildest Band Aid dreams: Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Chris Martin, Madonna, Usher, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Deadmaus, Daft Punk, J Cole, Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire, Calvin Harris, Jack White and Jason Aldean. This group of artists clearly meant business and, although they claimed that this was to protect artist integrity, it was widely believed that profit was the real driver in the re-launch of Tidal, a music streaming platform that will rival Spotify and Rdio. The first ever ‘artist-owned global music entertainment platform’ with the goal of creating a better music service and listening experience for fans and artists alike.

So why the instantaneous animosity towards something that, at face value, purported to be on the side of artists? First of all, the whole charade seemed so disingenuous. While the superstar a-listers acted like they were signing a document for world peace, musicians and music-lovers alike couldn’t help but feel that this was all about two things – money and ego. Despite all the hyperbole banded around (‘game-changer’, ‘revolution’) this was not a movement for social justice. Alicia Keys explained that Tidal would preserve artist integrity but it appeared that Tidal will best protect its owners’ economic power and wealth. Users pay £9.99 or £19.99 (for a ‘high fidelity’ option) per month to access music on what is effectively another Spotify, but with (currently) less than 30 million songs than its competitors.

It was not difficult to find a critic of Tidal. In the US, commentators asked where these black role-models were when there were riots across the country. Coming together then could have had a much more profound effect on the world than a music streaming site. Others questioned the combined global wealth of Tidal’s owners – if these people really wanted to make a difference, was music streaming a suitable cause to be top of their list? And if so, why not make this not-for-profit or, better still, engage in another more charitable purpose altogether. The launch of Tidal was presented as if it was here to save the world and, for many, the reality was a massive disappointment.

Nevertheless, the bottom line for musicians is that they need money to survive and in 2015 not enough of the money generated in the music industry reaches them. Exact details have yet to emerge but Jay Z assured us that there will be more money for artists than its rivals such as Spotify and Rdio, “even if its means less profit for our bottom line”. The brand undoubtedly revolves around exclusivity and there are those who will gladly pay for reportedly higher quality audio and tracks not available anywhere else. But where does that leave the music industry? It could further fragment the market – the successful, established artists getting a better platform and with it more revenue, leaving the road ahead for unsigned, emerging artists an increasingly tougher one to travel. More money for streaming is a start but Tidal would have gained far more credibility if it had announced a range of measures to help unsigned musicians who deserve better opportunities.

For the majority of artists, significant revenue from streaming sites only comes a long way down their career path. What is more relevant to unsigned musicians is to get paid for what they are doing now. Protecting their intellectual property is the first, integral step and after that they can look to monetise their music and brand. It is a massive positive for the industry that synchronisation deals are becoming more commonplace for unsigned artists, in addition to the traditional publishing and record deals. They provide invaluable revenue streams whereas free streaming sites such as Soundcloud and Spotify act as promotional tools for getting music out to the masses. But would an artist rather get a million plays on Souncloud and nothing for it, or wait for the right deal and sell their music worldwide? Clearly mass market popularity will tend to lead to something greater, but as it stands the music industry lacks balance. Tidal had a brilliant opportunity to address this – to make music free and pay the artists – the new, undiscovered ones that it could champion, not the household names who are already successful. That would have started a revolution.

From the looks of things Tidal is not about giving more power to artists, unless you count the ones stood on a platform preaching to us. It is about a number of successful artists-turned-business-persons wanting to rival the record labels. Watch out Sony, Universal and Warner Bros – do not be surprised when Tidal start to sign new artists and then, when they do, they will have a captive audience of music lovers who can afford to buy their music at a premium price. That’s great news for them, but what about everyone else? The kneejerk #TIDALforNOONE reaction has been passionate and widespread but it may have been premature. It will be interesting to see what Jay Z and co do with Tidal over the coming years. I’m sure they were taken off guard by the zeal of their fans after the launch of Tidal but it is how they respond that will arguably shape the music industry for the next 50 years.