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Friday, January 27, 2023

Despite initial doubts, Tidal shows promise after year of growth

It’s been roughly a year since I put out a column filled with skepticism for a then-infantile Tidal. It was a tumultuous time for both of us: Its launch party becoming the running gag on Twitter and beyond, while my writing was laden with enough snark to suffocate even the most reactionary of bloggers. The last year has fostered growth for all parties, and I think it’s time to take a more level-headed look at the increasingly competitive streaming service.

A number of recent events have launched the discourse on Tidal to gargantuan levels, starting with the release(s) of The Life of Pablo. When thoughts about the Kanye’s vision for the future of music consumption subsided, Rihanna’s album was temporarily available on Tidal alone. And most recently, Prince’s death led people to discover his whole discography, available only to Tidal customers. Each of these events were inseparable from talk of Tidal and its confounding ability to be as talked about as the albums it streams.

Those waiting for a definitive victor in the streaming era may never see that day; constant speculation and analysis have yielded murky results as to where streaming fits into the world of music. When one report pops up about Spotify’s monumental streaming records, another explains how poorly Spotify compensates artists for the very streams they champion. Opinions claiming that streaming is the future of music listening and articles championing the revival of physical media and music ownership spar daily on forums and blogs alike.

All the while, Tidal continues to confound, generating equal parts hype and ridicule on social media. Much of the hype comes from the mouthwatering exclusives Tidal hosts on their service, including limited bursts of gated ownership for albums like Rihanna’s Anti or Beyonce’s Lemonade. Although, the same people first to listen to these albums are the first to set reminders on Twitter to cancel their Tidal subscription. As of now, Tidal exists in a state of paradox: It’s a service that’s become increasingly hyped due to its tumultuous and uncertain journey towards success.

And who wouldn’t want to watch all of the stumbling and mishaps when the players at stake are A-list celebrities? A lot has changed for Tidal in the last few years, but its dependence on the support of a small collective of super musicians has not. The exclusives on Tidal have all been from close friends, if not direct family of Jay Z. Mainstream music news chooses to focus on the specific names of Tidal rather than numbers.

Meanwhile, other music companies are putting out statistics to accompany their releases and success stories. Bandcamp recently reported that it's paid out over $150 million since 2008, which falls in line with the generous share of sales to which it entitles artists. The website serves various niche music communities, with major stakes in both independent rock and electronic scenes. In comparison, Tidal’s album exclusives look like a cheap trick to coerce users into paying for a service that’s essentially a platform for an artists collective composed of some of the most powerful names in music to drum up hype for their most recent efforts.

The bane of streaming services' existence is their tendency to focus on garnering the favor of those high up on the music food chain instead of building a base of dedicated small-time artists. While Spotify streaming payouts for renowned artists like Kendrick Lamar might be impressive enough to keep them from running away, even fairly popular mid-level musicians could only ever expect their streaming money to be enough to buy a lunch for two, maybe three if a single goes viral.

The circle of musicians that Jay Z can rely on to put out exclusives on Tidal is ever-shrinking, while the community of small-time artists needing a platform for their work is ever-increasing. Through this lens, Tidal is a reinvention of the music industry establishment vying for a bid in a new world of music consumption that champions independent artists over record deals and exclusives. While services like Spotify and Tidal may appear progressive on the outside, their ability to power through the messy developmental stages of streaming over the next few years is still up for questioning.

The one saving grace for Tidal could be serving as a goldmine for old releases. Tidal connections in high places would be perfect for signing exclusive deals with retired artists and estates for full discographies, including loose singles and demos. I couldn’t help but feeling a tinge of envy when I saw Twitter pouring through Prince’s entire discography. Having this level of thorough archival of other classic artists would be enough to convince both old-heads and curious young listeners to delve into Tidal’s music selection.

So looking back, I was definitely crossing the line in calling Tidal “dead” at its inception; it’s like faulting a baby for not being able to outpace a fifth grader in a foot race. A much more reasonable assessment of Tidal marks it as a canary in a coal mine. If the company is trying to become a mainstay service twice as fast as its competitors, then it’s likely to fall just as swiftly, thus completing the narrative of a streaming service from birth to death. The mistakes that Tidal makes now will be indicative of the potholes streaming platforms will hit on their way to the mainstream.

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