If you’re a fan of Taylor Swift, the answer is yes, take all my money. Almost all her albums are streaming on TIDAL (except her latest, 1989), while she removed her tracks from Spotify late last year. Though Swift is the most popular artist of the moment, her music isn’t the unique selling point TIDAL is marketing itself with.1 TIDAL offers “high fidelity lossless sound quality, a prerequisite to enjoying music the way it was intended by the artists, high definition music videos, and curated editorial, expertly crafted by experienced music journalists“. This sounds like a mix between Spotify (music), Vimeo (videos) and Beats (curated playlists), but better.
From signing up to streaming your first track, TIDAL offers a flawless experience. The app2 is sleek and well designed. All the usual functionalities are there: you can favorite tracks, create playlists, find more music from the artist and share what you’re listening to with your followers on Twitter. You can also use TIDAL in a Chrome-optimized web player and there used to be a desktop application available. The desktop app is “undergoing maintenance”, so I wasn’t able to test that way to listen to what TIDAL has to offer.
According to TIDAL, the service has 540,000 customers, while Spotify has over 15 million subscribers (and another 45 million non-paying users). TIDAL claims to have 25 million tracks and 75,000 HD music videos, where Spotify has more than 30 million songs available, and claims to add over 20,000 new songs every day.3 Spotify is available in nearly sixty countries, almost twice as much as TIDAL. The countries where the service is available, should grow in the coming months. So far, no great differences between the two streaming companies.
High Fidelity or High Price?
TIDAL streams your music in CD quality, equal to 1411 kbps. Your Spotify stream? It’s 320 kbps at best, but usually the songs are streamed in 160 kbps. That upgrade in streaming quality comes at a price, TIDAL sets you back $19.99 a month for the lossless experience (there’s a 7-day free trial and a ‘lo-fi’ subscription for $9.99, but no freemium version), ten bucks more than Spotify.
It sounds so simple: if you want high quality audio, you pay more. But there are so many things that determine the quality of your audio, it’s not so easy to say high bitrate > low bitrate. When using TIDAL on an iPhone with Apple’s earphones, you won’t notice great improvement in audio quality. The music sounds just a little more crisp than the same track on Spotify, but it isn’t a ten dollar difference. When you listen to the HIFI stream on a good set-up, the difference is a lot bigger. The sound is rich, balanced and full of detail. The kind of person who pays thousands of dollars on good speakers, amplifiers and subwoofers, won’t mind paying twenty dollars a month to have this kind of quality streams. For them, TIDAL is a no-brainer. But that’s a really small percentage of a huge market. The Spotify user could probably hear the difference, but won’t care. Especially since it saves $120 a year.4
Is Jay Z really aiming for the audiophile niche in the constantly growing streaming market? It doesn’t really make sense for a self proclaimed business, man. What am I missing?
TIDAL is for the artists
When I started writing this post, I had no idea the service was scheduling a relaunch. So I was a bit surprised to see this blue image as the Twitter-icons in my feed:
Jay Z, Kanye West, Madonna, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and more stars turned their profile picture into a cyan colored square in support of TIDAL. It became clear what I’d missed. I looked at Jay Z as the business man and the rapper. But I forgot about the power of celebrity. This was the beginning of a media offensive and I had no idea it was happening.
The first take-away? Daft Punk go to meetings in their robot outfits. That’s dope. But after viewing this promotional video, that other Jay Z business venture -the launch of Magna Carta Holy Grail with Samsung- came to mind:
It probably made Jay Z and Samsung a lot of money. But what did the public, the fans, get out of this? A mediocre album and an everlasting image of a sleeping Rick Rubin, that’s all. But this was just another way of releasing an album. Now, Jay Z wants to change the music industry, and by doing so, change the world.
Alicia Keys. Arcade Fire. Beyoncé. Daft Punk. Jack White. Jason Aldean. Coldplay. Calvin Harris. J. Cole. Jay Z. Kanye West. Deadmau5. Madonna. Nicki Minaj. Rihanna. Usher.5
That’s a whole lot of star power in one room. And as the highly choreographed event progressed, it became clear they aren’t just using TIDAL to share their music, they’re also owners of Tidal. Several artists have a 3% equity in the company, for a total just below a majority stake, at 48%, according to Billboard. It’s an interesting development in a market that’s still changing. How this plays out in the future, remains to be seen. How are they going to “re-establish the value of music”, exactly? The involved artists have promised exclusive content,6 but how will this work with album releases on their already existing contracts? What if the artists who have ownership aren’t as popular as they are right now? Madonna failed to make an impression with her latest album Rebel Heart -she was outsold by the soundtrack of Empire-, and will inevitably become less and less relevant. Even signing the “declaration” with one leg on the table won’t turn that around. What will she bring to the table that has real value in the coming years?
Many reactions to TIDAL’s relaunch are somewhere between “Nice, but it costs 20 dollars” and “No fucking way I’m going to pay a single dollar for music”. Sure, there are people who like to see their favorite artists get a fair compensation for their work, but they are outnumbered by those who feel like ten dollars is more than enough to access all the music in the world. For them, #TIDALforALL really is #TIDALforARTISTS. Of course, the involvement of Jay Z and his inner circle and the recent publicity will cause a huge growth for TIDAL, both in popularity and in scrutiny.
A good user experience, support from artists, great music quality and an extensive library, TIDAL offers it all for $19.99. I’m just not sure that will be enough to be more than the Spotify for audiophiles, unless the artists involved follow the lead of Swift and pull their music from Spotify. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible any time soon, but if history has taught us one thing it’s to never bet against Shawn Carter.
- It wouldn’t even be unique, you can stream Swift’s music through Rhapsody and the Apple-owned Beats Music. ↩
- I used the iOS version of the app. There’s also an Android version, but Windows Phone is not supported at the moment. ↩
- I say “claim” because that’s what they say and there’s no way in hell I’m going to try and verify those statements. ↩
- If you want to know if you can hear the difference, try this test. ↩
- Who put Deadmau5 in that spot? Besides from the logistics of placing the screen in the middle, the artists were announced and lined-up alphabetically. I tried his real name, Joel Thomas Zimmerman, but that doesn’t work either. ↩
- Right now, this is limited to some curated playlists, a backstage clip from Alicia Keys and Daft Punk’s film Electroma. ↩