Analysis

Lost in Tidal's splash: Music streaming doesn't pay off for most artists

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
This year the music industry is going all-in on a so-called streaming future of music consumption

The buzzwords were many, issued from the stage throughout last week's curiously memorable and well-covered media event announcing the new Tidal music-streaming service: notions of revolution, of changing the status quo and upending the system.

As rhetoric regarding the "future of music" rang from the podium, a billion-dollar club of Tidal stakeholders-artists including Beyoncé and husband Jay Z, Jack White, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Rihanna and Madonna stood side by side onstage in New York. Flanked by Daft Punk members in their robot costumes and Deadmau5 donning a giant mouse head, singer Alicia Keys stated with furrow-browed gravitas that with the launch of Tidal, we were witnessing "a moment that will forever change the course of music history."

After a little more idealism, they all signed a document as though they were leading the Second Continental Congress.

Purchased by Jay Z with minority owners including three major labels (Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group) and undisclosed others, Tidal was born as a Swedish high-fidelity streaming company called Aspiro. The rebranding puts it as the newest player in a field occupied by competitors including the market leader Spotify, which has 15 million subscribers and 60 million users.

Along with the soon-to-be unveiled reboot of the Apple-owned Beats Music, which will be integrated into iTunes, Microsoft's XBox Music, Google Music, perennial underdogs Rdio and Rhapsody and YouTube's forthcoming Music Key streaming service, it's a crowded marketplace. That's especially true considering most music content can be heard for free through YouTube.

On a broad scale, however, Keys and Jay Z had a point. This year the industry is going all-in on a so-called streaming future of music consumption. Just as the major labels abandoned vinyl and cassettes for compact discs and were forced to adapt to MP3 files, they're now committed to the no-muss, no-fuss cloud.

What's less publicized is that they're doing so through deals that leverage their valuable library of music licenses for equity stake in the companies. The three majors own approximately 20% of Spotify. If Google were to buy the service for $10 billion, for example, the labels would earn $2 billion. The musicians making the content, however, would be entitled to nothing.

All these services offer a nearly identical product and seek the same goal: to convince a generation of music fans that has never paid for music and whose ears are used to densely compressed music files that they're insulting both the artist and the art. Tidal's declared aim: to deliver high-quality sound, exclusive music, inventive playlists and editorial content to music fans. On Saturday, for example, Beyoncé debuted an exclusive video that captures her behind a grand piano singing a beautiful ballad. It was shot with a hand-held camera by Jay Z.

Such exclusives underscore a more crucial goal: Tidal must convince at least a fraction of the 97% of consumers who don't pay for a streaming service that subscribing to a premium $20-a-month platform (or $10 basic plan) is the ethically responsible thing to do.

But if the online backlash is to be believed, somebody's doing it wrong — but not the fans. A Twitter user who goes by @spursfan1975 captured the essence of the fan response: "Tidal — a business venture to help rich musicians get even richer. Cue a rise in music piracy instead!!!" By the weekend, the backlash was represented by the trending #TidalforNoOne hashtag. Next time Jay Z, Arcade Fire's Win Butler and Regine Chassagne and Jason Aldean pitch something for the good of starving artists, they probably shouldn't do it while in a mansion holding Champagne flutes and toasting their gold-leafed good fortune.

Compared with the fraction of a penny that the content providers (also known as rights holders, or "musicians") earn per spin, the divide is apparent. According to Spotify Artists, a website that explains the company's payment system, the most recently calculated average "per-stream" payout to rights holders was between $0.006 and $0.0084.

That's not much, which is one reason why Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify and penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal at the end of 2014. "Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for," she wrote.

Directing her ire at Spotify's free service, which includes short commercial breaks, she added, "It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is." Swift's absence on Tidal's stage was notable. Her catalog is, however, present on the service, which itself amounts to tacit approval.

Despite her music's presence, though, Jay Z's declaration of significance is outlandish. It's also unsupportable. Tidal, which boasts only 500,000-plus subscribers, is hardly yet worth paying for, even if the sound quality is indeed remarkable. In fact, the quality is strikingly good, filled with a depth and sonic range as close to compact-disc quality as I've ever heard from a stream.

The reason: Tidal streams rich, CD-quality sound through a lossless audio format. On the right system, the difference is obvious. Still, it's hard to fathom anyone other than wealthiest 1% — or those of us with expense accounts to pay for such luxuries — buying in.

As such, Tidal isn't a revolution in anything other than artistic chutzpuh. The service has a feel of a shiny new Planet Hollywood on the first weekend of operation. Or as another Twitter critic described the service as it is now, "Tidal is just a Spotify copy for rich people." It offers a similar volume of choices but does so with an interface that's less intuitive than either Spotify or Beats.

What none of the artists onstage seemed to understand — and that the labels want you to forget — is that we don't need their 16-person "insurgency" to enjoy music. We don't need Tidal, Beats Music, Spotify or iTunes. If I really want to support an artist, you know what I do? I buy direct, see if they sell music on Bandcamp or wait to spend the money at the tour merch table.

In fact, a true artist-friendly revolution would involve an action more substantial than investing $56 million and holding a press conference. For example, how about financing a Kickstarter-type service for musicians seeking funding, one owned and operated by successful artists interested in furthering the development and bank accounts of their less-fortunate peers.

The skepticism prompted by the propaganda at the podium turned out to be warranted. Behind the curtain, the language of upheaval was less fiery.

"We're working alongside the labels, we're not looking to try and pick fights," Vania Schlogel, chief investment officer at Roc Nation, told Billboard after the news conference. As the service's industry liaison, her tone was in stark contrast to Keys'. It was also more honest.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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