The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Why Everything Is Love Is Tidal's Last Desperate Throw Of The Dice
Eamonn Forde , June 18th, 2018 10:56

This weekend, Jay-Z and Beyoncé released joint album Everything Is Love exclusively via their Tidal platform. But with the record already on Spotify, Eamonn Forde argues that this is yet another vain lunge by the 1% and a platform that is failing to take off

It is demonstrably not working; and yet they persist with it. One has to admire the unshakeable resolve (or towering ego) of Beyoncé and Jay-Z to initially make their new joint album – Everything Is Love – available exclusively for streaming on Tidal on Saturday. That's Tidal, the subscription streaming service Jay-Z's Project Panther investment company bought in January 2015 for $56m (back when it was a Norwegian service called WiMP). That's the same Tidal that he gave a bunch of his high-profile musical chums a stake in if they offered it, rather than rivals like Spotify, first refusal on new material. It was hailed (well, by them) as an artist-centric revolution – where the workers had seized the means of production (well, consumption) and claimed to be offering a marginally higher royalty rate on streaming micropayments than other services in the market.

Despite having a painfully awkward press launch in March 2015, where huge names like Madonna, Daft Punk, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Rihanna and Coldplay (with Chris Martin embarrassingly attending via Skype rather than in person) lined up to put their names to a "declaration" to support Tidal, the blockbuster exclusives – barring Beyoncé's Lemonade in 2016 – have been worryingly thin on the ground.

Madonna initially tossed them some digital crumbs in the form of an early exclusive on her utterly forgettable 'Ghosttown' video. The release of Rihanna's Anti on the platform was a galumphing disaster, with it appearing earlier than planned, then disappearing before Samsung offered 1m downloads of the album as part of a sponsorship deal with the singer. Tidal accused Universal Music Group of cocking it up; Universal said Tidal was the one pratfalling here. This was to prove a cruel foreshadowing of the service's fraught relationship with rightholders.

Then Kanye West gave Tidal the exclusive on The Life Of Pablo in February 2016 but changed his mind mere days later and made it available on other streaming services. Since then he's engaged in a very public war of words with Jay-Z and Tidal. In July that same year he sent a tweet that outlined his views on album exclusives tied indefinitely to one service. "Fuck all this dick swinging contest," he wrote. "We all gon be dead in 100 Years. Let the kids have the music." In July 2017, he was accusing Tidal of breach of contract and claimed he was owed $3m.

To misquote Oscar Wilde, to lose one exclusive may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose several looks like carelessness.

It was to get worse. Much worse. All the other acts with skin in this particular game seemed to forget their commitment to Tidal and their albums appeared on Spotify, Apple Music and more at the same time as they did on Tidal. Lemonade in April 2016 was supposed to definitively move the needle for Tidal (it's still a streaming exclusive there) and see millions of people sign up to the service to hear it. Except, well, they didn't and they just spent the equivalent of one month's subscription to buy it on CD or from iTunes. Or, thinking it was 2004 again, downloaded it from a P2P or torrent site where no one gets paid.

According to IFPI numbers, Lemonade was the biggest-selling album of 2016 – with sales of 2.5m units. The collective streams from Tidal, while never made official (as we will see), would have made a miniscule contribution to that aggregate number. "If I gave two fucks about streaming numbers, would have put Lemonade up on Spotify," sings a defiant Beyoncé on 'Nice' from the new album. This is perhaps intended as a war cry but comes across like a child throwing a tantrum. "Well, I didn't want to play with your stupid iPad in the first place!"

Tellingly she still gave more than two fucks about download and CD sales for Lemonade, though, fully aware that pop stars cannot live on Tidal alone. Utterly unsurprisingly, Everything Is Love is already available on Amazon Music for download. Oh, and it's also now on Spotify, a mere two days after its Tidal exclusive debut. So that's one exclusive window that's smaller than those in a doll's house. Clearly more than two fucks are being exchanged here.

Tidal has been incredibly cagey about its subscriber numbers, punting out figures that combined free trials with actual paying subscribers with no clarification on which side of free and paid the lion's share rested. At one point it was saying it had 3m users globally. Analysts and business writers are now suggesting it has 1m. At best. Spotify, at last count, had 71m subscribers out of a total of 159m users. Apple Music has over 50m users (although that number does include some free trialists). Tidal is lagging dangerously behind.

The biggest controversy, however, was to hit in May this year. Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv had already accused Tidal of being worryingly late in paying royalties through to labels. It then dug into the streams around Lemonade and The Life Of Pablo, flat out accusing Tidal is gaming its numbers to a farcical level, attaching astronomical streaming numbers to individuals using the service such as saying one user streamed The Life Of Pablo a total of 96 times in a single day. The Life Of Pablo has a run time of one hour and six minutes. You, as Americans are fond of saying, do the math.

(We should note that Tidal has vociferously denied the multiple accusations levelled at it by Dagens Næringsliv, claiming the article was part of a broader and long-running "smear campaign" by the newspaper which it had based on breached user data. "We expect nothing less from them than this ridiculous story, lies and falsehoods," ran Tidal's statement. "The information was stolen and manipulated and we will fight these claims vigorously.")

There was a soft-soaping piece in Billboard earlier this month that claimed the US record industry still had faith in Tidal and that it was giving it some slack to get its royalty payments in order. The piece also suggested that Tidal was seen as a testing ground for users on a $9.99 monthly subscription to upgrade to a $19.99 a month one that offered massively improved audio quality, with some 30,000 Tidal users on this super-premium tier.

Except, well, literally no one I speak to in the music business ever talks about Tidal as an important revenue driver, a key data source or a game-changing marketing platform. It's as if it doesn't exist. I edit the Sandbox digital music marketing report from Music Ally every fortnight. Never in the entire life of Tidal has a marketing person ever mentioned the service as one they work with or are keen to work with. Equally, researching a piece recently on how record labels use and dissect streaming data, I asked one person at a large label what data they used from Tidal. The snort of derision they gave at the mere suggestion that Tidal streaming data was at a level as to be in any way useful to them spoke volumes. Tidal might seem like headline news to its celebrity backers; to the rest of the industry it's a footnote.

The initial and incredibly short lived streaming exclusive around Everything Is Love all feels like a desperate last roll of the dice by Tidal – getting its two biggest backers to join forces, like some sort of revenue-generating Transformer – and hoping this will tilt the balance. Exclusives haven't before and they most certainly won't now. They are an embarrassing relic of the recent past. Even Apple Music has pretty much given up on them and both managers and record companies see them as anti-consumer. Instead the shift is now on buttering up services by giving them bespoke content (live sessions, interviews, podcasts, Q&As etc.) and ensuring that albums are on all services at the same time. No artist – well, no artist except Beyoncé and Jay-Z – wants to limit their audience or, more importantly, their chart-eligible streams.

Ultimately, this is vanity and arrogance running unchecked. No one artist is big enough to draw users in large numbers to one particular service. Taylor Swift temporarily withholding her albums from Spotify did not stop its ascent. Nor did Adele windowing her albums. Streaming services were growing just fine without The Beatles' catalogue – meaning the band had to bend to the will of streaming at the end of 2015 and finally license their music to all services, not just one as they did with iTunes for their downloads in 2010.

Tidal presented itself as being about egalitarianism and a revolution in artist empowerment. There is clearly a need for greater artist strength in dealing with the music and tech industries, but this is not it. Tidal increasingly feels like a vanity project from the most powerful artists in the world – the 1% who already are so big they dictate back to the labels they are signed to. The "empowerment for all artists" rhetoric is a red herring. This about solipsism and bloviation from the few acts already at the top of the pyramid.

For the music business, the one thing worse than a monopoly is a duopoly. The two-horse race of Spotify and Apple in the streaming market absolutely needs a serious challenger. It's bad form to kick someone when they're down, but Tidal is not going to take the wind out of their sails or the dinner off their plate.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z's hubristic mistake was in presuming that if they take over the platform they would be become bigger than the platform – a digital double threat. If anything is certain today it's that no artist – or even a bank of artists – is bigger than the platform. Hence it landing on other services soon after its Tidal debut. This is the sour lesson the Carters are about to learn: when the market gives you lemons, you can't keep making Lemonade again.