What happens when musicians tilt at windmills

jay-z

Last year, I wrote a post lambasting Jay-Z’s alternative to services like Spotify and iTunes. Tidal is basically Spotify if it were an exclusive club of all the worst personalities the music industry has to offer, and at twice the price of Spotify’s premium membership. After a tirade about the vanity, vacuity and arrogance of the music industry, I concluded that the Tidal venture would be failure, and it turns out I was right. Recently, it was reported that Tidal’s parent company, the Aspiro group, had lost $28 million within the past year, and despite being the exclusive digital home of the latest albums by its top musicians, Tidal is apparently having trouble making payments.

This basically confirms what I had thought a year ago, and I think it’s fairly obvious why. Jay-Z and the artists who promoted were fully aware that the game they way (namely the mainstream music industry) is now hopelessly irrelevant, given that you can download theirs or superior music for free on the internet clearly, and these self-proclaimed “artists” had contempt for the fact that ordinary people aren’t giving them money and funding their extravagant lifestyles. That contempt was completely obvious during their unveiling ceremony, which came across as a bunch of wealthy musicians asking for more money, whilst proclaiming that they were going to change the course of history in the process.

Naturally, the reaction on Twitter was vicious, and when the news broke that Tidal had lost millions of dollars over the last year, I think all of Tidal’s critics, myself included, feel some sort of sense of vindication. After all, why would anyone pay $20 a month for sterile, plastic pop music (which, in all fairness, you can just get for free) just to stroke the egos of its creators, when you can peruse the internet and treat yourself to a galaxy of better music from a variety of different genres, and from any point in music history. Also, if you like the music enough to pay for it, you can support the artists you like by buying their albums, and newer artists have found fans and income through sites like Bandcamp (which, sadly, doesn’t have the amount of exposure I feel it deserves). Therefore, I’m not surprised that Tidal has lost so much money in its futile quest for supremacy over Spotify.

Another big problem is the very intention of the Tidal service – to create a high-quality streaming service owned by musicians. Approximately three-quarters of Tidal’s revenue has gone to royalty payments for the artists on it. For them, it sounds great, but for me, it sounds like that’s the reason Tidal has been struggling to make payments, despite benefiting from high-profile releases from the artists backing it. I know it’s terrible that musicians don’t make enough money in the industry, but Tidal seems to me like the other extreme – paying artists through the nose at the expense of its profits, which everyone knows is a good way of making sure your business fails. Worse still, Tidal’s penchant for funnelling the bulk of its profits as royalties is actually hurting the very artists who have equity stakes in Tidal. Any self-respecting streaming service can’t expect to deliver music to its audience if it can’t sustain itself.

Indeed, Tidal has been a disaster, as I knew it would be. I also accurately predicted that Tidal’s higher prices would lead to more piracy, but in that respect any increased music piracy was actually due to the half-brained decision by certain artists to release their albums exclusively on Tidal. For example, Kanye West decided to release his latest album “The Life of Pablo” exclusively on Tidal, much to the chagrin of whatever fans he still has. In fact, within a few days of the album’s release, the album had been pirated around 500,000 times, prompting its release on competing platforms. I’m sure other artists who decided to drop their music exclusively on Tidal have had their music pirated more often as well (I remember at some point hearing that Taylor Swift decided to be a Tidal-exclusive artist).

Of course, it’s obvious what’s happening. Tidal tried and failed to make a dent in the habits of music listeners, and that’s because nobody wanted to buy into it in the first place. The biggest problem is that Jay-Z (and by extension every other mainstream musician involved) were basically acting like Don Quixote trying to fight the windmills, believing they were giants. For them, music piracy was a dragon to slay, and anyone who didn’t support them were part of the problem, and that’s precisely how the Tidal venture failed. It hasn’t destroyed the music industry as I thought it would, but the way things are going the music industry, at least in the way that we know it, may as well be a lumbering dinosaur.

The main thing that hasn’t changed is that downloading music off the Internet is still as common and normal as washing your hands. Tidal alone only has 4.2 million subscribers compared to Apple Music’s 17 million subscribers. Even Spotify, the largest music streaming service there is to offer, only has 30 million subscribers, which obviously means that the majority of people aren’t even paying for the music anymore. What I’m trying to say is that people like Jay-Z might as well accept it. The old business model of music is dead, and music fans already moved on years ago. At this point, the big musicians and record labels have two choices – they can either adapt to the times, or continue ignoring reality, thereby distancing itself further from music consumers, who will no doubt continue getting music for free, and ensuring that the music industry as we know it gets consigned to the dustbin of history.

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One thought on “What happens when musicians tilt at windmills

  1. I agree! I knew it will happen and saw through the bullshit that came out of their mouths. The launch of Tidal has to be one of the most pretentious events I have seen in my life. Good god Jay Z and the rest of these idiots are deluded!

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