Jay-Z Built the Latest Unnecessary Music Streaming Service

This past weekend, Jay-Z and Roc Nation tweeted that they planned on releasing big news on Monday. Afterwards, speculation abounded. Is Jay-Z releasing a new album? Is he retiring again? Is he buying the Knicks? Monday came and the world waited with bated breath as Jay-Z assembled the Super Friends of the music world to make his announcement.

Madonna, Rihanna, Chris Martin, Daft Punk, Kanye “most obnoxious man in the world” West and, of course, Beyoncé gathered in a conference room for the big reveal. The setup was kind of the anti-Steve Jobs: instead of a single man on a stage in a simple black turtleneck, you had Jay-Z for some reason using a microphone at a table full of his rich friends. But like Steve Jobs, Jay-Z intended to announce a revolution.

A Revolution for Whom?

But instead of a revolution, Mr. Jay hyphen Z instead announced a new music streaming service called Tidal. Every celebrity in attendance declared themselves to be co-owners, and every one of them expressed their apparently unbridled excitement—but not just because they hoped to add to their piles of money with this venture. In a bizarre turn of events, they actually seem to believe they are doing something just and good for all of mankind.

Profits of Tidal do not go to charity. Employees of the service won’t be rehabilitated felons. However, the artists involved will get a greater share of the profit than they do for a service like Spotify. If you listen to Jay-Z describe it, you’d think he just found the cure for polio. What we have instead is a handful of one-percenters declaring support for a platform because it will pay them more per stream.

I kid you not: Kanye West seems to actually believe that Tidal—and I’m quoting here—represents the “start of a new world.” Mr. Z himself proved just as fond of hyperbole, proclaiming that this “historic day” would “change the course of history.”

Jesus Christ, people. I think you need a little perspective. The printing press changed the course of history. So did the Manhattan Project. To count Tidal among these innovations is to blaspheme the very meaning of human progress.

Should You Get On Board?

Considering the significant number of people who choose to pirate their music with total disregard to any debt owed to the musician, selling the service on the basis of the fact that it benefits artists will probably not be a successful marketing exploit. However, Tidal does differentiate itself from the competition by offering higher quality audio. Audiophiles (and probably no one else) will be pleased to learn Tidal streams lossless audio, but most will likely blanch at the hefty $20-a-month price tag.

Those of us without $700 headphones probably wouldn’t be able to notice a difference anyway, and will settle instead for a standard 320 kbps audio stream, which will still set you back $10 a month. So who among us is going to make the leap to Tidal when a service like Spotify is available starting at just $5?

While I don’t consider myself an audiophile, per se, I do take audio quality seriously. The reason I still cling to my vast CD collection is because I like having a “master copy” at the ready—a copy that offers (at least for now) the best audio quality available, and which I can re-rip onto my computer in any format I choose, whenever I want to.

What Makes Tidal Different?

Remember the star-studded cast of that announcement? Some are speculating those artists will make their music available exclusively through Tidal. Platinum factories Rihanna and Kanye are expected to drop albums in the next few months, and Tidal could get a huge boost if it becomes the only place these albums can be purchased. Taylor Swift already has her music catalog—minus her most recent 1989 (sorry, “Shake It Off” fans)—on Tidal, while she has famously refused to make it available on Spotify, citing a poor return on investment. We can apparently add her to the roster of musicians who are in it for the money, rather than for the love of art.

At any rate, this plan could backfire spectacularly. If Tidal is the only place to purchase the music, it doesn’t automatically follow that all sales will simply migrate to it. It’s much more likely that more people will just pirate it, rather than subscribe to a brand-new service incompatible with the one they already use. Right now, though, it seems Tidal will be something big—though whether it’s a big failure or a big success is yet unclear.

Questioning the Future of Ownership

Before I draw this to a close, I need to weigh in on this exclusivity idea for just a moment.

Record labels have always demanded the exclusivity of the artists signed to them, and rightly so. The thing is, since that music was released on CDs, and was therefore platform-agnostic, consumers had the freedom to do with it whatever they wished: rip it to their computer, listen to it in the car, burn it to a CD, whatever. It was their music.

Compare this with the current streaming model, where consumers don’t own music as a physical (or even a digital) product—instead, we merely own access to it.

What we have now is the makings of a dangerous future indeed, where artists will either have to pledge allegiance to just one streaming service (think of these as the heir apparent to the traditional record label)—or pay for the right to be streamed on multiple services—and find themselves (and their art) stuck behind exclusive hardware and software, paywalls, and a lack of cross-platform chatter that previously helped little-known artists rise to prominence.

This vision of the future scares me. When I wrote about the future of Apple’s Beats earlier this week, it was with equal parts excitement and fear. I’m a sucker for convenience just like anybody else, but the broader implications of our now-inevitable streaming-only future really scares the crap out of me, and not just because there are people in my life who hope to make it as musicians.

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