An Idiots Guide to Tidal

An Idiot’s Guide To Tidal
Words By: Sarah Ison
Image Credit: Mike Stenger

On Monday the 30th of March, Jay-Z launched his recently purchased music streaming platform ‘Tidal’ at a glorified press conference, with a dozen other A-list musicians such as Beyonce, Nick Minaj, Usher, Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna, and more. What was ironic about the press launch was that it was held by those who have made it their business to entertain and be entertaining and yet the resounding feeling at the conference was one of painful awkwardness.

Each of the seventeen mega-stars walked onto the stage in alphabetical order and stood in their place still and silent for ten minutes, before being invited to step forwards individually and sign the Tidal ‘declaration’. The entire affair felt like a bizarre mix between a momentous signing, like that of The Declaration of Independence, and a school role call.

Hardly a word was said by anyone except for Alicia Keys, who was the spokesperson of the event, and who tried explaining where she and her fellow musicians were coming from and why they had founded Tidal in the first place. The only problem was that she didn’t really explain anything. Sure she quoted Nietzche, and spoke dramatically about the connection we all share for the ‘universal language of music’, but the entire speech was little more than sweeping statements proclaiming the conference to be ‘a moment that will forever change the course of music history.’

How or why? That was unclear, as were specifics like how exactly artists beyond the seventeen on stage would benefit. The press conference ended with an array of unanswered questions and little to take away from the event except for the awkward atmosphere that hung above the launch.

So if you still have little to no idea about the facts of Tidal, don’t fret, you are definitely not alone.For all of you out there that want to know more about what exactly Tidal is beyond a ‘revolution’ in the music industry, here for you is an Idiot’s Guide. Maybe Jay-Z and his fellow Tidal colleagues should give it a read and think of re-pitching.

What is Tidal?

Tidal is a high fidelity, premium streaming service and music platform, similar to Spotify or Napster. The difference is, that this is the first ever to be owned by artists.

Where did it originate and who is behind it?

Tidal began as ‘WiMP’, a streaming service launched by the Norwegian Company ‘Aspiro’ in 2009.

At the end of 2014, R&B artist Jay-Z bought a majority of the shares, ($56 million US to be exact) to what then became ‘Tidal’. Along with Jay-Z the business has sixteen other ‘equity partners’ each of whom own a 3% stake in the company.  These include very well known names such as Alicia Keys, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne (Arcade Fire), Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Chris Martin, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J Cole, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Usher.

How is Tidal different from other streaming services?

As already mentioned, one of Tidal’s main differences to other music streaming services is that it is run by artists. The result of this is a greater focus on and fairer treatment of the artist comparatively to services like Spotify. It has also been asserted that songs and videos by some artists will appear first on Tidal.

Finally, Tidal boasts a superior sounding engine to its competitors by offering High Fidelity audio quality.

What is Hi Fidelity audio quality?

‘High Fidelity’ audio, or HiFi audio, describes uncompressed or ‘lossless’ music, both of which offer smaller extents of audio compression to MP3.

Almost all music that is downloaded or streamed is compressed and can be described as ‘lossy’. This is not the case for records for example which have a higher definition as they are not compressed in this way. Music on CDs is compressed to some extent, though not to the same degree as most digital files, and can be described as ‘lossless’. Tidal promises this ‘lossless’ audio to in their service, that is, CD quality. While their digital music files must of course be compressed from the original, Tidal aims to minimise this degree of compression and thus promise a higher quality to the music listeners have access to.

Why don’t other streaming services offer HiFi Audio?

HiFi audio does sound pretty good, but if it does make such a difference, what stops services like Spotify and other music streamers doing the same as Tidal and ensuring that their audio is lossless? The answer is very simple, that is, that when downloaded, uncompressed music files are much larger than compressed files. In some cases, uncompressed files can be over 100MB in size. While Spotify has a 320 kilobits per second streaming rate, Tidal’s rate is more than four times that, sitting at around 1,411kbit/s. This becomes problematic when dealing with big lossless files that will tear through a mobile plan’.

How much does Tidal cost?

On top of the price of your bandwidth or mobile data plan, which may well need to increase if you download Tidal, the original fee for the service is around $20 a month. In an effort to match competitors like Spotify, a $10 per month subscription is now also being offered. It should be noted though that this cheaper subscription does not include the high audio quality that is an obvious centre point to Tidal. Additionally, there is no free streaming option as is available in popular streaming services such as Spotify.

Where does the money go?

Exactly where the money made from listener subscriptions will end up, or rather whom it will end up with, has, like so much of Tidal, remained unclear. While Vania Schlogel, Tidal’s main industry liaison, has claimed that We have been developing [this] program to foster the careers of independent and emerging artists’, Schlogel declined to provide any specifics on the rates Tidal will provide its artists. A large basis for the existence of a streaming service such as Tidal is improving the treatment of the artist in the music industry and giving them a greater rate of compensation for their music. But despite this, no actual figures indicating artist rates have been given.

We know that Tidal will cost us around double that of a Spotify subscription, but what is completely unclear is what percentage of this will go to artists. And by artists I don’t mean one of the seventeen standing on stage at the launch.

Why might this service be needed?

With the rise of piracy and free streaming, artists are facing inevitable challenges in the modern music industry. Not only do musicians face their music not being bought legally, but they also must endure the frequently minimal compensation offered to them by streamers like Spotify. Offering a free streaming tier has caused massive backlash for Spotify, who refuses to change this feature of their service, arguing that its free tier is crucial in persuading listeners to commit to a monthly subscription. To prove this very point, its listenership consists of 60 million users, and yet only 15 million of them pay for the service.
It is features such as this that makes the music industry of today difficult to survive in for artists.

Frustrations have mounted and been made clear by musicians such as Taylor Swift, who refuelled the debate about artist compensation from streaming services last November when she ripped her catalogue off Spotify ahead of the release of her 1989 record.

Tidal on the other hand, has no free option, it’s all paid for, which is precisely the point. In these ways, Tidal aims to make itself a streaming service that can better compensate artists and go on to improve the current state of the music industry by competing with services like Spotify who have made it harder for musicians to live off their art.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Tidal?

Besides supporting the music industry, the main advantages of Tidal for listeners are higher quality music and exclusives and even demo tracks from particular artists appearing on Tidal first.

Additionally, the design of the Tidal app is highly intuitive and aesthetically appealing. In other words, it’s very pretty. That being said, I have only seen the images on Google, as I cant even preview the Tidal page without paying money first. It is here where the advantages of Tidal cease. As the last twenty years of the music industry has shown us…the vast majority of listeners prefer free (or at least cheap) music. As such, streaming services like Spotify have emerged and remained popular for their low rates and free streaming options. It is the lack of these listener friendly options that disadvantages Tidal in some ways. While attempting to provide a better service for the artist, without the listener being completely on board and in some ways being put second, the disadvantages may well outweigh the advantages of this service.

Why has Tidal been met with negativity?

While there are benefits, advantages and even a degree need for Tidal, the week following the service’s launch as been plagued with a variety problems and criticisms.

Along with the blatant disadvantages for listeners like the extra fee and higher data usage, there exist also implicit problems with what the service is trying to do. This is most obvious when thinking about the HiFi audio offered by Tidal, a major selling point and pivotal part of the service. In the opinion of many critics, the focus on high quality audio simply ‘overestimates the average listener’. The majority of people listen to their music not through top of the market headphones or an expensive sound system, but through affordable and convenient stock Apple earplugs off their phone or IPod. However, for there to be a noticeable difference between 320kbps and 1411 kbps, adequate equipment like the right headphones or speakers is crucial. Without these things, the oh-so-important High Fidelity won’t be done justice at all. As well as overestimating the equipment the average listener probably has access to; Tidal has also in some ways over estimated the listeners themselves. Unfortunately, as the trends of the last decade have shown, the majority of listeners simply don’t care enough about high quality. Most people don’t especially care about where they get their music from or what streaming service they use, so long as they can hear what they want, when they want, for the smallest cost and the fewest number of interruptions possible. This pursuit of self interest above all else is typical behaviour for consumers in most market environments, and follows the typical formula of getting the most you can as a consumer for the least cost to yourself. Considering this, it could be argued that Tidal is expecting a little much of the average listener. A higher subscription fee, more data usage, the need for decent audio equipment and for what? To some at least, it seems like listeners are really not getting much more for twice the price.

So why should they pay up? The answer given to us at the press launch was not clearly stated at all, and rather the implicit message seemed to be the ‘you should trust us’. In reality, what was launched was the idea of buying something as a mark of devotion to your favourite stars.

It is here where the final reason for Tidal’s initial lack of success lies. First impressions are phenomenally important, and in Tidal’s case, they did not make a good one. While making the launch a star studded event may have seemed like a good idea to draw attention and attract viewers, in many ways, this was exactly the problem. All everyone heard [at the launch] was a bunch of rich musicians telling you to pay more money per month to hear their tunes in high quality.

Think of how different the conference would have felt had it been fronted by less successful and less wealthy musicians, with a focus on the state of the music industry and the difficulty many musicians are facing in the current environment. What did we get instead? We got a long-winded speech speaking about how wonderful music is, and how crucial Tidal is for the preservation of music, with some of the most successful musicians of the era staring at us from the stage. Had it not been multi-million dollar artists delivering the concept of Tidal, people may have found it easier to see the need for a service like this and been able to take this activism seriously, rather than be skeptical of any self-interest involved.