The Tide is High – but is the Price Right?

Streaming isn’t going away anytime soon. Those at the upper level of the music industry might finally have to accept that the old models of distribution are not viable in an age of digital downloads and online streaming. The average consumer is simply not going to fork out ten pounds for an album they could just get off the Internet for free. Streaming services were born as an incentive for people not to pirate music. The premise is simple enough. You subscribe to a service that will give you unlimited access to a vast library of songs, provided you are willing to endure advertisements or pay a fee.

Spotify has been the major successor in this field, but it has not been without controversy. Many have questioned how much the artists receive in royalties. An artist will make $0.007 per stream, so even if a song is streamed 1000 times, the artist has still only made 7 dollars. This has led a number of high profile artists to withdraw their material and publicly denounce the service. Thom Yorke of Radiohead removed his solo projects from the site and went so far as to call the service “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” Taylor Swift has also removed her music from the site, decrying unfair payment practices and claiming that Spotify was devaluing art. Whether or not you agree with these damning hypotheses, there is no denying that streaming has its drawbacks. How does Tidal differ then from Spotify, and does it actually offer a better deal for its artists?

Tidal bills itself as a high-fidelity streaming service for music, video, and editorial. The service promises higher, lossless-quality audio but is considerably more expensive than its more established rival. Jay-Z bought the property last year from Aspiro as part of a 56 million dollar deal. With support from artists such as Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Deadmau5, Jack White, and Daft Punk, Jay-Z launched Tidal today. Undoubtedly many will be drawn to Tidal because of its certification from powerful and influential musicians. Some have even gone so far as to speculate that Kanye’s album might be released through the platform, and while this would be a genius marketing ploy, it belongs solely to the kind of thirsty fandom that online forums propagate so well.

The issue of pricing is the real issue. Spotify is part of the so-called freemium model that allows people to stream music for free (provided they listen through advertisement) or pay a subscription fee of £10 a month. Tidal, on the other hand, cannot be used for free and offers subscription for £20 a month, twice that of Spotify. Tidal have justified these prices by stating that the music quality is much better than what is offered by Spotify. Added to which, members can enjoy video as well as Tidal’s own branded content.

No doubt the service has a lot to offer for audiophiles, but to think that the average person is going to shell out twice the amount of money for these features seems more than a little ambitious. Still, it’s an alternative to Spotify and it has the backing of major artists, many of whom have openly criticised the streaming platform. Does this mean that Tidal will use the extra money it receives from subscription to pay a fairer wage to its artists?

Tidal CEO Andy Chen has declined to reveal how much artists will be paid in royalties from streams, but has made assurances that the service will pay out double the going industry rate. According to Chen, the amount artists will be awarded is still very much in negotiation across the industry. However, even if Tidal is able to pay its artists more, the figure is still fractional compared to the revenue generated from sales, whether digital in the form of an MP3 or physical in the form of a CD or a vinyl record. If we are assessing the value of streaming services in what they pay artists, to what extent is Tidal a better option? Tidal may have the support of big-name artists now but it’s unrealistic to think that this will drive subscription numbers to a level competitive with Spotify. In other words, with less subscribers listening to the music, artists are neither getting the money nor the exposure.

I think the problem lies in the fact that we are still evaluating streams as though they were industrial units. If your album goes platinum, you expect to receive a substantial amount of profit for it. But the Internet is not like that, as anyone who has achieved viral fame will tell you. Just because your video was seen a million times it does not necessarily mean you’re going to be any richer. I think a more accurate way of viewing streaming services is as a personalised radio station that you have complete control over. You don’t own the music, but you can pick and choose the tracks you listen to. It’s not perfect, but it does give artists big and small a platform to be heard, and as far as an incentive against illegal downloads goes, it has been quite an effective option.

The unfortunate truth that a lot of music industry higher-ups seem reluctant to realise is that the money isn’t really in record sales anymore. This isn’t to say that people should stop buying CDs and vinyl. The resurgence of vinyl demonstrates that people are willing to pay a premium for the hard copy, especially if it’s from an artist they love and want to support. I can’t speak for every Spotify user out there, but I’m more inclined to buy music from an artist if I’ve been able to hear it first. Hence programmes such as NPR’s ‘First Listen’ as well as album uploads to Soundcloud. In this way, streaming music for free can actually drive the sales of a record rather than diminish them. Kendrick Lamar’s recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, broke Spotify records. While it’s unclear whether this record-breaking influenced album sales (if at all), but considering Kendrick currently enjoys No.1 spot on the Billboard Album Charts, it certainly didn’t stop people buying the music.

Streaming is a new, burgeoning industry that is very much in an experimental stage at the moment. Whether or not Tidal will have a positive impact on its artists can only be determined in time. My guess is that Tidal will gain a following among audiophiles and those with more money to spare. Even with the ability to stream Taylor Swift’s back catalogue, I doubt Jay-Z’s new purchase will be able to compete with Spotify’s extensive library and affordable subscription. My hope is that while streaming services compete for a better deal for their listeners, they also compete for a better deal for their artists. The relationship between the music industry and musicians has always been complicated, particularly when it comes to money. Needless to say, this is a system that has often left its musicians out in the cold. There is no reason why streaming can’t do better.

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