JAY Z isn't a businessman, he's a business, mannnnnnnn...
We all know Jay can rap, we all know he can sell Samsung phones (kind of) and Robinson Cano knows he can even be a sports agent. Still, one area he has yet to "Takeover" is the subscription service business. Right now, Spotify is essentially ether-ing the competition, but now that he's gotten onboard with Norwegian streaming service TIDAL, Jay is making a big move to get inside the ever-growing trend of music paywalls. I'm skeptical, this feels like it could be the Memphis Bleek-Garnier Fructis of rapper/business pairings, but maybe Jay's music background will offer something Spotify can not. There's only one way to find out, so I signed up.
Before I get into TIDAL, I should make it clear I generally loathe subscription services like Spotify. First, artists are not adequately compensated for streams. It's certainly not the only way artist are taken advantage of, and the labels should be blamed as much as the streaming companies, but I always feel a little dirty buying into a system that fleeces an artist like a North Face. Second, I know I'm far from average here, but I have no trouble finding music on my own. In fact, I much prefer to do my own musical excavations rather than having an algorithm tell me what to listen to. I get it though. Not everyone can spend their day in boxers researching the Estonian trap scene, so I'm happy to give it a look see for y'all.
Now, onto TIDAL. Is it "Seen It All" or "Pound Cake"? Black Album or Magna Carta Holy Grail? Only one way to find out. Sort of in the same vein as a "1 Listen Review," I'll go through it and share my experiences to find out if you should grab your surfboardt and hop on the TIDAL wave.
The Sign Up
$20 a month? $240 a year?! Shit, it better come with recordings of Beyonce talking dirty to me for that price. Spotify premium is literally half the cost, so TIDAL better be two times as great. Call me crazy, but I don't think people will pay 20 bucks simply because JAY Z can get another Basquiat for Blue Ivy's playhouse. Anyway, you get a free seven day trial which is good, but should I forget to cancel, which I most likely will, I'll be getting charged. I'm not the biggest fan of having to give them my credit card info before I want to purchase anything, but I guess I trust Hova after all these years. Free Detox shirt to whoever reminds me in six days to cancel my damn TIDAL subscription; unless of course I like TIDAL, which means, you owe me a t-shirt.
Signed up and I'm about to get started on my "High fidelity musical journey," what ever the fuck that means.
I'm already not really a fan. I like more than two kinds of music, but I also don't want seven thousand different newsletters and e-mails. At least with Spotify, they kind of do this for you. This feels pedestrian, but I guess you have to start somewhere.
Two thingies in and I'm already confused. I like the idea of my phone being involved, but does that mean I can't use my computer too? Also, I'm not quite sure what "lossless streaming with our Web player is supported in Chrome only" means. Does that mean I need Chrome? I don't have Chrome, nor do I want Chrome; the only Chrome I need comes courtesy of Masta Ace. I guess I'll take my chances and check it out online before downloading an app and all that jazz.
I kind of went into this with a bad attitude but I have to say, based on the home screen alone, TIDAL's selection game is fleekish. Action Bronson? Check. Kendrick? Check. A new artist to check out (Tobias Jesso)? Check. Oh and they have a picture of Leon Bridges as a kicker. The home screen is actually pretty user-friendly and sleek. It looks fancy, but it's not hard to find where you want to go and what you want to listen to. It's pretty easy to navigate around and stumble across some music, but there were two main issues I came across. First, when you want to find new stuff, there is no way to search simply by artist.
Minus ten points for a Tyga sighting. For real though, I thought I missed something. I looked around for ten minutes for a way to browse by artist, but there doesn't seem to be one yet. Also, while I'm very impressed at the quality of the albums the quantity is terrible. I understand they're new and don't have an extensive library yet, but the fact that I could buy all the hip-hop or all the R&B albums they have for less than a year's subscriptions is pretty terrible. Under the R&B section, they only have 80 albums. It may seem like a lot, but in reality that's a very small number for a streaming subscription service. Still, I was really impressed by the quality, as they had some artists I have never heard of, and some which I thought nobody else had heard of. Additionally, I really liked their curated playlists. They had the usual ones like SXSW-themed lists (although that one had some great selections), holiday themed ones and a Beats music-esque mood/situation playlist, but the curated ones are a home run. An entire playlist of Bink songs?! If "Devil In A New Dress" isn't your cup of tea, I hate you maybe you'll like a history of Danish hip-hop playlist? I didn't even know Danish hip-hop was a thing, but now I'm well versed in the magic of Rent Mel.
Still, the Bink and Ren Mel playlists don't make up for a lack of depth and information. The biggest problem, I felt like playing a Madden demo where you can only be like two teams; it didn't feel finished. It's like they rushed to get it out - probably to get the jump on Apple - and didn't cross the Ts and dot the is. For example, it takes a few seconds too many to skip to a certain part of a song and to switch songs; it may sound ridiculous, but in 2015 just a few seconds is an eternity. For example, I was listening to the JAY Z/Roots Unplugged album and it paused between each song and, as a result, the dope transitions lost a little bit of their kick. There was even a second there where the play/pause button was replaced with one of those "loading" circle things. I couldn't even pause a fucking song?! Also they have tabs for videos, social media and a biography, but rarely are they filled out and when they are, they make little to no sense. Case in point, Masta Ace. Being a big fan, I was impressed they had his profile available in the first place, but the discography was stark and his biography was in another language.
Even if I liked streaming subscriptions services, even if I had all day to fuck around on them, I doubt I would go to TIDAL. Spotify does the exact same thing but better and for half the price. I'm really not sure what I'm paying 10 extra bucks for? The fact that JAY Z is attached? I understand it's supposed to be high quality music, but honestly I didn't notice a difference. It's not like Spotify's files are low-quality.
The only way I could see TIDAL competing is getting exclusive access to music, a la Taylor Swift. Imagine if all artists started releasing their music via partnerships with these subscription services. Spotify has had, more or less, a monopoly on it, but as more TIDALS pop up, it should be interesting to see how it effects where you can access specific artists. Imagine if the only way to hear the new J. Cole or new Big Sean was on TIDAL, the new Kendrick on Apple and the new Action Bronson on SoundCloud.
Aside from being able to listen to "Shake It Off," which isn't exactly hard to do other places, there's nothing TIDAL does that's new or groundbreaking. What's more interesting to me is not TIDAL itself but what it means for the future of internet music. Jay is a savvy business man and seeing him invest in a subscription service leads me to believe this trend isn't going away; you don't spend $56 million on something you don't believe in. While moguls like Apple, who purchased Beats and will release a revamped, Apple-ized version, and Sony are putting their hat in the ring, our go-to sources for free music like YouTube and SoundCloud are also considering the shift. Peep this:
And Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge, who runs the world’s biggest music label, has also been the most vocal about getting the industry to focus on paid services instead of free ones. “We want to accelerate paid subscription,” Grainge said at the Code/Media conference last month. “Ad-funded on-demand is not going to sustain the entire ecosystem of the creators as well as the investors.”
Right now, it doesn't matter which service you use or how much you pay, but next year, we may not have that luxury. Whether or not Jay succeeds here isn't the story, what is telling is that once this TIDAL wave of paywalls crashes to shore, the days of free music will be washed into the abyss like a sandcastle.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]