Music by VICE

Nobody Agrees on What to Think About Jay-Z's Streaming Service, Tidal

Capitalism in action or a total rip-off? You decide.

by Ziad Ramley
Apr 1 2015, 12:20pm

At a star-studded press conference on Monday, music's elite gathered at Moynihan Station in New York City to re-launch Jay-Z's streaming music service, Tidal. If you're unfamiliar with the platform, here's what we're dealing with.

Tidal's big selling point is its use of high-fidelity (often referred to as "lossless") audio format, FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). Unlike competitors such as Apple's Beats Music, Spotify, or more recently Beatport who make use of high-quality (320kbps) mp3 files, Tidal's lossless files promise "fully detailed, richer sound" (their words, not mine). While some services, like Beatport, offer FLAC as downloadable content, a service that allows users to stream music on-demand in high-fidelity is new to the industry.

Tidal also costs more. The standard package, offering lowly high-quality mp3s, is $9.99 a month, while the premium package is $19.99 a month. By comparison, Spotify is $9.99 per month (or $4.99 for students) and a free ad-supported plan is also available. (The hashtag #TIDALforALL is a little misleading given that it's not a free option on the service.)

Most importantly, however, is the fact that Tidal is co-owned by actual artists rather than typical dotcom investors.

Image courtesy of Tidal

Many fans, industry observers, and critics already have some strong opinions about what Tidal is. Billboard says Tidal is "good for the music industry—even if it fails" while Tech Radar recommends you "spend your cash on going to gigs instead." One Facebook commenter called Monday's high-wattage announcement "the best live-streamed satanic ritual I have ever seen."

Nobody has been able to agree on point of view, but we all agree that nobody agrees. Why? Let's take a look.

First and foremost, Tidal's use of FLAC throws it right in the thick of the "high-definition audio is pointless/amazing" argument. This argument has been going on since stereo stopped being a new-fangled sound, but the roots are even deeper. Can you even tell the difference between vinyl and tape or FLAC and mp3? That depends on a lot of factors, like whether you're in a quiet enough environment, if you're using hardware that can actually output high-definition audio, or the makeup of the song you're listening to.

There is no right or wrong opinion, but there are right and wrong settings. If you're listening to FLACs on iPod headphones and going for a run then yes, HD audio is pointless. If you're sitting at home in a decently quiet room and want to play old records on your Mac audio rig then yes, HD audio is worth it.

Both media and consumers are similarly divided about Tidal's price. Price is an oddly subjective factor to be up in arms about too, and considering we happily pay $5 a day for a Starbucks latte or drop $2 for an app whose sole purpose is to make fart noises, who the fuck are any of us to lecture on what costs too much? Tidal is definitely more expensive than its competitors, but on the other hand, streaming music services are still wants rather than needs. You could just as easily pay nothing and listen to music for free while stealing your neighbor's wifi connection.

Tidal is also pretentious. Our friends at Noisey went so far as to describe it as "softcore American Psycho," (they also said some other things about gender and aspirational audio products... but we digress). Watch Tidal's very real, entirely sincere advertisement and make the call for yourself.

Tidal's partnership with its investor/artists has generated a lot of polarizing press. Besides Jay-Z, backers include Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Alicia Keys, deadmau5, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, and of course Beyoncé, along with whoever else has jumped on board since the announcement are no different from most of the musicians that will have content on Tidal. That is, of course, apart from the fact that they're all enormously successful millionaires (except, probably Arcade Fire who has to split royalty fees amongst way too many band members).

Here's the thing: if Tidal was owned by Russian oligarchs or San Francisco hipsters, someone would still be making money. That's how the music business works. That's how capitalism works. That's how everything works. Should Tidal's backers (who happen to supply the sounds the product relies on) be no better than the rest of the capitalists while also touting the service as a saviour of the industry? If you don't like capitalism (and there are plenty of reasons not to) you probably won't agree with Tidal's internal structure. If you do like capitalism (and there are plenty of reasons to) you will be fine with it.

Tidal is the music industry equivalent of rag-tag group of friends all pitching in to open a bar. Except richer. Everyone is rich at this bar. Most of Tidal's backers are involved with Roc Nation in some way or another and many were name-checked in Madonna track "Illuminati" from Rebel Heart. For some people, this will seem wrong, but for others it's just music industry friendships in action.

There are other potentially eye-roll-inducing aspects of Tidal. From that hashtag, to the fact that Rihanna and Nicki wore oversized pastel jackets to the press conference and didn't tell Madonna they were coordinating, there's a lot to sift through.

Do you love Tidal? Do you hate it? Do you not give a shit? Share your opinion in the comments below.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Zendesk, Tidal's support page, as a Tidal product. It is actually a third-party product used by multiple other websites.

Ziad Ramley is not rich but he is on Twitter.