Jay Z’s Tidal: Can Music’s Celebrity 1% Save Its Other 99%?

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Yesterday, during the star-studded press conference announcing the relaunch of music streaming service Tidal, I was reminded of a figure cited by world-renowned economist Paul Krugman less than two weeks ago. On a panel about the future of music’s celebrity economy, alongside Win and Will Butler of Arcade Fire, Krugman noted that the bulk of music industry revenue is increasingly going to the kinds of artists who can fill arenas. And as of yesterday, it’s the superstars at the highest echelons of that list — your Beyoncés, your Coldplays, your Kanyes — who want to save the music industry for everyone.

Instead of making something from scratch, Jay Z purchased — for $56 million — a publicly traded Swedish tech company called Aspiro, which operated the modest Tidal service until recently. Already the relaunched Tidal has been met with skepticism, not least because yesterday’s event was a little bit of mess. “What is this thing?” viewers were left wondering — and rightfully so. We watched Tidal co-owners — Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J. Cole, Jay Z, Kanye West, Deadmau5, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Usher, plus Calvin Harris and Chris Martin (who Skyped in) — each sign a declaration of independence while Radiohead’s “National Anthem” played.

Despite this whole thing being Jay Z’s idea, Keys gave an awkward speech about the main goal of Tidal being to “preserve music’s importance in our lives.” She quoted Nietzsche and Jimi Hendrix. No one talked about payment plans, let alone payout plans. They just let all the shiny famous people be shiny and famous on a stage together for likely the first and last time ever. The word “EXCLUSIVE” was practically beamed into our brains. (So far, the Tidal “exclusives” consist of Daft Punk’s 2006 film Electroma, Kanye’s previously released “Only One” video, Alicia Keys concert footage, and curated playlists from Bey, Deadmau5, and more.)

The idea of a luxury brand an artist-owned streaming music service is not a bad idea. With increasing frequency, artists including Taylor Swift, The Black Keys, and Eric Church have taken their music off Spotify and other streaming services, due to the low royalty rates they receive. Songwriters and producers are in an even worse spot, as Aloe Blacc noted in a Wired op-ed last year. “Avicii’s release ‘Wake Me Up!’, that I co-wrote and sing … was the most streamed song in Spotify history and the 13th most played song on Pandora since its release in 2013, with more than 168 million streams in the US,” Blacc wrote. “And yet, that yielded only $12,359 in Pandora domestic royalties — which were then split among three songwriters and our publisher.”

It is exactly these types of musicians — the producers and songwriters — that I wondered about when Keys started tossing around talk of music saving the world. As a music consumer, these streaming wars are sort of great. Everything you’ve ever wanted to hear is free, legal, and easy to find! But outside of the listening binge, there is a moral concern for how musicians can survive. People who love music still feel like this, I think — the idea of support remains a concern, at least for small to midlevel acts. It’s Tidal’s A-list co-owners that no one thinks about. “Madonna and Jay Z are doing just fine without their small cut of our $9.99 iTunes charge,” is the attitude.

Can we trust music’s 1% to solve a problem that exists for music’s 99%? Royalty rates have yet to be discussed, but based on the bands who’ve received an invite to the Tidal country club so far, it’s clear that Tidal’s owners know that a streaming service with a Pono-esque play at lossless audio cannot survive with chart-toppers alone.Indie labels, or at least the big ones, are represented in the library so far. All the major labels have made deals with Tidal, because what label head is going to say no to all their most powerful money-makers? However, will this power extend to the small guys? For Tidal to make the big moral play it did yesterday, that sense of justice has to be present. They called themselves “The Avengers of music,” for god’s sake.

Jay Z is well aware of this, of course. In a new interview with Billboard, he lays out the moral dilemma directly: “Will artists make more money? Even if it means less profit for our bottom line, absolutely. That’s easy for us. We can do that. Less profit for our bottom line, more money for the artist; fantastic. Let’s do that today.”

When asked if revenue will make its way down the musical food chain, Jay said:

“Definitely. For someone like me, I can go on tour. But what about the people working on the record, the content creators and not just the artists? If they’re not being compensated properly, then I think we’ll lose some writers and producers and people like that who depend on fair trade. Some would probably have to take another job, and I think we’ll lose some great writers in the process. Is it fair? No. If you put in work, everyone else, you go to work you get paid. That’s fair trade. It’s what our country is built on.” “I’m just saying the producers and people who work on music are getting left out — that’s when it starts getting criminal. It’s like you’re working hard and you’re not receiving. In any other business people would be standing before Congress. They have antitrust laws against this kind of behavior. It almost seems like when it applies to music no one really cares who’s cheated. It’s so disorganized; it’s so disconnected from reality.”

It sounds like the idea is that the distribution of wealth will spread to the producers and songwriters who work on big releases. But still, I’m left wondering about the indie musicians who aren’t making quite enough from sales or on the road to quit their day jobs between tours. It’s these artists who are already struggling in the music industry, and it’s unclear whether Tidal will make anything better for them.