Does Tidal’s Exclusive Content Actually Matter In The YouTube Age?

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When Tidal relaunched last week, the celebrity-owned streaming service’s promise of all-star exclusives was a little underwhelming: Daft Punk’s nine-year-old Electroma film (streaming on YouTube), Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” (for sale on iTunes), a few curated playlists from Tidal’s co-owners (including Beyoncé and Jason Aldean), and exclusive footage from an Alicia Keys concert. This weekend, however, the service delivered those big exclusives referenced in last week’s press conference.

Beyoncé celebrated seven years of marriage to Jay Z with “Die With You,” an emotionally searing, 4-style piano ballad that showed up on Tidal via a lo-fi video shot by Jay himself. After debuting her soulful ode to the American dream at the March Madness Music Festival on Saturday, Rihanna released both the video and the audio of “American Oxygen” via Tidal. Madonna briefly teased her “Ghosttown” video, while Erykah Badu offered up an ambitious 50-minute Western, They Die By Dawn, complete with an all-black cast of stars.

Suddenly there seemed to be good reason to join Tidal, which doesn’t offer a free subscription beyond a trial period. That is, until you perused the various blog posts publicizing Bey and Rih’s new songs. Few could be found without embeds of fan-uploaded YouTube videos featuring “Die With You” and “American Oxygen.” If artists can’t get fans to pay a dollar to “own” a new single, why would those fans pay $10 or even $20 a month for Tidal, when the songs inevitably end up on YouTube and file-sharing sites anyway?

Typically, the audio on these illicit uploads is sped up or down slightly in order to cruise past YouTube’s Content ID system, which automatically scans every YouTube upload for potential copyright infringement. The system allows copyright holders to upload source audio to YouTube, even if the work hasn’t officially been released — the audio is then used to automatically pre-block any unofficial uploads that match its contents. But most copyright holders don’t choose to outright block uploads of their work, so they end up blocking these unofficial uploads manually, after the fact. Internet culture — and to a certain extent, music culture — depends on this lag in copyright takedowns. Phrases like, “Listen to this while you can!” or “Watch this video before it’s inevitably taken down!” are peppered throughout news posts on even the most credible of websites. The Internet is not afraid of wading through pages of Google results to find an upload that hasn’t been taken down… yet.

Even for the most lawful of music listeners, there’s the reality that these songs will end up on albums down the line, or being released à la carte to iTunes later. A true exclusive is hard to find — the fans make sure of it. By banking on a business model that places great importance on the exclusivity of content by big stars, Tidal is not just taking aim at Spotify and their other streaming music competitors. The service is challenging the democratic culture of the Internet, and perhaps underestimating how willing even an artist’s fans are in spreading unofficial, unmonetized versions of a song. The Tidal catalogue isn’t comprehensive enough yet to justify switching completely from your streaming service of choice, and in the meantime, artists are missing out on revenue from songs they offer up exclusively on Tidal instead of iTunes. This is a gamble even for pop superstars like Rihanna and Beyoncé, particularly when you consider that iTunes sales, Spotify streams, and YouTube plays are factored into Billboard’s Hot 100 chart formula.

You start to see the point Lily Allen made last week: “Hosting exclusive content from the biggest stars on the planet on a paying platform… while I agree with its intention, I fear it will send people back to pirate/torrent sites.” Even two and a half years ago, when streaming music services weren’t as widely used worldwide, studies showed there was a decrease in piracy within countries where Spotify had launched.

Musicians like to say that people don’t value music now because they get it for free. Take this free option away from them, and you’ll see how much people still value music — but it’s near impossible to wholly eliminate the free option, even for music’s top stars. In taking on the entire nature of the Internet, Tidal could end up spreading even worse audio quality, instead of showing listeners the light of lossless, legal audio.