Music has always been tribal, about listeners putting a line in the sand, declaring their colours. Mods vs Rockers. East Coast vs West Coast. Punk vs Prog. But music fans are now going to have to decide on different sorts of allegiances -- whether to side with premium, high resolution audio services like Jay-Z's relaunched Tidal, or cheaper lower resolution services like Spotify, not to mention whether to stream, download or to buy physical records in the first place.
Last night, Jay-Z and his multi-millionaire musical mates lifted the covers off a revamped Tidal, looking to rival Spotify in the music streaming market. Opening a premium £19.99 a month tier for high-resolution tracks (lossless sound quality, FLAC/ALAC files at 44.1kHz / 16 bit - 1411 kbps) alongside a £9.99 standard def audio tier more akin to Spotify, it will also feature high definition music videos and curated editorial that will include contributions from artists and integrated Twitter feeds. Jay-Z is also encouraging artists to lobby labels for windowed album release schedules, giving Tidal limited exclusivity as new tracks are revealed.
High profile support came from the likes of Kanye, Nicki Minaj, Madonna and a host of other cash-flushed musicians, as Jay-Z heralded Tidal as the artists' streaming service of choice, promising more royalties would make their way to featured singers and bands, partly due to the fact that there is no ad-funded version of Tidal.
All this was preceded by a social media campaign of dubious merit, in which Jay-Z and his pals changed their profile pictures to a blue square and got the hashtag #TIDALforALL trending, as if a premium music service inaccessible to the majority of fans (and one that would prop up his estimated $560 million fortune, as well as swelling the bank accounts of his triple-A List Tidal supporting mates) could be viewed as a revolutionary act for social change. A fact that wasn't lost on many Twitter users:
— Joe Jessie (@Joe_McFly) March 31, 2015
— TO00 (@t3mzilla) March 31, 2015
— Steve Drum (@missunitedface) March 31, 2015
The hypocrisy there I'll leave to one side for a minute, because though the coffers of big artists are to be propped up by Tidal, it is a premium audio offering being sold that at least partially justifies its extra expense. The issue is, do music fans care about high-res audio enough to splurge on that £19.99 service, Tidal's raison d'être?
The fact that Tidal offers a £9.99 standard service at all seems to suggest no, and other high-profile high-res focussed launches, such as Neil Young's Pono, have been dissected revealing few can tell the difference in quality high-resolution is said to offer. Tidal, as well as requiring a pricier subscription than its Spotify rival in order to access "the good stuff" would also need to be paired with a high-end audio system or some expensive, audiophile-grade headphones in order to be appreciated. #TIDALforAll, to me, really should be read as #TIDAL(ForTheFewThatCanAffordIt).
It's an interesting time for music distribution. Streaming has proved that ready access to digital music can slow the rate of illegal downloads, though its business model, particularly from an artist's point of view, is regularly contested. With Apple's Beats powered streaming service waiting in the wings, your choices are only to get more complicated. But here's a simple question to leave you with; would you be prepared to pay more for a high-resolution audio streaming service?