In all likelihood, Tidal is doomed. But thanks to the mega-wattage stardom of Kanye West, the music streaming service is getting some much-needed good news this week.
In case you missed it, West appeared this weekend on Saturday Night Live, where he announced that his new album, “The Life of Pablo,” was available exclusively on Jay Z’s Tidal music streaming service.
That drove Tidal up the iOS app charts in the U.S. to claim the position as the number one free download for the past two days. (FWIW, it still doesn’t appear in the top 150 free apps in France, where I live.)
Amid the excitement, West decided to make that exclusive even more exclusive by not making the album available for sale as a download from his website. In a week, the album will be available on iTunes.
Please for all music lovers. Please subscribe to tidal!!! I decided not to sell my album for another week. Please subscribe to tidal.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 14, 2016
West’s big splash comes a few weeks after a similar gambit by Rihanna, who in January made her new album available exclusively on Tidal (in partnership with Samsung). At the time, that drove the Tidal app up to number 13 on the iOS charts in the U.S. That album, “ANTI,” is now available on Spotify, as well.
This is Tidal’s strategy, of course. Exclusives with artists, in particular those who have ownership stakes, like West. But all this comes after a rough first year for Tidal, and amid mounting evidence that the music business is becoming more brutal than ever.
Tidal launched to great fanfare last year, but was immediately dogged with technical problems and confusing publicity over who actually owned it and who were participating as partners.
The lofty idea was to create an artist-owned business that would put an end to exploitation by music labels and technology companies. The company also offered higher quality streams at higher prices to attract true audiophiles.
Easier said than done. Tidal cycled through three CEOs between March and December last year. Last October, Jay Z claimed Tidal has passed the 1 million subscriber mark — though it already had 700,000 subscribers when he acquired it in March 2015 from a Swedish company.
The third season of West’s show on Tidal debuted last week and was viewed by 20 million people, but many experienced technical problems while watching.
Amid all this frenzied paddling, Apple stomped into the market last year with its Apple Music streaming service, essentially scrambling everyone’s eggs. And if everyone is being honest with themselves, they know it’s going to be nearly impossible to beat Apple over the long run, even if initial reviews of the service weren’t that hot.
Last week, Apple executives revealed that Apple Music now has 11 million subscribers. That’s fast growth for sure. But more importantly, Apple Music is merely a feature in Apple’s ecosystem, and so the company will probably never have to worry about it being profitable on its own.
The same could be said for Amazon’s and Google’s music services. But for the other independent services, the squeeze is on.
Just last week, word emerged that music radio-streaming pioneer Pandora might be looking to sell itself. In reporting its 2014 results recently, Berlin-based streaming pioneer SoundCloud said it would need to raise more capital in 2016 to keep the business going.
Last month, Paris-based Deezer announced it had raised another $110 million just a few months after postponing its IPO. The company’s strategy of offering its service in partnership with telecom providers gives it a little bit more flexibility in terms of worrying about profitability, as those wireless companies give the service to certain customers for free.
If there is one independent service that has a decent shot in the long run, it’s probably Spotify, which has said it has 20 million paid members and another 75 million who listen to the free tier. But even Spotify is rumored to be seeking another $500 million in funding to re-arm itself for battle.
Meanwhile, as Tidal tries to get traction, there are rumors that Jay Z is already trying to sell the service, perhaps to Samsung. While Samsung has Milk Music, it hasn’t gotten much attention.
A tie up with Samsung could make a lot of sense, and relieve the need for Tidal to make a profit. On the other hand, it would seem to signal the end of whatever artistic revolution Tidal’s artists were hoping to spark if they end up back in the hands of a major international corporation.
In any case, for the moment, consumers have an abundance of choices as they migrate away from CDs and digital downloads and toward these subscription services. That keeps many of these services optimistic that the streaming pie is still growing and that there’s a slice for everyone.
But there’s bound to a reckoning, and it’s likely to come sooner rather than later. With everyone looking to raise more money to keep the streaming dream alive, it’s going to get harder and harder to convince investors to keep betting against the juggernaut that is Apple and its infinitely deep pockets.