April 27, 2016


Tidal Wave: Beyoncé, Prince & Flipping The Streaming Wars Script

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Roc Nation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Roc Nation

In the span of 72 hours last week, Tidal, the music service owned by Jay Z and promoted by his stable of super-friends, transformed from a Twitter punchline to a legitimate challenge to the streaming crown—in terms of public perception, if not actual subscriber numbers. And all it took was a shocking death and shockingly competent album launch.

Last Thursday afternoon (April 21), Prince  passed away at the age of 57… and as a result of the public mourning that took place online, music fans flocked to Tidal, the exclusive streaming home of the Purple One’s entire catalog. Tidal’s high ranking in the App Store following Prince’s death suggested a bump in subscribers, and that spike continued when Beyoncé  unveiled her Lemonade album on Saturday night (April 23) immediately following the airing of her HBO special. 

Lemonade made its way onto iTunes roughly 24 hours later, but its $17.99 sticker price (the same price of a download on Tidal) naturally encourages Beyoncé fans to pay $9.99 for a monthly premium subscription to Tidal, which will remain the exclusive streaming home for the full-length. “Tidal will be the only destination for subscribers to stream the complete visual album's songs and videos offline, taking Beyonce’s journey on the go, without the need to download the experience,” a rep for Tidal says in a statement.

All of this is to say: Prince’s death (morbidly) and Beyoncé’s new album (triumphantly) have injected some fresh mojo into Tidal, which reported 3 million total subscribers last month. The company wouldn’t disclose any new subscription numbers to Fuse, but it’s safe to say that it’s been a robust week; more importantly, there’s been a shift in the view of Tidal was a long-term streaming option, with detractors and critics begrudgingly placing the platform on the same plane as Spotify and Apple Music.

“I think they’ve learned from some of their mistakes,” says Joe Conyers III, vice president of technology for Downtown Music Publishing. Some of those “mistakes” include the high-profile album launches that occurred prior to LemonadeRihanna’s ANTI, which was marred by false starts and leaks, and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which was supposed to be a Tidal exclusive forever and is now available on Spotify less than three months after its release.

“They’re still a very early-stage company,” Conyers continues, “and are looking at a pretty commodified space, and all of these providers are looking for ways to get an edge.”

That edge has presented itself in the form of exclusive content—at least for now. When Jay Z purchased Tidal and held a press conference last March in which Rihanna, Nicki MinajMadonnaDaft PunkArcade FireUsher and several others literally signed over their devotion to the new service, the main selling points were the high-definition audio and a more transparent financial commitment to the creative community.

In 2015, Tidal featured a handful of exclusive content for subscribers—Minaj's “Feeling Myself” video, a live-stream of a special Jay Z concert in New York City—but this year has seen its roster of superstars flexing its muscles with exclusive albums. The flawed rollouts of the Kanye West and Rihanna albums led to Saturday’s pristine Lemonade launch, timed with the HBO special for maximum online chatter (Twitter reported 1.8 million tweets about Beyoncé in the span of eight hours on Saturday night).

Any company that can get a star of Beyoncé stature wins, in the short run. But I think the big questions is, do creators win, and do fans win?

Jon Vanhala, Crossfade Partners

The emphasis on big stars dropping big albums has simplified Tidal’s pitch to consumers, after some mixed messaging when it launched last year. “I never saw it as a punchline, but I felt like the tech press was ruling the discourse when Tidal had its launch,” says Maura Johnston, a member of Boston College’s journalism faculty who reviewed Lemonade for TIME.com. “The launch was kind of silly, and having an artist-centric venture—something that’s by musicians and not people whose background is in tech—I think made a lot of the tech press very suspicious.”

Now, Tidal can ignore its early critics and crow that they exclusively have the streams of Prince’s full catalog (in a deal finalized last year) and Beyoncé’s critically adored new album. It’s worth remembering that Beyoncé’s last critically adored album, her 2013 self-titled record, launched exclusively on iTunes before rolling out at physical retail and on other platforms. With the advent of Tidal, Bey has done the same thing but with (presumably) a much larger share of the profits, in a model that other artists are no doubt pondering.

“It’s the classic example of an artist saying, ‘I’m going to own the means of production,’” Conyers notes. “There are certain artists who are going to aggressively use their market position to extract more profits. This is a current wave of doing that. She’s both owning the distribution and the content.”

Lemonade should pay huge dividends for Tidal in the short-term, and subscribers can expect more albums to exclusively roll out on the platform in the same fashion. But what’s next? Is the idea of exclusive content enough to sustain Tidal in the long-term, or is its current calling card simply a digital version of the exclusives that Wal-Mart and Best Buy boasted back before Spotify touched down in America?

“I don’t think it’s really what fans want, ultimately,” says Jon Vanhala, who launched Crossfade Partners after serving as the head of Def Jam’s digital marketing. “It’s been a really good thing for Tidal [in terms of] media and publicity, and by the App Store chart, a spurt in user acquisition. I think if you give it a week, and then a month, and then four months, and you break apart the data and see if that’s really valuable to Tidal, that would be really interesting. Any company that can get a star of Beyoncé stature wins, in the short run. But I think the big questions is, do creators win, and do fans win?”

Vanhala points out that the success of Tidal further fragments music consumers: Some listeners pay for Tidal, some pay for Apple Music (which is exclusively launching Drake’s new album on Friday), some can afford multiple streaming services and some simply get frustrated and find ways to pirate their favorite artist’s new album. “Fans want what they want, they want it right now, and they want it with the least amount of friction,” he explains. “To force us into different funnels to get things in all sorts of disparate places, I just don’t think is a longterm plan.”

Tidal will continue growing now that it’s found a footing, and as long as more A-list exclusives—there are rumors that Jay Z is working on a new solo album—keep coming down the pipeline. But in the same way that Apple Music and Spotify are diversifying their appeals with products and partnerships, Tidal will likely have to branch out and do the same to survive.

“I think that they need to find a lot of partners, they need to be front and center, and I assume they’re going to have to do some deals in the touring space,” says Conyers. “[Tidal] has to be a premium experience, and we’re still defining what a premium experience is in terms of an online streaming platform.”

Tidal is likely still a far cry from Spotify’s number of paid subscribers—30 million, as of March—but it can use a huge week as a springboard to more long-term strategies… or it could screw up its next major exclusive, and the Twitter mockery could continue. 

“These narratives can shift so quickly,” says Johnston. “It’s a day-by-day war.”