Jay-Z spinning his message at the Tidal launch (YouTube)
When I was growing up, I used to visit lots of record shops. I had my specialist shops – usually Shades (RIP) in Soho, London. I had the mainstream outlets – Tower Records (RIP), HMV. I had local record stores, good for white label rarities. Even WH Smith, a newsagent, used to sell music. I think my sister and I bought our first LP there. While some more niche tastes weren’t available in the bigger stores, I could usually find them somewhere else. And for the most part, you could buy the same record in several different locations.
What’s baffling me now is why musicians and their labels, particularly those who have already made millions of dollars, are trying to reverse that in an age where we’ve never had it so good in terms of access to music in multiple formats.
The recent launch of Tidal – the music streaming service backed by a billionaire’s row of Jay-Z, Beyonce, Madonna, Jack White, Rihanna, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Coldplay, and others – has tipped me over the edge. And it can stick its “lossless audio” tag up its overly-inflated egotistical backside.
Are we really expected to subscribe and pay for music on yet another platform? Are these artists really going to start removing their works from Spotify and other services, locking them away on their own platform to service nothing more than themselves? Seems that way, given Jay-Z has already pulled his 1996 album Reasonable Doubt from Spotify and put it on his new toy.
Thank goodness I’m old enough to earn a wage, because if I were back in those youthful days I described earlier, I’d be struggling to keep up with this so-called “revolution”. A $10 subscription here, another one there; it all adds up. I could be spending $50 a month. If these artists were ever to tour my town, I wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket – which will probably be in excess of $100, let alone a t-shirt and souvenir programme.
Jay-Z, who paid $56 million for Tidal – an illustration of his wealth – and his cohorts claim the platform offers a better model for musicians because it has no freemium tier, unlike Spotify and Pandora, which continually bear the brunt of high-profile millionaire musicians’ protestations. It streams music in the highest possible bit-rates, which only a handful of us with a sound system good enough to showcase that could benefit from anyway.
But regardless of that, is this really the right way to go if you want to save the music industry and spark creativity? Personally, I don’t think so. Tidal claims to offer artists higher royalties than other services, but how its lower-tier artists will benefit has not been made clear. And without a huge subscriber base, which will be very difficult to build given the competition, the proportion of cash left over after Jay-Z and his pals have lined their pockets is likely to be paltry at best.
As Randall Roberts pointed out in his excellent analysis of the topic, there are much better ways to benefit poorer artists if you’re int the lofty position of a global music superstar.
“A true artist-friendly revolution would involve an action more substantial than investing $56 million and holding a press conference,” he wrote. “For example, how about financing a Kickstarter-type service for musicians seeking funding, one owned and operated by successful artists interested in furthering the development and bank accounts of their less-fortunate peers.”
Hear hear. That’s far more pro-active than just making everyone pay more, creating an eco-system where music discovery is a pain in the arse. All these guys are doing is turning people away from music, putting up barriers, and making it less likely that kids will ever be inspired to create music of their own, and possibly release the tunes future generations will love and cherish.
So what’s the answer?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting music should be free and that’s that. I also don’t claim to have all the answers. But there is certainly room to think outside the box here.
It’s a fact that if you love an artist enough, eventually you’ll pay for the stuff they produce. I’m a paid subscriber to Spotify. I think $10 a month is reasonable, considering I’m only getting streamed audio, not a physical copy of anything. I’ll use Spotify, free services like SoundCloud and YouTube, and other platforms like BandCamp to sample things, and when I’m hooked, I’ll pay more for a CD or record, dig a little deeper for a concert ticket, and sometimes order a deluxe vinyl box set. But I’ll only do that if I’m able to hear that music for free somewhere in the first instance, whether it be on a radio station or a streaming service.
Think about it. It’s the oldest model in the book. As an artist, you’d record something, try and get some radio airplay, build a following via that “free” platform to a point where you might play a live show, make more money there on the door, sell some merchandise, including your CDs, and the snowball is rolling. It’s not rocket science. The only difference now is that instead of waiting for your song to come on the radio, a punter can discover it on demand, at their leisure. What these artists seem to be missing here is that there is so much less noise around them. People can go directly to your tunes without waiting two or more hours to get through a DJ’s curated playlist to hear it. That’s so powerful. What an opportunity.
Getting radio airplay is a nightmare unless you’re sleeping with the network programmer or have friends to give you a leg up. Now, you don’t need them at all. Some smart social media marketing can get you heard, and on a platform like BandCamp, you’re not restricted to a few royalty payments. You can set your own price, set up a subscription service if you want, sell other merchandise, too. You don’t need a label. You just need some desire and drive. And there is room for freemium models, in my opinion. It’s been shown that by offering a free service, you can drive higher paid subscriber numbers. That’s not exclusive to the music industry, of course.
Let’s not pretend the concept of free music is something new, either. How many of you used to record the Top 40 on a cassette tape and listen back to it over and over, week after week, without ever going to a shop to buy the records played in it unless you really loved them? Technically, that was illegal. But nobody cared. Musicians were banding together to remove tape recorders and Walkmans from kids’ bedrooms. But they’re doing the equivalent now, and trying to brainwash us into believing it’s a good thing.
I thought back to Taylor Swift’s swipe at Spotify in amongst all this. Why is she angry when it pays 70 per cent of its revenue back to the rights holders of the music it hosts? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. Absolutely, Taylor, and thanks to models like Spotify and BandCamp, many more people are paying for music again, and the user numbers have only gone up since they all launched. Spotify has succeeded in growing revenues for both labels and artists in every country it operates in. Why spoil the party now?
The irony of all this is that many musicians who haven’t made it big are often prepared to give their music away for free, whether via playing a live show or uploading tunes to SoundCloud, YouTube, Facebook, or other platforms. They want people to hear it. After all, music is nothing if it’s not heard. How is Tidal going to help them? Will they be offered a place on the platform? Of course they won’t.
The revolution is not in what Jay-Z and Co are doing. The revolution is, and always has been, the responsibility of the consumer. We’ve been down this road before with Napster. The actions of its founders John and Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, while questionable to some, revolutionised the music industry’s outdated distribution model, and drove creativity by allowing artists to share music that would otherwise never be heard because of the restrictive interests of record labels and mainstream radio. That’s a lot more than Tidal is offering.
There is money to be made, but who ever got into the music business for the cash? Only a fool would do that. The payoff is a bonus. I felt sick hearing Jay-Z and Madonna, sit at the table like some wise professors, harping on about how this is getting back to the music, the art, the creativity. Please.
What irks me most is that these highly-privileged few, who have already made their money from us, feel they have the right to dictate to us how we consume our music, and claim it to be for the betterment of the industry as a whole.
That, quite frankly, is bullshit.