TIDAL is a sinking ship. For every potentially life-saving plug, two new leaks spring, leaving the company in a slow descent to the bottom of streaming relevance.
Jay Z’s streaming service, launched in March 2015, has been tripped up with snags that, at one point, could have been written off as growing pains by someone more forgiving: three CEOs in less than a year, a sticky lawsuit involving unpaid royalties. However, recent fumbles with TIDAL’s top-of-the-top roster artists Rihanna, Kanye West, and Beyoncé—who each dropped arguably the defining albums of their careers in the past few months—is proving what so many prophesied from the start about the company.
CASE NO. 1: Rihanna’s long-awaited eighth studio album ANTI was a slow burn of anticipation that climaxed with a botched launch. After a somewhat convoluted campaign with Samsung, ANTI was reportedly set to debut on TIDAL but was accidentally leaked by the service beforehand, causing a lot of finger pointing between TIDAL and Rihanna’s parent label Universal. Sure, mistakes happen—album leaks, schemed or otherwise, are nothing new. However, it’s Rihanna. RIHANNA. How an error like that slipped through the cracks is probably why Rihanna is pointing her Navy to iTunes to buy/stream her album and not TIDAL—even though she’s a shareholder in the company.
CASE NO. 2: Kanye and TIDAL are currently facing a lawsuit that was filed earlier this month regarding Kanye’s tweet that his latest album The Life of Pablo would exclusively be on TIDAL. Kanye’s announcement shot the TIDAL app to the number one spot on iTunes, but the problem was the album became available for streaming everywhere just weeks later. Granted, Jay Z and TIDAL aren’t responsible for what Kanye tweets (someone should be filtering this man’s tweets, but that’s another story) but the whole ordeal makes TIDAL look sloppy, even worse, disingenuous. Moreover, there was a hitch in the release of Kanye's album where a number of users reported not receiving a link to download the album even after they paid for it.
CASE NO. 3: Queen Bey dropped the hyped-up project that had been shrouded in citrusy secrecy on HBO (not TIDAL) over the weekend. The short film’s premiere was immediately followed by the release of Beyoncé’s sixth studio album Lemonade available for sale and streaming "in perpetuity" on TIDAL, as a statement from the company read. Not long after its release, people bum rushed app stores to download TIDAL once again, rocketing it into the top five in iTunes. However, less than 48 hours later, Lemonade was for sale on Amazon and iTunes, as well. Yes, you can only stream Lemonade on TIDAL, but it doesn’t stand to logic to pay a recurring fee of $9.99 to stream an album "in perpetuity" when you can just shell out the extra $8 and own the album in perpetuity.
It’s true that streaming is killing off physical and digital sales, but it only begs the question of how listeners are actually choosing to patch together their music experiences—and, unfortunately, TIDAL doesn’t seem to be much of valuable piece. Think about it: Apple already had a 15-year head start with iTunes, so when Apple Music finally launched last year, it seemed like a natural transition for most, with the service notching 11 million subscribers to date. Not big on iTunes or paying for music? Totally fine—Spotify is the only major player in the streaming wars with a freemium model, and yet it still has 30 million paid subscribers. Since TIDAL’s launch, it has only managed to secure three million subscribers. TIDAL arrived too late in the game to be a significant part of anyone’s music listening rotation. If Beyoncé’s entire catalogue is streaming on iTunes, there’s no sense in signing up for a different service just to hear Lemonade when you can fill the hole in your Bey music shrine with a one-time purchase.
Unless Drake suddenly forgoes his deal with Apple to release Views on TIDAL, Beyoncé has delivered the company’s last major release of the year. The spike of activity for TIDAL swirling around Lemonade, The Life of Pablo, and ANTI won’t be enough to sustain TIDAL’s success in the long-run. Even with TIDAL holding the majority of Prince’s catalogue after his untimely passing, it's just another short-term burst. Things may seem rosy for TIDAL when they see new subscribers jumping onboard during a high-profile release, but how many people actually stay when that 60-day trial is up and said release is on Spotify and iTunes?
The main problem TIDAL seems to have is with this word "exclusive." Since its launch, TIDAL has boasted two keystone features that it billed as the disrupter among the competition: high-fidelity audio and exclusive access to its carousel of backers/talent including Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Daft Punk, and Jack White. It was hard to believe that anyone would care enough to get hi-fi audio for double the subscription rate when most people don’t have the luxe headphones or are rarely in conducive environments to make the most of it. So the company’s ace has always been the idea of having exclusive content and releases from its stars. And technically, the company hasn’t faltered in that regard—albums have had some lead time in only being on TIDAL, but it never fails that they wind up on competing services, too.
In the end, it’s not really for TIDAL to hold any kind of long-lasting or meaningful exclusive—it’s the decision of the label. Although Kanye, Rihanna, and Beyoncé all have own their own music labels (GOOD Music, Westbury Road, and Parkwood Entertainment, respectively), they’re still beholden to their labels parent companies, Universal Music for Kanye and Rihanna, and Sony Music for Beyoncé. There are indeed true exclusives on TIDAL (Daft Punk's 2006 film Electroma, video of The White Stripes first-ever TV appearance, behind-the-scenes footage from Alicia Keys’ Set the World on Fire Tour) but that’s not enough. The megawatt musicians who stood on that stage last year announcing their alignment with TIDAL aren’t (and can’t) get past the obvious: their music has to reach as many listeners as possible to make any kind of money. And even if getting a top-down exclusive on an album—streaming, purchasing, the whole nine—were possible, why would it be with TIDAL? Out of its main competitors, Spotify and Apple Music, TIDAL is woefully behind in subscribers with no clear sign of catching up—and not even the people closest to Jay Z can save him.
UPDATE: Apple Music now has 13 million subscribers, according to newly posted figures.