Is Tidal Changing How Fans Talk About Music?

Feb 29, 2016
Originally published on March 1, 2016 4:12 pm

The technology of the day has everything to do with how you get your music — and the music business is pushing more and more toward streaming.

With services like Spotify, Pandora, Tidal and Apple Music, there are a bunch of companies that want your ears — and your money.

And a lot of those companies are trying to get exclusives from artists. Two albums that are very popular right now were released on Tidal, a streaming service owned by a group of artists headed by Jay-Z. One of those albums is near the top of the charts right now. The other isn't there at all.

Rihanna's song "Work," featuring Drake, is No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Work" appears on Rihanna's latest album, Anti, which was initially only sold through Tidal, where she is one of the co-owners. And Anti went platinum.

But the way that Anti achieved that feat wasn't through Tidal. Last year, Rihanna signed a deal with Samsung that was reputed to be worth $25 million. Part of that deal was that Samsung gave away a million copies of Anti to fans. Tidal has stated that it sold almost another half million downloads of Rihanna's album, but those free downloads got Rihanna to platinum.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) determines whether an album goes platinum or gold. And it recently changed its rules to include streams in its accounting. So the Samsung giveaways alone gained Anti platinum status less than two days after it became available.

This all meant a big win for Rihanna: She received a huge sponsorship deal, a big wave of interest in a company of which she is a part owner, and the cachet of becoming a platinum artist in an incredibly short window of time.

The Rihanna project gave a big boost to Tidal's visibility. And that's something the company still needs. As a paid service, it's lagging behind its competitors. Spotify has more than 75 million users, including 20 million paying subsrcibers. Apple Music has about 11 million. In the middle of last year, Tidal had only about a million subscribers.

Now Kanye West has put Tidal even more front and center. The album that has a lot of critics and fans wrapped up right now is West's The Life of Pablo. To hear it legally, you've got to pay up and have a Tidal membership.

Like Rihanna, West is a Tidal artist-owner. And like Rihanna, he is definitely making money on his release both as a creative force and a businessman. Tidal's subscription numbers have reportedly surged since The Life of Pablo was released.

Despite all of the publicity surrounding this album, The Life of Pablo isn't charting because Tidal doesn't report its streams to Nielsen Music, the company that determines the Billboard charts, and it has not been certified gold or platinum by the RIAA. These days, Nielsen Music tracks sales in all formats (downloads, CDs, vinyl and so forth), as well as streams from services like Spotify, Beats Music and Rhapsody, video views on platforms like YouTube, and radio streams both online and on terrestrial radio. They have a proprietary algorithm that incorporates these various media into their chart formula.

So in the case of The Life of Pablo, an album at the epicenter of the cultural conversation isn't part of the official historical record in certain ways.

All these exclusives mean that music fans may have to start budgeting for multiple subscriptions to hear their favorite artists' recorded work. Just as you may already be setting aside money for Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu to see all the movies and TV series you want, you might now be stashing money aside every month for a combination of, say, Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal.

Even while some of these services, and especially Tidal, seem to be betting that artist exclusives will be their path to market share, it isn't always working out so well for musicians — even the extremely popular ones. Exclusive streaming deals have their own ramifications.

Take for example Drake's inescapable "Hotline Bling." Last fall, when the video for "Hotline Bling" was released, Drake was saying how much he was thirsting for a No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He wrote about his desire very publicly.

Drake's team gave the video to Apple Music as an exclusive — and the strategy backfired, at least in terms of getting him to his goal of being No. 1. Apple doesn't report its video streams to Nielsen Music, so there was no chance of the song making the top spot as long as it was an Apple exclusive.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Samsung has been in talks from time to time about buying Tidal — and sources were telling The New York Post this weekend that those talks have resumed in earnest.

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The technology of the day has everything to do with how you get your music. Today, the music business is pushing toward streaming - pull your music right out of thin air whenever you want it. Just pay a monthly fee. Search for an artist and a song, and there it is. Now, some artists are betting big that you would rather do that then even have the option of downloading it. Are they right? Well, that's the question in this week's All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: Many millions of people subscribe to Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. Upstart streaming services are also trying to break into this market, and the one most in the news right now is Tidal. NPR Music's Anastasia Tsioulcas is here to talk about how they're doing. Hey there, Anastasia.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie - great to be here.

CORNISH: Yes. Let's talk about one big song right now that is a good example of what we're talking about...


CORNISH: ...Rihanna's "Work" featuring Drake. Right now it's number one on the Billboard Hot 100.


RIHANNA: (Singing) Work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me. I be work, work, work, work, work, work. You see me do me dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt. So me put in work, work, work, work, work, work.

CORNISH: Anastasia, help me understand how this song is, I guess, making money right now.

TSIOULCAS: That's a good way of putting it. So it's from an album by Rihanna called "Anti," and she sold it only through Tidal. And Tidal is this smaller streaming service that's owned by a group of musicians. And guess who is one of those co-owners of Tidal?

CORNISH: Rihanna, among many other superstars.

TSIOULCAS: Exactly right, and this album "Anti" went platinum less than two days after it was released.

CORNISH: So this is - even though you could only download it through their website, it was an exclusive.

TSIOULCAS: It was at the start, but the bigger path to this platinum status was actually separate from that Tidal relationship. So last year, Rihanna signed a deal with Samsung. And part of that deal was that Samsung gave away a million copies of "Anti" to Rihanna's fans. Those one million free downloads alone from Samsung got Rihanna to platinum. The RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, recently changed their rules to say that streams counted, so Rihanna went platinum just on the basis of that free giveaway.

CORNISH: Ay-yi-yi. So she gets this huge sponsorship deal, and then she also gets the cachet of being a platinum-selling artist.

TSIOULCAS: Right. And obviously the Rihanna project gave a big boost to Tidal's visibility, and that's something that Tidal still really needs. As a paid service, it's still really lagging behind its competitors. So the Samsung promotion with Rihanna was huge, and now Kanye West has put them even more front and center.

CORNISH: Yeah. Let's talk more about Kanye. This is another Tidal exclusive, and let's see if we can play some of it. OK...


CORNISH: We actually - we can't play any of it.

TSIOULCAS: Well, so this is the thing - Kanye West released this album exclusively on Tidal. And to hear it legally, you've got to pay up and have a Tidal membership. And Tidal's numbers have definitely surged since his album "The Life Of Pablo" was released, but it's actually not charting.

CORNISH: OK. How can that be? You just told me streams count, right?

TSIOULCAS: This is kind of where we get into a maze of numbers. Tidal doesn't report its streams to the company that determines the Billboard charts. So with the question of Kanye West, we're in this moment in which an album that's really at the center of a cultural conversation isn't actually part of this big, official, historical record in certain ways.

CORNISH: You know, Anastasia, ever since Tidal was sort of relaunched with Jay-Z and these other artists and they had this business model of artist exclusives, there have been questions about whether this is really going to work. I mean, what's your sense here?

TSIOULCAS: Well, it's a funny time for them. They've really been pushing these artist exclusives, but we'll have to just see. Samsung - remember Rihanna and Samsung? Well, Samsung, over time, has been in talks, apparently, about buying Tidal. And just this weekend, the New York Post was reporting that those talks have resumed in earnest, so we're just going to have to keep an eye on them.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Music's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Thanks so much.

TSIOULCAS: Always a pleasure, Audie. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.