The Nexus

Jay-Z’s TIDAL’s Got Soul

Tidal and media mogul Jay-Z
Tidal and media mogul Jay-Z

I’ve been checking out Jay-Z’s newish music service TIDAL for the past couple of months. Having built a number of these services, I was a bit non-plussed when it was announced. However, inside TIDAL, may be some of the keys to understanding what really happened to the music industry and maybe…even saving it.

I was spurred to try TIDAL (Caps theirs not mine) a couple months ago when the now late Prince was coming to town to perform in his “Piano and a Microphone” tour. I wanted to make a Prince playlist to share, but the only streaming Prince catalog available is on TIDAL. (This is a good example of how exclusivity can work for music services.) And more recently, another TIDAL coup came with Beyonce’s masterpiece “Lemonade” being available first on TIDAL. (The connection between Lemonade, Bey, and Jay-Z makes for a whole other story, but I will save that for another post ).

But back to what might be TIDAL’s strongest suits in the long term. Besides offering exclusive content, TIDAL sets out to stand out from the crowd in two other ways: What they call “HIFI” streaming, and, hand-crafted playlists by star artists and DJs. Behind these two differentiators are also factors that I think illuminate what has happened to the music industry in the digital age.

Hi-fi Matters

From the first song I played in TIDAL, I could immediately hear quality in the Hi-fidelity stream (as compared to Spotify and Pandora). It’s a subtle difference, but there is something to it. I was hearing nuances in the song “Lady Cab Driver” by Prince I hadn’t heard in years. Next I tried Miles Davis’ “E.S.P.” which treated me to some nice undertones in Wayne (Shorter) and Miles’ interplay.

It took me back to what folks used to say (and are saying again) about digital CD vs. analog vinyl. The take is that there is no purer, warmer recorded sound than virgin vinyl. I agree. But put that vinyl to a metal stylus a couple of times, and the pops and clicks that result illustrate the value of digital. That said, fans of vinyl swear that something intangible is lost in digital recordings—that digital music is missing some of its soul. The mathematics say no, but no math can explain why music connects with with us the way it does!

Is streamed music just a shell of the real thing?
Is streamed music just a shell of the real thing?

If the vinylistas are right about a lack of soul in CD quality digital recordings, then compressing It down to mobile-friendly streams must be creating sonic zombies. Could it be with all of our technology, that even though we’re hearing the same songs, we’re not hearing the same music?

Surprise Me

Another TIDAL feature of note, hand-crafted playlists, works pretty well. I poked around with some of their human-curated playlists by genre—R&B, Rock, and my personal faves Jazz, and Hip Hop. I really loved the “Jazz Things” series of playlists, and here’s why: The songs sounded good, I didn’t have to work at it, but most importantly, there were songs in those lists that surprised me. Not a lot, but enough to make me take notice.

This is the other key to the music industry’s woes that is revealed by TIDAL’s approach. It too, is subtle. Back in the day, as technology gave the folks who programmed radio stations more and more real-time feedback about the songs people liked and didn’t like, radio programmers (including me) did the logical thing. They swapped out songs that showed negative feedback with songs that everyone agreed with. And it worked. Programmers that did this, saw their ratings soar and their pockets get fat. Programmers that didn’t, found themselves out of the game.

Problem was, the songs that “everyone agreed with” didn’t vary much from market to market. Eventually, business analysts realized that a different Programmer in each market was redundant. Music began being programmed nationally. The music got more and more distilled to songs everyone agreed with. This did not work. Radio lost its soul. In playing it safer and safer, it stopped surprising anyone. When you stop surprising people, it’s official, you’re boring.

A new Tide rising?

When you’re dependent on low-fidelity sounds and boring, soulless playlists to introduce new music to your audience, you get what we’ve got. Where music used to be a primary entertainment activity, today it has been eclipsed by the excitement that is generated by “peak” television, social apps, and sports entertainment. These things have soul, mojo. Music needs to find a way to re-capture its swag. To me, it seems like TIDAL points to two ways it can do it.

First, return to quality. Music labels should seriously invest in creating high fidelity music experiences for people. What is the musical equivalent to 4G TV? Whatever it is, create it and wow us.

There should be a bigger digital role for tastemakers like these (from High Fidelity)
There should be a bigger digital role for tastemakers like these (from High Fidelity)

Second, return to surprising people with new sounds. The music that will surprise and delight cannot be found via recommendation engines or audience research. It’s an affair of the soul. It requires real people to find it. Music labels need to stop crippling music services with vampirish business models, and finally treat these services like the Radio Stations and Record Stores they are. Then, it needs to work with the services to find ways to create legions of tastemakers inside the services who can develop followings, and even make careers out of it. Create competition between the tastemakers. I guarantee you, the surprises won’t stop coming.

Purple Tide

Like the prizes in a cereal box, every post in The Nexus comes with a playlist inside. Here you’ll see the one I created in TIDAL in honor of one of my all time faves, Prince. I hope that you find some surprises!

4 thoughts on “Jay-Z’s TIDAL’s Got Soul”

  1. Thanks for the introduction to TIDAL, Ron.

    I am fully on board with your commentary about surprise-value and ultimately serendipity. Old-school radio programmers like you are fully immersed in the nuance that music programming involves – and it’s much more than just creating playlists and pressing shuffle-play. Segues and tempo and vibe and sequencing matters as much as selection, and the true art lies in having the ears and instincts to bring it all together.

    But beyond content and programming, consumers just want something that is brainless and just works. By now, there’s been so much fragmentation that listeners seem to be tuning out. Or, once people find a set-up that they like (content, access, audio tech setup), most don’t want to invest further into the next thing. We got worn out after moving our collections from vinyl to cassettes to CDs to iTunes to now trying to find the right programming at the right time on Spotimogipandordio. And, now TIDAL. I feel like I’m ready to sit this round out, and let things sort itself out before jumping onto the next new thing.

    Which means either trying to surprise myself on my own iTunes collection. Or, more often than not, just dialing up Radio Paradise which for me ticks all the boxes: (1) serendipity of hearing from a wide and eclectic catalog, (2) programmed by experienced music programmers, (3) hand sequenced with thematic segues, (4) one-click and it works – no upfront investment, (5) free (listener-supported with donations).

    Keep up the good work, Ron, and good luck with the nexus.

    1. Hey Brad! Spotimogipandordio! I like that. Thanks for the feedback. I agree with your take on consumers wanting something that just works. And I agree there is too much fragmentation. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have checked out TIDAL if it wasn’t for the exclusive Prince content. That said, I still spend most of my time with my iTunes collection, like yours, built up over years. It’s too bad that iTunes/iTunes Cloud/iTunes Match/Apple Radio is so convoluted. Post Steve Jobs Apple is in trouble.

      Anyway, I’m not familiar with Radio Paradise, I will check it out–and maybe write a post about it!

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