On June 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple was in talks to acquire Tidal, the on-demand music-streaming service launched by Jay Z (and co-signed by a country club’s worth of Jay’s highest-charting colleagues) at the end of March 2015. Can you even believe that? Not the Apple stuff — we’ll get to that — but the fact that Tidal has been with us for only 18 months? It feels like we’ve been talking about the thing for five years now.
Maybe you don’t see it that way. Maybe I just see it that way because I’m covering the music-biz beat, and not only is Tidal always in the news, but it seems like every single rumor, report, or update refers to a potentially seismic shift in the company’s operations. Maybe such seismic shifts are commonplace among startups, but we never hear those stories, and instead, we focus especially intently on Tidal because Jay Z is such a magnetic, larger-than-life figure, and because he brought his service to market so, um, boldly. Tidal, as presented by Jay, was never a project; it was, from day one, a fully developed, ostensibly functional, and ethically sourced product — backed, boosted, and co-owned by some of the richest and most recognizable people in the entertainment industry.
In that respect, Tidal is like no other startup, really. Its large ownership “coalition” is worth a combined $2 billion or so, but those coalition members’ respective commitments and contributions to the cause are unclear and uneven; it’s not as though Tidal can rely on its owners’ collective wealth as a steady source of capital. It can presumably send out its CEO in search of funding, but Tidal has churned through three CEOs since Jay Z took ownership last March, and there’s limited incentive for investors to get on board: Jay allegedly gifted 3% equity to each of Tidal’s original 16 founders, meaning some 48% of the business is owned by the likes of Jason Aldean, Daft Punk, and Deadmau5. With Jay owning the remaining 52% of the company, that leaves very little pie to offer potential investors. Of course, Jay could issue more shares at a higher valuation, but any sort of significant dilution of Tidal’s equity would almost instantly leave Jay a minority shareholder in his own company — he could, in theory, be entirely shut out of the company’s decision-making process even as he continued to function as its public face.
It’s certainly possible there’s some alternate arrangement to be reached not involving Jay surrendering his position as majority shareholder — a loan, perhaps, or a corporate sponsorship — but at this point, a limited infusion of cash may be about as effective as Powerball tickets or prayer: a torn-shirt tourniquet frantically applied to stem blood flow to a slashed femoral artery. What’s worse, potential investors, benefactors, or creditors have seen little to inspire confidence otherwise. (It doesn’t help that the company axed both its COO and its CFO this past March.) For Tidal to survive, there may be no option except an outright sale. Or, if not an outright sale, then a nominal “partnership” with a money-printing multinational conglomerate whose investment would constitute a degree of involvement tantamount to ownership.
In Jay’s defense, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. When he kicked off this whole thing, he had an actual plan in place. At Tidal’s launch event last March, it was implied that telecommunications monolith SoftBank (owner of Sprint, among other things) would be helping to finance the service in exchange for a minority stake in the company at a valuation of around $250 million. (Incidentally, I’d love to know how they came up with that valuation, as Jay had paid $56 million for the company only weeks earlier … and that was 60% higher than its market value at the time.) But a couple days later, SoftBank reps announced that no such deal was in place, saying:
[Sprint] has not made an investment in Tidal. We are working together in partnership for the vision of the common cause of reestablishing the value of music, it is NOT a financial investment or exclusive partnership.
That being the case, it’s not really all that unusual that Jay was actively shopping Tidal within months of launch. Last June, Business Insider wrote that “Tidal has reportedly been in talks to partner with other streaming services in order to try and improve its financial position.” Last October, the Swedish site Breakit wrote that Jay had “grown tired of financing [Tidal] on his own and he is now actively looking for a new owner.” This past February, Fortune reported that Samsung, Spotify, and Google had shown interest in Tidal. But if progress was made in any of those negotiations, it stalled before crossing the finish line. Jay was unable to find a partner or a buyer for Tidal, even as the service had streaming-exclusivity rights to some of 2016’s hottest musical properties: Rihanna’s Anti; Beyoncé’s Lemonade; Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo; Prince’s entire goddamn catalog.
So it’s totally unsurprising that Jay would find himself talking to Apple about a Tidal acquisition, if for no other reason than … well, who was left? Sprint was off the board. Samsung was off the board. Google was off the board. Spotify was off the board. And those are just the companies with which Jay and Tidal have already been publicly linked. The list of potential buyers gets even shorter when you consider that Amazon and Pandora have recently announced the imminent launches of their own on-demand music-streaming services (more on both of those later). All things considered, it actually made sense that Apple would buy Tidal. Right?
Maybe, maybe not. In any case, for some reason (almost certainly related to the fact that stories with “Apple” in the headline perform better than stories with “Samsung” in the headline), this particular rumor gained a degree of traction that made the deal seem nothing less than inevitable.
“Tidal is particularly suited to Apple because it prides itself on being the premium exclusive end of the market service and that is what Tidal has been able to attract,” said tech journalist Farhad Manjoo on CNBC’s Squawk Alley.
Forbes wrote that a Tidal acquisition “could be a smart move for Apple. It would allow Apple to bolster the content and overall experience of the Apple Music service, which has been off to a relatively slow start since its launch a year ago.”
The Ringer saw it as a win-win: “Jay Z potentially gets an executive position at the second-most valuable public company in the world [while Apple] could pitch Apple Music as Artist-Friendly™, and Spotify, who currently dwarfs both Apple and Tidal by just about every measure, comes off looking like The Evil Empire that swindles musicians out of their hard-earned money.”
Even Kanye West chimed in:
Apple give Jay his check for Tidal now and stop trying to act like you Steve.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) July 30, 2016
We’re really running our own race. We’re not looking to acquire any streaming services.
So there ya have it. That may not be the end of the story, but that’s where we stand now. It has been 18 long, tumultuous months, but for all the rumors of seismic shifts to come, the landscape remains essentially as it looked when we started this journey. Nothing has changed. But something, at some point, has to give.
So what the fuck is going on? And what the fuck is going to happen next?
Here’s the dirty little secret nobody wants you to know about Tidal: It’s actually a really good streaming service. (Well, Jay Z would very much like for you to know that, but the rest of the world is happy to have you believe something else.) It’s a Swedish-designed product originally intended for higher-end consumers. It’s sturdy, multifaceted, and functional. It has a clean, attractive, intuitive interface. Its exclusive content includes stuff you actually want (unless you don’t want the Prince or Neil Young catalogs, in which case, I dunno, maybe this whole “music” thing isn’t for you). It offers some pretty cool occasional perks to subscribers. (I joined the service to get access to Kanye West’s Saint Pablo tour tickets a day before they went on sale to the rest of the world, and I found the experience of accessing those tickets to be pretty painless.) Yes, its ownership structure is unconventional and almost vitally flawed, but (IMO) philosophically more palatable than any existing alternative: In theory, I’d rather see my monthly $10 go to Jay Z, Beyoncé, Kanye, and Rihanna than the Apple Empire or whichever investment group is propping up Spotify till the thing goes public and the profits are split. Every streaming service has its strengths and weaknesses, but if you wanted to make a case for Tidal being the best streaming service, on balance, I wouldn’t argue against you.
And those are just the end-user benefits. Any potential buyer would find even more to like. Tidal claims a paid-subscriber base of 4.2 million, and while the “real” number might not be quite that robust, Tidal is nonetheless, today, the third-biggest on-demand music-streaming service in the country. It brings with it invaluable brand recognition and media interest. It boasts the imprimatur of almost 20 fucking huge artists (everyone mentioned above plus Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris, Jack White, Lil Wayne, Coldplay…). Perhaps most importantly, it comes pre-assembled, turnkey furnished. We discussed this a little bit a while ago, but it bears repeating here. As quoted in an October 2015 Billboard feature titled “Is Jay Z’s Tidal Possibly, Secretly A (Modest) Success?,” digital music consultant Vickie Nauman concisely summed up what makes the service so valuable:
Tidal’s [initial] selling price [of $56 million] was a bargain for a legally licensed and vetted ingestion engine, with multiple territory and currency support and an active recurring transaction engine. Regardless of the number of subscribers, the infrastructure is incredibly difficult to build, fraught with deep industry problems and complexity, and would take years to build from scratch.
Anyway, if I’m selling Tidal, that’s my pitch. And if I were putting a value on Tidal today, 18 months after Jay paid $56 million for the thing … well, startup valuations can be a little arbitrary because they’re theoretical numbers based on years-out projections, comparable precedents, and compelling salesmanship, but I feel like the version of Tidal that I just described could be valued at … a billion?
I’m serious! Hear me out! Samsung was close to buying in at $250 million, and that was last March, when the subscriber base was a fraction of its current size. Apple was reportedly looking at a $500 million price tag when it was weighing a Tidal acquisition, and that would have been a relative bargain, considering it paid about that much for the vastly inferior Beats Music streaming service way back in 2014 (Beats reportedly had 110,000 subscribers when it was acquired by Apple). Meanwhile, Spotify is currently valued at $8 billion. But rates are rising even as we speak. Per the New York Post, “Digital music subscriptions rose by 50 percent last year, and paid streaming is set to grow from $2.2 billion in 2015 to $12.7 billion by 2020.”
Given all that, I don’t think a $1 billion valuation for Tidal is outrageous. I mean, I think it’s obscene, but in the context of the market, it’s not mathematically unreasonable. Honestly, in some respects, it might even be a little conservative.
Not bad, right?
But remember, that applies specifically to the version of Tidal that I just described. That’s not what it’s actually worth, or even a clear-eyed projection for what it could/should be worth in five years. That’s a fantasy-baseball version of what it possibly might be worth in five years if we were just adding up all its existing non-monetary assets and product features, accounting for inflation, and evaluating the sum in a vacuum.
But nothing lives in a vacuum. So let’s drag this sucker out into the real world and start subtracting. Again, “value” in a case like this is subjective, and every potential buyer has its own set of needs and expectations, but because Apple was the organization most recently seen kicking the tires, let’s look at Tidal from Apple’s point of view.
What would Tidal really be worth to Apple? What would Apple be buying? What’s the value there, and more importantly, where’s the value?
Or, y’know, lack thereof. We’ll start with the most significant line item in Tidal’s ledger: the service itself. Okay, now just … strike that one altogether. Go ahead! Just cross it right on out! Because in this exchange, it’s a non-factor. It’s packaging as far as Apple is concerned; the whole thing would be in a Cupertino dumpster within three months of Jay handing the keys to Jimmy Iovine. Apple already owns one streaming service and it has zero use for another. The plan here would be to migrate all Tidal’s subscribers to Apple Music — even though, paradoxically, Tidal offers a better user experience than Apple Music — so the sleek Swedish interface and complicated mechanical infrastructure would be worthless to Apple. (Less than worthless, actually, because the process of “sunsetting” Tidal would actually cost a few bucks, but not enough to leave a scratch on Apple’s bottom line, so let’s just leave it at worthless.)
Moving on, we’ve got the one tangible thing Apple would be getting from Tidal: its 4.2 million subscribers. But let’s take a closer look at that figure. Whatever the actual total is — and we can call it 4.2 million, if that makes you happy — it’s a far cry from the number that Apple might convert into paying customers. First, we have to subtract all the people who just signed up for the free trial and will cancel before their credit card is ever charged (or immediately after their credit card is charged for the first time). I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you know someone who falls into this category. But it’s not just you! As Business Insider points out, this behavior is pretty commonplace, especially around the times Tidal offers a big exclusive, e.g., Pablo or Lemonade.
(This is Business Insider’s chart, not mine, and as they write, it would seem to indicate that, “a lot of the people who paid for Tidal exactly one month after the Kanye release [and subsequently the Beyoncé release] cancelled right after they received their first bill. This suggests they didn’t find enough value in Tidal to keep paying after they got the album they came for.”)
Then, Apple is going to lose a bunch of people who subscribe to Tidal because they like Tidal. Maybe they like the interface. Maybe they like supporting a black-owned business or an artist-owned business. Maybe they just like Jay Z. Whatever the case, those people make up a percentage of Tidal’s active subscriber base, and they’re not gonna stick around for the migration.
And then you’re gonna have a whole bunch of people who signed up for Tidal to get Lemonade and also signed up for Apple Music to get Views, and they never cancelled either subscription because they were too lazy or they saw some benefit in being a member of both services or whatever. Those people are already on Apple’s books, and they’re gonna have to get a credit or a rebate or something when the two services become one, so they’re actually costing Apple a little bit of money while bringing no additional value to the table.
So we’re not really looking at 4.2 million subscribers long-term, obviously. But what are we looking at? A million? Maybe? Less than that?
Finally, there’s the one thing Apple really wants from Tidal: those artist endorsements and exclusives. But — tragically — they’re not included in the deal. They’re all free agents! They’re already free agents! (Of this, Apple is keenly aware, considering Deadmau5 has his own fucking show on Beats 1.)
Maybe taking Tidal off Jay’s hands gives Apple the inside track on Beyoncé’s next album, but Apple is gonna have to negotiate that deal when Beyoncé is ready to begin negotiations, and it definitely won’t come cheap. My guess is bidding on that one starts at $50 million — remember, Jay got $25 million from Samsung for a smaller piece of ANTI — but let’s be real: Beyoncé could hold out for a hundred mil and almost certainly get it. Also? That might be two, three years down the road. You think Beyoncé is in a hurry to follow up Lemonade? I don’t. And I think Apple would like some degree of clarity on that particular point, considering the initial outlay. I also think Apple is looking at the numbers — not just Tidal’s numbers, but its own, too — and maybe wondering if these exclusives are really worth it. They cost a fuckton of money, they’re kind of a headache, they lead to crazy-high churn rates, and they don’t even move the needle all that much.
The weird thing is, I’m actually kinda surprised Apple didn’t pull the trigger on a Tidal deal, just because money is no object to Apple so why the hell not? But I’m kinda not surprised, too. Apple has less to gain from a Tidal acquisition than almost every other viable bidder — and almost every other viable bidder had already walked away from the table by the time Apple sat down. Jay Z (and Beyoncé, and Kanye, and Rihanna) built a company that could be valued at $1 billion, but without Jay Z (and Beyoncé, and Kanye, and Rihanna), the value is a complete fucking mystery. Jay can’t sell the business, because he is the business, man.
This seems like an appropriate moment to address the other seismic news item that was circling ominously over Camp Tidal in the past couple weeks: the report that the streaming service suffered losses of $28 million in 2015, its first year under the stewardship of its current owner(s).
Now, I’ve seen a lot of heat directed at Jay for this one, but I personally don’t see anything unusual about it. No startup makes a profit in its first year. They’re supposed to lose money. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that’s the point, but that’s definitely the plan: You spend exponentially more than you earn in the hopes of achieving steroidal, hyper-speed growth; then, when you’ve inflated the whole thing to Barry Bonds-ian proportions, you sell it for exponentially more than you spent to get there. (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure we should all be worried about the fact that a significant percentage of the American economy has basically been built on a pyramid scheme, but that’s not my department.) So Tidal lost $28 million in its first year? That’s nothing. Look, Uber is like the Nirvana of startups; every investor in the world is looking for the next Uber. Well, Uber launched in 2012, and it posted losses of $1.27 billion in the first half of 2016. That’s just how startups work!
But — and this is kinda important — that’s why startups give their equity to venture-capital firms and angel investors, and not, y’know, the Arcade Fire. (Maybe Jay should’ve partnered with Linkin Park instead?) Startups need backers with virtually unlimited resources to cover their losses and fund their growth. Make no mistake: Jay Z is fabulously wealthy. According to Forbes, he made $53.5 million between June 2015 and June 2016 alone. He can eat $28 million. But he’s not infinitely wealthy. He can’t bankroll this thing forever. And I’m not saying it’s gonna take forever. But … it might.
Because it’s not just growth-stage startups that automatically lose money: No on-demand music-streaming service has ever made a profit. Not yet. Spotify has been around since 2008 and it’s the biggest player in the game, no contest. In 2015, it did $2 billion in revenue and it still posted losses of $200 million.
This particular conundrum has led to a huge point of contention in the music industry right now, because the vast majority (84%) of Spotify’s revenue is paid out to copyrights holders to cover royalties, and Spotify’s plan to reach profitability is contingent on the service renegotiating its deals with record labels so that royalties would constitute a smaller percentage of that revenue. That doesn’t mean artists will necessarily get less money from Spotify tomorrow than they’re getting today; they’ll just get a smaller piece of a (theoretically) bigger pie. Of course, the percentages are small enough as to be negligible on an individual level (we’re talking about microfractions of a fraction of a penny here), but once we get into billions-of-dollars territory, those microfractions add up.
And that’s Spotify: It has 40 million paying subscribers, plus something like 70 million additional users who generated an extra couple hundred million dollars in ad revenue in 2015. So if Spotify is underwater, everybody else is drowning, if not firmly embedded in the ocean floor. I mean, I don’t know Apple Music’s financials, but I’m confident saying that thing is a total money pit and if it weren’t safely ensconced behind the walls of the biggest company on the planet, its office furniture would have been repossessed months ago.
Think about it: Apple Music is basically the same thing as Spotify, except minus the $200 million in ad revenue generated by free-tier users, and also minus 20 million paying subscribers. Plus? Apple is actually paying fractionally higher royalties to rights holders than those paid by Spotify. Another plus? Apple’s exclusives somehow achieve historically high (and mathematically improbable) streaming numbers and land at #1 on the charts every week, which means Apple is paying an unusually large amount in royalties on those particular properties. Oh, and Apple is ALSO paying salaries to Jimmy Iovine, Zane Lowe, Trent Reznor … And THEN it’s dropping, what, hundreds of millions on album exclusives and artist endorsements? Can we safely say it’s in the hundreds? The Drake deal alone was reportedly $19 million, and I’m pretty sure that didn’t include the cost of putting VIEWS ads on every bus and taxi in New York City for three straight months. Taylor Swift don’t come cheap either. Remember that spot that aired during the 2015 Emmys? The one that was directed by Selma’s Ava DuVernay and starred Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, and Mary J. Blige? Yeah, that cost a few bucks. Frank Ocean? Katy Perry? Travis Scott? These people aren’t giving their music to Apple because they want to do favors for Apple. They are getting paid.
And Apple is not. Not yet, anyway. Yes, Apple Music has 17 million paying subscribers, but you gotta break that out a little bit:
Those 17 million subscribers are spread across 114 countries. According to Music Business Worldwide, 7 million are in the US, and another 1.5 million are in the UK. So, assuming that’s accurate (and FWIW it sounds feasible enough to me), the other 8.5 million subscribers are spread out around the rest of the world.
You with me so far? Cool. OK, so Apple Inc.’s second-biggest market (after the US, naturally) is China — which makes sense, as China has a population of like 1.4 billion people (the US population, on the other hand, is around 320 million). ANYWAY, Apple Music launched in China in September 2015 — three months after it launched in the US. So it stands to reason that a handful of those 1.4 billion people have subscribed to Apple Music at this point. And do you happen to know how much an Apple Music subscription costs in China? No? I’ll tell you!
It’s $1.50 a month.
Now, that’s probably a pretty fair price, considering how much people make in China. I definitely don’t think Chinese citizens should be paying more than $1.50 a month for Apple Music, and I’m pretty sure artists aren’t affected by this disparity one way or the other, because as far as I know, Apple Music has established some sort of flat-fee royalty arrangements with record labels, and those rates aren’t based on revenue (unlike Spotify). I’m not saying anybody is getting ripped off here. I’m just saying that Apple Music’s 17 million subscribers aren’t bringing quite as much to the bottom line as you might think. But honestly? Even if they were, Apple Music would still be losing WAY MORE MONEY than Tidal. Just like Spotify is losing WAY MORE MONEY than Tidal.
The difference, of course, is that Apple Music and Spotify can afford to lose money. When Spotify needed some dough back in March, it raised $1 billion in convertible debt from a private-equity firm, a hedge fund, and some Goldman Sachs clients: “a deal that extends the money-losing company’s runway but comes with some strict guarantees” tied to Spotify’s upcoming IPO. As for Apple … man, Apple is a whole other species. Apple is getting dinged by Ireland for $14.5 billion in back taxes, and I heard an economist refer to that sum as “a drop in the bucket” relative to Apple’s resources.
Tidal may seem like competition for Apple Music and Spotify, but it’s not. Look, Jay is a great rapper. He has a beautiful family. He discovered Rihanna. He got Robinson Cano an outrageous contract. He has accomplished so much, and I wouldn’t dream of diminishing a single one of those many accomplishments, and on top of all that, he is super rich. But he can’t compete with those guys.
Just so we’re clear, Tidal’s not a true startup — the service itself was launched in Sweden in 2014, and Jay bought it in 2015. But I’m treating it like a startup here because, for all intents and purposes, it functions as one. It had essentially zero market share when Jay unveiled it last March, and even then, he was positioning it as a brand-new product. But I don’t think Jay wanted it to function like a startup, and I don’t think he planned on it going down that way, either. I think he was comfortable handing out equity like gift bags at a wedding because he didn’t expect to need that equity in the future. I think he was relying on the SoftBank partnership to keep him afloat, and when that ship failed to come in, Jay’s own boat started taking on water.
Now I can come up with a hundred reasons why SoftBank might have backed out of that deal, but whatever the real reason is, I don’t think it’s because SoftBank didn’t see value in Tidal or have faith in Jay Z. Truthfully? I think it’s probably because Sprint needs Apple more than Apple needs Sprint (iPhone 7 sales are basically keeping the company alive right now), and at the very last minute, it dawned on someone at SoftBank that maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to get into bed with a direct competitor to Apple Music only months before Apple Music hit the market. Hence:
[Sprint] has not made an investment in Tidal. We are working together in partnership for the vision of the common cause of reestablishing the value of music, it is NOT a financial investment or exclusive partnership.
A friend of mine makes his living brokering partnerships between venture-capital firms and startups, and a while back, I asked him what he thought Jay might do to rescue Tidal, even with all its existing equity tied up in the hands of a bunch of famous people whose affiliation with the service was nebulous at best. (Serious question: How does Jack White get 3% equity in Tidal and then release his new song on Vevo? Doesn’t that just defeat the whole purpose of the equity for everyone involved?) I figured my friend would come up with some complicated alternate strategies for securing funding — I dunno, venture debt or something. Turns out: Nah. As my friend explained it, when outrageously wealthy people are engaging with famous people, all bets are off. You just can’t predict how they’ll behave, because they’re not necessarily getting into these arrangements with an eye on making a profit. And as we’ve learned from Geoff Rickly and Hulk Hogan, for better or for worse, that’s true.
So maybe some maniac will invest a few billion dollars in Tidal just so he can get a seat at Jay’s weekly poker game or something. That actually could happen. Or Jay could wake up one day, look in the mirror, realize he’s already got it all and life is too short to deal with this stupid fucking bullshit, and then sell the thing for scrap or just pull the damn plug and walk away. That actually could happen, too.
But maybe there’s another way. Last week, Samsung shut down its own streaming service, the totally inert and universally unloved/ignored Milk Music, to instead “invest in a partner model focused on seamlessly integrating the best music services available today into our family of Galaxy devices.” So if I’m Jay and I hear that, I’m on the phone with my guy at Samsung right this very minute trying to figure out how to get Tidal pre-installed on every Samsung phone starting, like, next month, no matter how much I have to give up to get the deal done. And Samsung could profit from this, too. Because Galaxy users might actually click on that Tidal icon when they turn on their new phone. Nobody knows what Milk Music is (er, was — R.I.P.), but everybody has heard of Tidal. Everybody knows what Tidal is and who’s behind it. And if people fuck with it even for a few minutes, they might realize that it’s actually pretty good. They might stick with it.
I gotta make a confession, though: I personally did not stick with it. I cancelled my Tidal subscription not long after that Pablo pre-sale. (I also passed on those tickets, actually, because the seats being offered by Tidal weren’t that great. I ended up buying general admission on StubHub. It just made more sense.) Thing is, I’ve been a Spotify Premium subscriber since the day it launched in this country, and I really don’t need two on-demand music-streaming services on my phone or my computer or my credit-card statement.
But I liked Tidal. I like Tidal. I like the player’s functionality and the company’s ethos. And … look, I can’t help how I feel: I like Jay Z, and I think the world is a better place when he’s winning than it is when he’s losing. I also think it doesn’t suck having all those Prince and Taylor Swift albums right where I can find them whenever I want to hear them. So I didn’t just automatically cancel my Tidal subscription after that Pablo pre-sale. I really thought about it. I seriously considered quitting Spotify instead. Why not? Why stay? I weighed the pros and cons of both services, and I made a choice.
Ultimately, I chose Spotify because I was worried about Tidal. I didn’t know where it would be in a year. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle if it went out of business or lost one of its licenses or made some weird accounting error, and I definitely didn’t want to sign up for this one thing only to maybe see the owner bail out and leave me stuck signed up for this other thing.
The choice wasn’t exactly a life-changer, though, because, let’s face it: All on-demand music-streaming services are basically interchangeable. I know this isn’t some great revelation in and of itself, but it kinda put into perspective for me the challenges that are coming for this industry. The market is about to get flooded with new options — from Amazon, from Pandora, from Deezer, from two of the Big Three major labels, from fucking IHeartMedia, for some inexplicable reason — and they’re all basically identical to one another, except a couple of them are slightly shittier than all the others.
And if you think that makes no sense, consider this: When Pandora acquired Rdio last December, the latter service was more than $200 million in debt and had, after five years of steadily increasing losses, declared bankruptcy. IHeartMedia, meanwhile, is $20 billion in debt right now. So you have all this money going into these new services that exist only to compete against existing services that aren’t actually making any making money. And the only path to profit identified by any of them (i.e., Spotify) requires that less money be paid to artists who are already unhappy with how little they’re being paid. And that last part maybe wouldn’t be such a big deal except that: (A) the artists really are getting fucked over here, and I say that as a generally pragmatic person who has very little patience for people who complain about not making a living off their “art”; and (B) the sole reason people use these services at all is to listen to music.
I used to believe that this market could only function, long-term, in one of two ways: You could have a number of dynamic, truly different services that offer entirely unique menus — like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO GO, etc. — or you could have one essentially ubiquitous service — like Google or Facebook — that offers everything and is used by everyone and therefore can pay fair percentages to copyrights holders instead of spending a fortune on growth while subsequently cutting royalty rates to hold the line against other high-spending, growth-focused, rate-cutting competitors.
Here’s the thing, though: Neither of the scenarios I presented above would actually work. Artists and labels would get wiped out either way, and without artists and labels, streaming services would be worthless. Both of my scenarios would ultimately be disastrous. (A column for another day, perhaps.) And somehow, instead, we’ve landed somewhere in the middle of those two points, and that is also not working. We’ve got … exclusives. Jay can tell you from experience how far you’ll get with those. Man, Jay invented exclusives. (He actually did, kinda.) Jay’s mentor, Lyor Cohen, was talking to Complex about them a few weeks back, too. Here’s what he had to say:
I don’t believe in exclusives. I think it’s damaging to our industry. I believe in ubiquity. I don’t think streaming services should win or get a leg up because they have an exclusive. They should get a leg up because they’re the best consumer experience. It fractures the consumer experience if you sign up for Spotify or Apple or Tidal or Rhapsody thinking that you’re getting most of the world’s music for $10. When one has an exclusive or another has an exclusive, it’s interrupting the process of paid subscription. And I don’t like it.
I’ll take Cohen’s indictment of exclusives a step further and suggest that these arrangements are actively damaging to artists. Consider this: The featured stars at the 2016 VMAs were almost without exception musicians associated with either Tidal or Apple Music, and whose most recent work was initially offered as exclusives by one or the other of those two services: Beyoncé; Kanye West; Rihanna; Drake; Britney Spears; Chance The Rapper; Nicki Minaj; DJ Khaled … These are all big names. The program was broadcast on all 11 of Viacom’s cable channels. And yet, somehow, ratings were down 34% from 2015. (MTV said the cataclysmic drop was mitigated by a spike in the show’s internet video views, on services like Snapchat and Facebook. But as Gawker detailed in a fascinating feature, those sorts of metrics are “100% bullshit.”) And I know it’s not entirely causal, but I don’t think it’s a total coincidence, either. I think those artists are slowly disappearing behind paywalls and platforms, and people are less likely to tune in when they turn up.
So I agree with Cohen’s take here regarding exclusives: The consumer experience is being fractured, and with it, the consumer’s relationship to the artists. (The practice is also spurring a piracy revival, not surprisingly.) And I agree with this part, too:
I don’t think streaming services should win or get a leg up because they have an exclusive. They should get a leg up because they’re the best consumer experience.
Considering streaming services actually empirically don’t win because they have an exclusive, I think this “best consumer experience” gambit is a pretty interesting-sounding strategy going forward. And it would be endlessly beneficial for users, too, because, in this case, “best” is subjective: What you like best might not be the same as what I like best. This approach allows for a range of options, and encourages a competitive playing field, with services actively trying to improve in the hopes of offering better consumer experiences.
Instead, we’ve got a bunch of essentially identical one-size-fits-all options that ultimately, really, fit no one.
This is a genuine, actual problem. But maybe … that’s a good thing? Because problems are the basis of the entire startup economy. Problems are the basis of the entire startup mindset. This is literally Startup Rule #1:
Identify a problem. Then find a way to solve it.
That’s how startups actually make money. Not through venture capital or high-value IPOs, but solving a fucking problem. And that’s where Jay blew it with Tidal. He identified an opportunity, yes, and sometimes, that’s enough. Not this time, though. Jay already had 99 problems before he got tangled up in Tidal. But instead of solving any of them, he just created one more.