Can Tidal Give Smaller Artists Hope, Too?
The music streaming service Tidal grabbed attention yesterday (March 30) with a big press conference featuring the likes of Daft Punk, Jack White, Arcade Fire, Rihanna and Jason Aldean. During the event, Tidal -- purchased by Jay Z earlier this year from a Swedish tech firm -- announced it will be majority owned by these musicians and others. The message was clear: This is a streaming service that will do right by musicians, because it's owned by some of the biggest artists in the music business.
But what about the thousands of full and part-time musicians who are also getting low-balled by Spotify -- and whose very careers actually hang in the balance because of it? (The shortcomings of Spotify's payment model are well documented.)
For these artists, every little piece of exposure matters. Spotify presents them a very real dilemma: They don't feel happy about the amount of money Spotify is paying them, but they don't want to take their music off the service and make it harder for listeners to discover them.
That's where Anna Fox Rochinski sits. Rochinski's band, Quilt, is popular in indie circles -- their top song on Spotify has an impressive 439,000 listens. But, like every band that isn't Jack White or Rihanna, they still fight for every new fan.
Rochinski tells me she's on the fence about Spotify. "If people are using it and listening to it and fans and listeners love it as a way to listen to our music, we do value it," Rochinski, who sings, plays guitar and synthesizers, and writes music for Quilt, says. It's hard for a band that relies on every means of exposure to walk away from a platform with 60 million users. "I think Taylor Swift and Radiohead could take their music off Spotify because they don't need visibility the way that small artists do."
Rochinski recently asked her fans via the band's Facebook page what they think about Spotify.
"It was a big mix of feedback," she says. "All the way from, 'Spotify is trash, don't waste your time with it,' to 'I love Spotify and wouldn't have found out about you without it.' And then there was, 'I see both sides of it -- how can it get better or change to retain its good qualities and still improve?' If I were to sit here and say, 'F--- Spotify,' I would sound pretty ungrateful. But I don't want to pretend that it's really awesome either."
My take is decidedly less sunny than Rochinski's. Spotify is behaving like they have a monopoly on music distribution, treating bands badly by underpaying them but leaving them with few realistic options to better their lot. If 100 indie bands decided to band together and leave Spotify, they might be able to leverage better royalty rates. But a single, mid-level band is forced to choose between unfair pay and losing exposure.
It's possible that Tidal holds some hope for non-celebrity artists, though it was clear from their launch press conference yesterday that they're more focused on bringing in the big guns first. And even Jack White and Rihanna and Jason Aldean's involvement with Tidal might not amount to much more than a personal investment. Many artists -- even some of those who stood on stage at that press conference -- don't own the distribution rights to their own music. They couldn't take their music off Spotify if they wanted to.
If Tidal's royalty rates are higher than Spotify's and they are able to get more heavy hitters to swear off Spotify, they stand a real chance of making life better for bands.
And that is the only thing Tidal could really do to break Spotify's chokehold on the world of music streaming. It won't be the cool exclusive video and playlists they're offering -- not enough music consumers care about that stuff. And it won't be the hi-fi audio, either -- even fewer consumers care about that. But if their royalty rates are higher than Spotify's and they are able to get more heavy hitters to swear off Spotify, they stand a real chance of making life better for bands like Quilt.
Until then, they're just a room full of celebrity musicians patting each other on the back.