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Is TIDAL the Future of Digital Music?


It’s hard not to love the convenience of streaming music, just as it was hard not to succumb to the incredible portability of MP3s — and before that, the ease with which CDs allowed us to go skipping and shuffling across our collection. Music is an intrinsic part of the human experience, and it’s only natural to crave unfettered access; we’ve been trying to crack the barrier between sound and soul for millennia.

But it’s equally difficult to avoid the fact that, from an economic standpoint, streaming’s convenience is a devil’s bargain — that by offering us on-demand, all-you-can-eat songs and records for a minimal monthly fee (or nothing at all, if you don’t care about listening to ads), the music industry has opened a bleak new frontier for artists, one in which it’s all but impossible to use royalties to build and sustain a recording career.

Streaming pay rates are, to put it bluntly, garbage, and it’s a problem we’re all contributing to; even if you have a premium Spotify subscription, your $9.99 a month isn’t going very far, particularly if you use the service enough to justify the payout. But on the other hand, something is better than nothing — and since Spotify and its competitors are charging for stuff people can usually get for free almost as easily, it’s been difficult to figure out a way to advance artists’ rights in the digital age while appealing to a consumer base that’s been conditioned to think of music as something that doesn’t have to cost you money.

Difficult, but not impossible. While convenience has helped fuel streaming’s rise, it isn’t everything, and for the right company, fixing the streaming economy could be as simple as identifying weaknesses in the market leaders and providing what their services lack — for a price. That’s where TIDAL, the newly launched arm of Scandinavian media company WiMP, comes in: Rather than banking on the knowledge that quite a few listeners are more than willing to settle for low-to-mid-grade audio fidelity in exchange for a ridiculously low subscription fee, they’re betting that a substantial portion of consumers are willing to pay extra for better sound.

It’s no small difference in price, either. Where a premium Spotify subscription will set you back $9.99 a month, TIDAL charges $19.99, and doesn’t offer the ad-supported free versions that many of its competitors use to lure stingier listeners. But there’s also a substantial bump in the tech specs behind the stream, at least on paper: Instead of the 320kbps MP3s that pass for high quality in the rest of the streaming universe, TIDAL uses FLAC, a lossless format that boasts CD-quality sound at 1,411kbps.

For the audiophile, it’s no contest: TIDAL wipes the floor with every other streaming service (with the possible exception of Deezer Elite, a similarly themed offering available only to Sonos owners). But the debate over sound quality is still a thorny one, and for every hardcore hi-fi enthusiast who’s ready to shell out hundreds of dollars for Neil Young‘s HD Pono player, there’s at least one other person who will tell you that the difference between 320kbps and high resolution FLAC is inaudible.

TIDAL faces an uphill battle, in other words, which is likely a part of why — to their credit — they’re positioning themselves as a premium alternative for discerning listeners. “This service is not for everybody,” CEO Andy Chen told the Verge. “Spotify is for everybody. You don’t even need to pay! But for quality, you have to pay.”

Underlying message: All the cool kids use TIDAL, and if you’re one of us, then by extension you are cool too. It’s a time-tested tactic, and one that should work well with smug audiophiles looking for a reason to feel even more smug — maybe even well enough to help TIDAL turn a profit (something Spotify has yet to do). But cornering the market on sound snobs is only part of the company’s immense potential.

For starters — and perhaps most importantly — the company has pledged to nudge streaming royalties out of the gutter: As Chen put it in an interview with Tech Gen, “Since our service is double the price of regular market standard streaming services, payouts per user will also be double.” It definitely bears mentioning that payouts are so pitiful, not even doubling them will have enough of an impact, but it’s absolutely a step in the right direction.

But beyond improving baseline royalty rates, TIDAL’s success or failure will help demonstrate the streaming economy’s capacity for something it’s sorely lacking: A truly tiered listening experience that encourages added investment by reminding music fans that not all listening is created equal.

Under the old paradigm, you got your freebie fix from radio, you made your low-risk investments with singles, and when you were finally ready to go all the way with an artist, you bought the record; these days, only one fourth of Spotify’s global user base bothers to pay for the service at all. This isn’t because people have stopped seeking out music — Spotify claims to have 40 million accounts enrolled, and YouTube videos for singles from mid-level pop acts like Fifth Harmony rack up views in the tens of millions — but because technology, combined with the slapdash efforts of a frantic industry, has taken away some of the most compelling reasons to pay for it.

"Stuff like who played on the songs, or which order the artist wanted them to be played in — that’s just data, pushed to the margins."For example, music used to be tied to physical artifacts — things you could hold while absorbing the songs. Records, tapes, CDs. And before compact discs took a shrink ray to album artwork, sometimes those artifacts were kind of spectacular, with beautiful covers and liner notes that revealed an artist’s character while providing fascinating reading for detail-obsessed fans who came to know the names of the producers and session players just as well as the stars. When those artifacts were vaporized by MP3s, that attachment started to weaken; these days, music is just in the air or occupying incremental binary bits on hard drives, easy to skip past or delete with a few clicks. Stuff like who played on the songs, or which order the artist wanted them to be played in — that’s just data, pushed to the margins.

Meanwhile, the industry’s confused response to digital distribution — frantic lawsuits followed by DRM, followed by the all-out capitulation that’s led us to dirt-cheap streaming and MP3s — has devalued the music further. In 1974 (or ’84, or ’94), if one of the biggest bands on the planet decided to put a copy of their new album in the hands of tens of millions of listeners without asking them to pay for it, it would have been a huge deal; when U2 did it in 2014, Bono ended up apologizing for the inconvenience.

Where does TIDAL fit into all this? Having mucked around with the service a bit, I can tell you that the sound is indeed better, provided you’ve got decent hardware — I use an optical cable to connect my desktop to an amp powering surround sound speakers, and TIDAL wins the A/B comparison against Spotify. If you’re running a similar setup, it’s probably worth it for you to spend the extra $10 a month on the upgrade to TIDAL, but if you’re using computer speakers — or depending on your portable device’s onboard sound processor — the difference between “hi-fi” and “ordinary” gets pretty thin.

But if TIDAL sticks around, what it can demonstrate (no matter what kind of gear you’re using) is that not all streaming is created equal. They’re already offering HD videos and various curated content from their stable of tastemakers, but I’d argue that they’d get further with the kind of added value no one else is offering; if, for instance, TIDAL opened up a “premium” level that included access to easily navigable lyrics and liner notes (not PDF booklets, in other words), I’d kick in an extra $5 a month.

That’s just one obvious suggestion. What about licensing deals that allow extra-“premium” stuff like the ability to delve into a record’s individual instrumental and vocal tracks? Or a streaming angle on the PledgeMusic model, allowing listeners added audiovisual access to their favorite performers? “Follow” an artist on TIDAL, get the chance to pay for soundboard streams of their latest tour. Major new releases — and/or bonus tracks — are available immediately for premium account holders, while cheaper tiers need to wait. So on and so forth. Tiered content equals added profit equals higher royalties.

"Develop enough of these innovations, and streaming changes into a theoretically sustainable economy that brings us closer to music."Develop enough of these innovations, and streaming changes from one big, cheaply priced buffet that bankrupts the chefs into a theoretically sustainable economy that uses technology as a tool for bringing us closer to music rather than a cudgel for cleaving our deep attachment to it. Taken far enough, the first step represented by TIDAL could take us to a place where a majority of consumers see a tangible difference between a YouTube video and listening to a hi-fi stream.

For now? Well, it’s still just a first step — but one in the right direction, particularly if you have a decent amp and a nice set of speakers. TIDAL is currently offering complimentary 30-day trial memberships, so feel free to dive in and hear what might be the sound of digital music’s future.

Next: David Lowery Says Music Industry Is In 'For A Wild Ride'

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