(Bloomberg) – The star-studded unveiling of Jay Z’s new streaming music service, Tidal, had the unlikely overtones of a lefty political rally. Beyoncé Knowles, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Jack White, and Madonna took the stage to listen to Alicia Keys give a vague, stirring speech about the power of music, with quotes from both Jimi Hendrix and Friedrich Nietzsche. Music’s biggest stars appeared in a product-launch video that bemoaned the power of Silicon Valley, which stands accused of eclipsing the pop icons of the music industry. “Right now they’re writing the story for us,” said Jay Z in the video. “We need to write the story ourselves.”
Musicians of the world, unite!
Jay Z is following through on his rhetoric in one significant way. Over half of Tidal, which the rap star bought in January for $56 million, will be owned by the artists whose music it features. Many artists have felt cheated by the financial arrangements offered by dominant streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, so an alternative that lines their pockets directly will be welcomed. But if populism is Tidal’s main differentiating feature, the newcomer faces challenges. No one on stage on Monday seemed the starving artist type—and there was no shortage of cynicism on Twitter as artists used the platform to hype the launch in the hours before the press conference.
As it stands, the economics of the music industry work well for consumers, even if things prove unsustainable in the long run. In exchange for enduring ads or ponying up a monthly price on par with a few lattes, listeners can access vast catalogs of albums from past and present that would have cost a small fortune to amass in the compact disc era. The record labels and pop stars have understandably resisted any additional downward pressure on prices. Apple was unsuccessful in its attempts to offer a Spotify-like service for $8 a month, and there is increasing hostility among artists to free versions of streaming subscription services. Taylor Swift’s decision last year to pull her catalog from Spotify helped turn the spotlight on this backlash. Tidal doesn’t offer a free, ad-supported tier of service.