March 31, 2015:Tidal relaunch event: big on stars, less so on details

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Madonna put her leg on the table. Daft Punk and Deadmau5 wore their helmets. Calvin Harris and Chris Martin grinned gamely over Skype connections. And everyone stood around like awkward wedding guests – except at a wedding where every attendee has to sign the marriage certificate while the church plays Radiohead’s The National Anthem, and lots of remote guests are snarky about the whole affair on Twitter.

But what did we really learn about Jay Z’s plans for Tidal at last night’s press conference? The assembled artists – Alicia Keys, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne from Arcade Fire, Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Chris Martin, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J Cole, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Usher – are all “owners” of Tidal, which Jay Z has clarified means equity stakes.

Actual features? Keys talked about “a place for connection between artists and fans, where we will deliver exclusive experiences that cannot be found anywhere else” while the declaration signed by the assembled artists describes “expanding this platform into an all-encompassing destination… Tidal will not just be a streaming service but an immersive platform with enhanced experiences”. For now, the exact details are vague.

A partnership with US mobile operator Sprint was mentioned briefly, and before the event, Tidal confirmed that it’s introducing a new $9.99-a-month subscription that loses the lossless quality of its $19.99 tier, but keeps the blend of music, videos and editorial.

That answers one question: whether Tidal intends to be a mainstream music brand rather than an audiophile niche. But it also throws up new questions about any pitch to artists that they’ll make more money from Tidal than existing streaming services.

“Will artists make more money? Even if it means less profit for our bottom line, absolutely. That’s easy for us. We can do that. Less profit for our bottom line, more money for the artist; fantastic. Let’s do that today,” Jay Z told Billboard in an interview published as the press conference ended.

Easy? The margins on a $9.99-a-month streaming service already mean companies like Spotify are hugely unprofitable, at least in their expansion phase. Carving more money out of this model for artists – all artists, not just Tidal’s stakeholders – is a big challenge.

That’s one reason why there’s already a backlash in full swing, with loud muttering about Tidal being a vehicle for the richest artists to get richer, in contrast to the “first ever artist owned global music and entertainment platform” vision trailed by Keys on-stage in New York.

Providing a convincing riposte to these claims – not to mention persuading labels to grant the kind of exclusives that are likely to alienate Apple and Spotify – will be Tidal’s key task in the coming months.

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Stuart Dredge
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