Kanye West, Apple, Tidal and the art of public negotiation


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If a tweet was posted and the media wasn’t around to get excited or outraged by it, did it even happen? The last person you should pose that question to is Kanye West, who is more than keen to have most aspects of his life unfurl in public (just ask Taylor Swift). His latest blast of tweets, however, could be less about him and more about strong-arming business negotiations into the public arena.

Across a tetralogy of tweets, he called for an armistice between Apple and Tidal and for the former to just get its act together to buy the latter (there have been rumours of Apple’s Tim Cook kicking the tyres of Tidal for weeks). In typical Kanye style, he did not curb his language or his opinions. The tweets ran as follows: 1) “This Tidal Apple beef is f——ing up the music game”; 2) “I need Tim Cook Jay Z Dez Jimmy Larry me and Drake Scooter on the phone or in a room this week!!!”; 3) “F—k all this dick swinging contest. We all gon be dead in 100 Years. Let the kids have the music”; 4) “Apple give Jay his check for Tidal now and stop trying to act like you Steve”.

While the brevity of Twitter is often criticised for its lack of nuance, Kanye does manage to make some big and important points here. The “dick swinging contest” in digital music is (despite his fruity language) one of the least appealing things gripping the industry at the moment, where services sometimes seem more concerned about going to war with/undermining each other than delivering the best consumer experience they can. The last line of his third tweet, however, is a tricky one. “Let the kids have the music,” he wrote. This is the same Kanye who initially swore that his recent The Life Of Pablo album would be exclusive to Tidal in perpetuity (it was if you deem perpetuity to mean “a few weeks”). Plus, he’s talking about Tidal and Apple Music, the two streaming services who have increasingly regarded exclusives as the greatest weapons in their marketing arsenal. Let the kids have the music, sure. But maybe not just on one consolidated mega-service.

It has been suggested that Kanye, as a stakeholder in Tidal, has important insider information and he’s taking the debate public to force Apple’s hand so that he and everyone else with equity in Tidal will finally get their payday. In May, partly as a result of its streaming exclusive on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Tidal was reported to have reached 4.2m subscribers. That’s compared to 15m for Apple Music and 30m for Spotify. These are the three biggest players in the market and ultimately Kanye is wishing for a three-horse race to be turned into a two-horse race.

One is reminded of that old maxim of being careful what you wish for as it might just come true. As the music industry knows only too well, the only thing that’s slightly less bad than a monopoly is a duopoly.

Written by: Eamonn Forde