“It’s undeniable that streaming is a very powerful distribution and marketing channel for artists. It does create audiences for them. With what we recommend and what we surface, we can accelerate an artist’s career. But our stance is that streaming is not necessarily fandom,” says Agustina Sacerdote.
“We want to create fans, and we want to use streaming to create fans. The reason that’s important is that fans tend to support artists meaningfully, aka financially, outside of streaming too. It comes back to our mission of economic empowerment. Streaming is powerful, but it’s not the only thing we can do to enable fans to financially support artists, both inside and outside a streaming context.”
A news story usually starts with the news being announced, but sometimes the context around feels worth bumping up to the top. The news in this case is that streaming service Tidal is launching a new profiles feature for its listeners. But when Music Ally talked to Sacerdote, Tidal’s head of product, ahead of the announcement, the quotes above felt bumpworthy.
Why? It feels like a step in the right direction in terms of how streaming services talk about the value they create for artists, and their role in the process – including the fact that they don’t need to try to control or take a piece of this financial, off-platform support.
If it’s more than talk, if it really is a guiding ethos behind new product features for these services, it could be truly meaningful.
It’s also interesting that it’s the streaming services one rung down from the biggest global DSPs – Tidal, SoundCloud, Deezer – who are pivoting most energetically towards these ideas of fandom communities, direct support for artists, and the DSP not having to control these things.
(The biggest streaming services are investing heavily in tools for artists, including ways to make money beyond their streaming royalties, but the focus is more on-platform: sell your merch, sell your tickets, broadcast your livestreams, all with us…)
Anyway, back to the news: profiles! Tidal users can now create a profile, complete with emoji-toting display names, which will house all the public playlists they have created. Those playlists also all come with shareable links.
This sounds like a small change, and an overdue one. Public profiles and playlists have been part of Spotify since its early days after all. But rather than talk it up as a revolution, Sacerdote sees it as a necessary starting point for what Tidal wants to do next around social music streaming.
“This is the foundation of a lot of the work we want to enable. Even though music to me is inherently social, and one of the most social expressions of art, streaming is not. It’s completely solitary: an individual activity,” she says.
“The feature itself is foundational. It lets you create a profile and make playlists public. And the interesting piece as well is they can then influence your algorithmic recommendations.”
For example, if a friend who a Tidal user follows creates a playlist that they like, this will be a signal for Tidal’s recommendation engine.
“The reality is that most people get their best music recommendations, formally and informally, through friends and family, and they do it through social media,” adds Sacerdote.
“We’re super-proud of the curation that we do here at Tidal, and we do believe it is a very powerful mix of music and culture. And the recommendations by people that you already know and trust are even more powerful.”
Artists already have profiles on Tidal – as artists. Sacerdote is curious to find out whether they will also make use of the new listener (or ‘member’ as Tidal calls its subscribers) profiles too: to share the playlists they listen to, and give fans a sense of their tastes.
Again, this is something already possible on some of the bigger services like Spotify, but the thinking behind it for Tidal is interesting.
“Everything we do now, we filter through our ability to economically empower artists. We are committing to thinking of rising artists as a primary customer,” she says.
“Ultimately we want to create meaningful connection between fans and artists, which ultimately start to blur the line between them. Meanwhile, we are also starting to push a lot harder on some of the tools and services that can help artists be a little bit more in control.”
That’s when the conversation moves into how Tidal hopes to help artists to create fans, and to make money away from its service as well as on it – the quotes at the top of this piece.
“Our whole perspective on profiles is: if we create profiles, we can create more engagement. Engagement creates communities, and fandom lives within a communal environment,” says Sacerdote.
“It’s something that we are starting to use very deliberately in how we take product decisions. It’s streaming, but if that streaming activity doesn’t also translate into something more meaningful, I’m not sure we’re doing our job.”
“We want to create a platform in which fans with all sorts of tastes are welcome, and have an amazing opportunity to discover and fall in love with the music, and with the artists behind the music. But we want to activate the communities that we can foster within the platform too.”
Artist control was a key message in Tidal’s relaunch in 2015 after Jay-Z bought the service, and distributed its ownership among a group of his fellow artists. That ethos was buffeted in subsequent years by allegations (fiercely denied by Tidal) of inflated subscriber figures and stream-counts for certain artists.
However, since March 2021 Tidal has been under new ownership – fintech company Block (formerly Square) – and it has been rowing hard towards that original ethos. That has included launching a feature where up to 10% of subscribers’ payments are paid directly to their favourite artists, as a step towards a full ‘user-centric’ payouts system.
“My number one mandate is to do things a little bit differently. Streaming in and of itself is commoditised. You can listen on whatever platform, and you’re listening to the same song. We are almost forced to do things differently,” says Sacerdote.
“I’m very encouraged by belonging to the Block family, what that empowers us to do from a commerce and payment perspective. It would be a complete disservice to not utilise those assets, although we want to make sure we do that thoughtfully,” she adds.
“The reason why our team feels very excited to experiment and do things differently is that our subscribers themselves have decided to do something different: to sign up for Tidal when they have such mainstream [other] options.”
“Our user base is very open to innovation, and we have also benefitted from increased awareness of fans, wanting to understand where their streaming fee goes to every month. We’ve gone out on a limb and done some innovative things around the way artists are paid.”
With Tidal and SoundCloud both launching their own takes on user-centric payouts, and Deezer’s desire to do so predating them both, it’s going to be fascinating to see how and when (or if) these mid-tier services can move the streaming needle in a way that their bigger rivals may want to follow.
Can any music streaming service truly innovate, though? One strand of industry thought believes that streaming isn’t just commoditised with its catalogue, but also with the design and structure of its services – complete with homescreen identity parades to support the theory. Sacerdote is optimistic that there is room for differentiation though.
“The more we talk to our fans, the more we realise that streaming is only a small part of being a fan. When you take a step back, music does not equal streaming,” she says.
“Music is understanding the artist, getting to know the artist, going to a show, buying merch, trying to get a backstage pass, showing that affinity. Streaming is just a piece of that. It’s how music is consumed, but it’s not necessarily how music is appreciated, and how music is experienced at an emotional level.”
“When you go to a live show, you’ve all spent money, you’re physically in the same place, you know the lyrics, you are all feeling the same thing. Streaming doesn’t even begin to capture that. As beautiful as it is to have that million songs in your pocket, the reality is that when you’re streaming, you’re probably doing something else too,” she continues.
“Our role as a product team is to enable fandom, and streaming is just a small part of that. You pay ten bucks and have access to all the music you want, but the ability for artists to create music and to have that be the way they make a living is anything but guaranteed.”
“The more we talk to customers, and the more we talk to the artists we want to support, the more we realise that streaming is a great way for them to get their name out there, but it is not the full story.”
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