Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jay-Z and Tidal

As noted by Billboard, Jay-Z doesn't do a lot of interviews.  But here he speaks at length almost exclusively about his new venture into the music streaming business. 

He has a clear vision for his Tidal streaming service and articulates his goals well.  After reading the interview I looked for reactions to his announcements in the MSM and was surprised (well, not really) to see how many people managed to miss the point completely.  The reactions were almost entirely along the lines of "Jay-Z wants rich music artists to get richer" while willfully ignoring everything he said about spreading the wealth to ensure that everyone involved in the creative process (including writers and producers) and the special features (video, high end audio) that promise to differentiate it from other services.  Not to mention that nearly all of the "rich artists" getting called out made most of their money in the era when CD's were overpriced and the single had been killed off.  What about the artists who weren't born in time to sell millions of albums in that brief era when it cost $20 to essentially purchase a single song? And most tellingly, none of the so-called criticism addresses the core question of fair compensation for artists as a percentage of the total music sales pie.  Nobody's arguing that some artists don't make a lot of money, but in over one hundred years of recorded music history, there still isn't general agreement about payment structure, so what's wrong with entertaining new ideas?  Especially since most people will agree, if indeed they can agree on anything, that for most if not all of those one hundred years, artists have been getting the short end of the stick at best, and getting royally screwed over at worst. 

Jay-Z notes that music has become a common utility that is taken for granted, which has degraded its value.  People expect to hear anything they want for free on Youtube, and are therefore less likely to see music as something worth shelling out money for.  People will pay six dollars for a bottle of water when they can drink water from the kitchen sink for virtually no charge.  However, there's a niche quality to food and drink that defies easy comparison with music and other commodities. 
There's a market for high-end streaming services in the same way there's a market for gourmet food.  The difference is in how these products are purchased and consumed, namely with respect to convenience.  Mega-markets coexist with high end food shops and often cater to different audiences.  People will gladly drive out of their way to stop at their favourite niche shop or restaurant instead of settling for whatever happens to be closer by.   Eating in a fancy restaurant with a pleasant atmosphere is part of the perceived value that justifies the cost.  Even the six dollar bottle of water is justified if you're drinking it in a good restaurant or club, the cost becomes part of the overall experience of the night out.  In contrast, I haven't seen any evidence that an overwhelming majority of people want anything other than the utmost convenience when it comes to online music streaming and purchases.  For this reason everything tends to gather under a very small number of huge, online umbrellas (Amazon, Spotify, iTunes).  It's not just that the perceived value of the music has decreased, but that the experience of purchasing music has been devalued to almost nothing.  The listening experience has been devalued too.  Once upon a time you had to take the music home in order to hear it.  Now you can conjure it up from wherever you are on a variety of electronic devices.  Supermarkets are everywhere, but you can't press a button and have a sandwich materialize in front of your face in an instant. 

I'm not complaining about these technological advances, but they strongly contribute to the decrease in the value of music and make it exceedingly difficult for new services like Tidal to succeed.   

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