Words by Khari Clarke
From our #267 issue
On March 30 of this year, Shawn Carter, better known as Jay Z, held a conference to announce the launch of his newly acquired, Sweden-based music streaming service, TIDAL. At the time, another Sweden-based company, Spotify, occupied an overwhelming portion of the internet’s music streaming territory. Territory that Carter would be gunning for a piece of. The music magnate enlisted a cadre of pop culture’s most recognizable figures including Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Madonna, and his wife Beyoncé; unified in the belief that artists deserve more than fractions of a penny per stream from companies like Spotify, which make an enormous profit off of their craft. With a sea of cyan-colored profile pictures, and an onslaught of “#TIDALforALL” tweets ricocheting across social media timelines across the world — the “streaming wars” begun.
Music streaming as we see it today is a newer phenomenon. With the public’s ever-growing craving for immediacy and abundance, as well as their diminishing attention spans, the market for physical albums and the digital downloads has withered. The people want “more” and they want it “now”, and music streaming remedies society’s gripe. Streaming offers users millions of songs, accessible anywhere with an internet connection or cellular network, for a monthly price that’s comparable to purchasing one album — it’s the logical next step in music’s evolution.
The conversation within today’s music marketplace has become much less, “to stream or not to stream?” but more “where to stream?” Spotify, TIDAL, and newcomer Apple Music, make up the upper layers of today’s fragmented streaming landscape.
Jay Z’s aforementioned star-studded TIDAL press conference was met with resounding backlash, almost immediately, which was only the first sign of perennial problems for the streaming platform. The theme of the conference was that TIDAL would provide artists and songwriters with a higher percentage of royalties than other streaming services — a noble undertaking. However to achieve this, TIDAL relies on users paying either $10 per month for TIDAL’s standard plan, or $20 for it’s hi-fi quality plan, without an ad-supported free option like their competitors offer. It’s an overestimate to assume that the average listener: A. Is willing to spend more for higher quality music, and B. cares about higher quality music in the first place. Professionals argue that the difference in quality isn’t even distinguishable through smartphone’s stock earbuds and laptop speakers. That all pales in significance to the fact that the press conference appeared to be nothing more than a “feed the rich” commercial, starring a handful of wealthy whiners, asking the working class to pay more to help them fund their million dollar homes.
Exclusivity was another keynote highlighted during the conference. TIDAL would reportedly house content from artists that is only available via the streaming platform — or so they would lead users to believe. Short of the live-stream for Young Jeezy’s, Thug Motivation 101 10th year anniversary concert, a handful of curated playlists and Jay’s debut album Reasonable Doubt, most of TIDAL’s “exclusives” are only a Google search away. Hov’s “B-Sides” Concert, for example, was one of the first major “TIDAL-Only” offerings. However, the concert was available in its entirety on YouTube the day after. The same is true for R&B queen Beyonce and and rap diva Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself” video. Intensively teased on social media, it garnered enormous traction as a TIDAL-exclusive before ending up on YouTube as well. Maintaining exclusivity could have gave users the incentive they needed to deal with the platform’s bleak interface and otherwise inferior music selection.
Spotify is the veteran in the streaming music game. Established in 2009, the exact cause of the streaming platform’s meteoric rise isn’t easy to pinpoint. Rhapsody, and Pandora had both been around for nearly a decade by the time Spotify came into existence, each of whom saw success in varying degrees. Spotify just did it better. Boasting 75 million active users (as of June 2015), 20 million of which are paid subscribers, a catalog of over 30 million tracks, and a net value of over $8 billion, Spotify is the top dog.
To be fair, against such large figures it’s hard not to feel empathy for artists, who complain about the streaming service’s $0.006 to $0.0084 pay out per stream. Let’s face it though, while in a perfect world listeners want to support their favorite artists and see people paid for their hard work, we as a society aren’t far removed from the age of digital piracy. After years of fluctuating job markets, our post-Recession sensibilities remain intact — we want the best deal for our money, or for no money at all.
What Spotify does right is it caters to the music listener more than the artist, and rightfully so, as the former holds more power than the latter in the symbiotic relationship. Spotify’s premium tier costs $10 per month and $5 for students, which provides full access to their immense catalog, their radio feature, the service’s curated playlists, as well as users’ own customizable playlists and ability to play music offline. They also offer a free, ad-supported tier which provides users with most of the same features sans offline play, and a cap on the amount of skips between tracks. Reports say that Spotify will be scaling back some of its free offerings come Fall due to licensing deal renewals with Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. However, with a current new user offer of $1 for 3 months of premium service, there’s not much to be worried about.
Entering the arena almost exactly three months after TIDAL’s train wreck of a press conference, Apple had an advantage. At this years Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced they too would be entering the streaming wars with their forthcoming Apple Music, which would be a hybrid of the Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s Beats Music streaming service and iTunes’ music store. As it stands, pound for pound, Apple Music might be the closest to legitimate competition for Spotify.
Apple Music’s catalog is as expansive as you’d expect, given the extensiveness of the iTunes Music Store. The streaming platform not only provides you with their immense catalog of music, but also allows users to add the albums, tracks and playlists to their preexisting iTunes music library. Additionally, Apple Music’s human-created playlists are utterly amazing, and directly related to your tastes. Their playlists can be as specific as “Kanye West: Songs About Women” or as vague as “Young and Fun” — with both experiences being exactly what you’d expect. It is worth mentioning however that in many of these playlists, music is inexplicably “greyed out” and unplayable. While it’s safe to presume that licensing issues are to fault, the fact that the human curators would add unplayable songs to a playlist can be at the very least annoying.
Apple recruited BBC Radio 1’s DJ Zane Lowe, Hot 97’s Ebro Darden, as well as British disk jockey and rapper Skepta’s sister, Julia Adenuga, for the streaming service’s Beats 1 radio. Beats 1 would replace iTunes Radio as a 24/7 curated internet radio station. Additionally genre-based radio stations also provide refreshing variety of songs, curated by music experts not robots.
Connect is one of Apple Music’s most impressive features, allowing artists to streamline music, pictures and other updates directly to users in ways that only Twitter and Facebook have been able to.
While bugs are aplenty on Apple Music, you get the sense that the good outweighs the bad. Given Apple’s ability to take a preexisting idea — mp3 players to iPods, tablets to iPads, laptops to Macbooks — and make it better, there’s little doubt that after a few updates Apple Music will be a serious contender, if not the victor of the streaming wars.