Maybe it's not a coincidence that last week marked the 15th anniversary of Metallica's lawsuit against Napster. Surely you remember, as one of the biggest bands on the planet took on a rising star file sharing service that allowed people to trade and download songs on the internet, free of interference from record companies or the necessity of paying royalties to the artists making the music. The suit was an epochal event in the cultural evolution from physical music to digital -- it showed that a new era had dawned and record companies would now have to learn to keep up -- and the end result of it was that even though Napster was forced to file for bankruptcy, that death did little to stop the flow of free music on the internet. What Metallica v. Napster did do, though, was almost ruin Metallica. Here was a band full of rich guys throwing a tantrum over losing some money and whether it was true or not, the perception was that they were taking on their own fans by destroying Napster and threatening to sue individual parties into submission. It was a simple case of the right message (making sure working artists get their due) being championed by the wrong messenger (four asshole millionaires).
Fast forward to two weeks ago and the roll-out announcement for Jay Z's new music streaming service "Tidal." Sure, the idea of Tidal is good: to create an outlet for streamed tracks in HD that's artist-owned and which will make sure the musicians receive their due. But the reality of Tidal was made clear in the first two seconds of the press conference that heralded its arrival, as some of the wealthiest and most powerful artists in the music industry -- including Kanye, Madonna, Jay and Bey, Rihanna, Deadmau5 and Coldplay -- took the stage to quote Nietzsche and sign some kind of ridiculous declaration of independence freeing them, I guess, from the industry machine that's made them all rich beyond their wildest dreams. It was an insane spectacle, a tone-deaf exercise in royal self-congratulation. And for Jay Z, an entrepreneur who's generally brilliant when it comes to PR, it was an undeniable misstep. It painted him and the icons he'd chosen to surround himself with not as advocates for the average artist trying to make it in the business but as wholly out-of-touch musical oligarchs bemoaning the loss of a few bucks they wouldn't need anyway. Again, whether it was true or not -- that was the perception.
That introduction created a lasting first impression for Tidal and instantly drew battle lines between bands and musicians who knew they'd want to be no part of charging music fans $20 a month to kiss the ass of the recording industry's 1% and that 1% itself. The stories about how Tidal just wasn't worth the money sprang up quickly and within the past two weeks it's become a contact sport for musicians to slag on Tidal. Obviously, if they're not worried about being seen as standing against cultural powerhouses like Jay Z and Beyoncé, you know they figure this thing is doomed and it's safer to be on the side of the fans who will likely ensure that. In fact, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard came right out and predicted Tidal's ultimate failure in an interview with The Daily Beast. He summed up in one succinct quote the problem with the venture and the way it was introduced to the world. "(I) would have brought out 10 artists that were underground or independent and said, ‘these are the people who are struggling to make a living in today’s music industry. Whereas this competitor streaming site pays this person 15 cents for X amount of streams, that same amount of streams on my site, on Tidal, will pay that artist this much.’” What Gibbard is saying is that Tidal has the Metallica/Napster problem: making sure the artist gets paid is the right message, but Kanye and Madonna are absolutely the wrong messengers.
Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons goes so far as to complain that Tidal should be offering bigger payouts to smaller bands and artists. "Bigger bands have other ways of making money,” he says, admitting that “a band of (Mumford’s) size shouldn’t be complaining.” Mumford & Sons wasn't asked to be part of the Top 40 dog-and-pony show that launched Tidal, but the band's banjoist Winston Marshall says he wouldn't have done it regardless. He doesn't want to be part of the "tribalistic aspect" of the venture, he says, and he doesn't like the idea that these celebrities are using their personal brands to try to corner part of the musical market. Marshall says he wants fans to "listen to our music in the most comfortable way, and if they’re not up for paying for it, I don’t really care." When you consider the accumulated wealth and cultural clout of the bands and artists putting their weight behind Tidal, it's a pretty startling thing to attack as "commercial bullshit," especially coming from artists as established as Gibbard and Mumford & Sons. The thing is, ballsy move or not -- they're right. Tidal is too much money to pay for an inferior product that exists solely to further line the pockets of those who frankly are in no position to complain about getting paid without looking like assholes.
Back in the days of Metallica v. Napster it was all about possessing music. Downloading it to your computer and keeping it to play whenever you want from your hard drive. That's not how it is anymore. These days it's about nothing more than the ability to listen to the music you want from streaming services or the cloud. The artists figure they're missing out because apps like Spotify serve up their music over and over again, often on-demand, without giving them the tribute they feel they're owed. You can make the argument that Spotify and Pandora are advertising for these artists the way that radio has always done, but if buying an album isn't necessary anymore then there's nothing to advertise. The availability of your favorite songs is all that matters. With that in mind, maybe there really is a hole to fill in the industry, the need for a service that pays out more to the artists themselves (as opposed to the labels). Regardless, it's looking more and more like Tidal isn't that service and was never really meant to be since it was always intended to make the rich richer. The little guys in the business deserve every leg up they can get. But as Mumford says, those who already have it have plenty of other options for monetizing their work and image. From that first second the world got a glimpse of Tidal, it was clear which of these two artistic classes it was meant to benefit.