Is Tidal Worth It? The Run Down
For the past 30 days, I’ve been a subscriber to Tidal, the new music streaming service launched by Jay-Z and a host of other partner artists back in March. Despite Jay’s best efforts to keep the focus on “restoring the value to music” and a more fair compensation model for creatives, writers and technicians, it didn’t take long before negativity and rumors of Tidal’s failure began to dominate the conversation.
And why not? Tidal has no free tier of service like Spotify and Pandora, you don’t download content to “own” like iTunes, and its main attraction of high fidelity audio is twice the cost of any other streaming service currently on the market. Many people do not feel like paying for music when they’ve been getting it for free since 1999.
In my opinion, what has hurt Tidal’s the most, was the its launch press conference. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Jack White, Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, and others took to the stage to announce Tidal as a music industry game changer. This backfired spectacularly. The pervading attitude around this video was perfectly encapsulated by Gawker as, “[The Music Industry’s] collective display of how rich and out of touch they are.” Tidal coverage has largely been fixated on entitlement, value, and predictions of failure, but I’ve seen precious little coverage on is whether the Tidal streaming service is actually any good.
When I first heard about Tidal, I was aces over the concept. As both a music fan and creator, I support anything that pays those that contribute musically to the culture. Still, it wasn’t Tidal’s music offerings that intrigued me enough to sign up. What I wanted to see the short film They Die By Dawn, a western starring Erykah Badu, Michael Kenneth Williams, Rosario Dawson, Giancarlo Esposito and a host of other talented actresses you wouldn’t expect to see in an hour long western together.
Personally, I have a sweet spot for Black westerns. I grew up on Posse, have seen Django 6 times, and to this day admit to being fan of Wild Wild West. Tidal offering exclusive access to this film and its banging and equally talent filled soundtrack, and was all the reason I needed sign up.
Tidal is new and has been constantly changing things since its launch, but what is remained its standout feature is its curation of content. Tidal wants you to listen to new artists as well as works you may have missed. It pushes you to have new experiences, and cultivates a feeling that music by the The Mountain Goats and Lil K is as important as work by The Zac Brown Band and Ciara. As soon you load it up, you’ll see that 74 year old dance music legend Giorgio Moroder’s brand new video right next to Raekwon and Snoop Dogg’s.
Genre is unimportant. Tidal breaks up its playlists by mood and feel before style and perceived relevance. Personally, I love that. Keeping with its focus on curation, Tidal also offers a constantly updating stream of playlists made up by the Tidal staff, partner artists like Alicia Keys, and various other athletes and personalities. Rather than breaking it all up by genre, they’ll also go deeper and give you playlists about specific engineers, eras and producers. Tidal is media nerdy so you don’t have to be.
Tidal is all about exclusive content and has recently added articles and interviews to its offerings. You can watch Jay-Z perform “Glory” with an orchestra or see that hour long Daft Punk film where they drive down a freeway… like forever… I don’t know. I couldn’t stick with it after 20 minutes of robots driving. While this feels relatively slim right now, if Tidal can capitalize on exclusivity and offer more than an exclusive day or two with “Bitch Better Have My Money” before Rihanna takes it literally everywhere else, they could create the kind of service I might be willing to pay for.
Tidal has many standard streaming service options are there as well. Users can create radio stations from songs and albums, listen to music offline, make and find playlists and choose favorites. However, for a site being billed as a premium brand with a litany of exclusive content, there is nothing fancy in look or functionality from Tidal. It’s a good sort of simple, but has a frustrating lack of options that other providers offer. Spotify grants social options like friend lists and plugging directly into your Facebook.
Pandora is simple enough for the extreme tech hater and lets you curate your own music with likes and dislikes. I haven’t tried Beats Music, but it’s already “cooler” than everything else. The oft-forgotten Google Play Music, which also lacks of a free tier, ports over the music you aleady own into an online library it builds around, grants commercial free access to YouTube.com music, and adds funcitonality to your mobile devices by allowing the ability to listen to any youtube video without keeping the page open. It may not sound useful, but once you can do it, it’s difficult to live without.
By comparison, Tidal is feature lite and clunky. You can favorite songs, but you can’t like or dislike them. There is no way that I found to eliminate certain tracks or artists from your lists and stations. Say you love 80’s easy listening, but haven’t forgiven Michael McDonald for leaving your aunt at the altar. Sorry, you’re still going to have to deal with his tracks coming up on stations you make. Similarly, you can watch videos, but you are not able to choose a lower quality stream if your connection is poor. I shudder to think of the problems I would have run into using their HiFi service.
There is a definite need to have all the right equipment to even attempt to take advantage of that aspect of Tidal. So far, my biggest gripe with Tidal is that I never finished They Die By Dawn over the entire 30 days I was a member. It was my entire reason for signing up, but I either couldn’t stream it high quality enough, or was unable to find it in my searches after it left the front page. From where I left off, all those bad men with bounties on their head seemed extremely tense in the saloon. I’m sure everyone hugged it out and were great friends by the end.
My 30 days with Tidal offered me a great deal of new music to check out. I fell in love with a song about classic luchador Chavo Guerrero by the Mountain Goats. I continued my sonic love affair with Lianne La Havas (Hey boo!). I was prompted to listen to the brand new Fly International Luxurious Art album by Raekwon, and caught up on all of the Wu Tang I missed over the years. Tidal’s curation and presentation really hooked me up!
Nevertheless, I feasibly could have done this on any other paid or unpaid streaming service and info on new music from the plethora of music blogs and magazines out there. Some of their exclusive content was novel, but ultimately did not offer enough to be a must buy. Finally, and I’m surprised I’m saying it, the functionality holes were actually frustrating enough to make me miss Google Play.
For now, I’ll be cancelling my subscription to Tidal, but will be keeping my eye on it and in hopes that it has more juicy reasons to sign on later. The juiciest would be a convincing and official breakdown about their payout structure for talent. If Tidal gets that right, then I’ll give them my money on principle as someone who believes artists, technicians, and everyone that creates should be compensated for their work regardless of how much money they’ve made or how rich the public thinks they might be. It’s the freshman and unknown musicians that need the support. It’s not like people are out there buying records.