By Matt Grimes, Senior Lecturer Music Industries and Radio

So it seems that he gloves are off in the next round in the fight for streaming services and coming out of the corner with a ringside music celebrity support team is heavyweight music mogul Jay Z. Already a successful business mogul and rapper it seems that in some respects Jay Z is following lead from similarly positioned business mogul and rapper Dr Dre, who dipped his toe in the music streaming ‘pond’ with Beats Music.  With business partner and Chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M  Records, Jimmy Iovine, Dre developed Beats Music alongside the  Beats electronic company, which also enlisted the support of music celebs such as Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, in designing their own customised Beats headphones and speakers.

Last year Dre and Iovine sold the whole Beats business empire for $3bn to Apple Inc who, it could be argued, were looking for a way of getting back on the music consumer map after digital music sales at the Apple iTunes store dropped by 13%.

The sale of course included Dre and Iovine joining Apple to add to the celebrity kudos that perhaps Apple desire.

This has of course recently been bolstered by DJ Zane Lowe leaving Radio 1 for a job with Apples new iTunes radio service. There is it seems a pattern forming and a ‘joining of dots’ in an attempt to propel Apple to the front of the digital music race.

I digress. So what will the ‘Hova’s’ acquisition of TIDAL mean for the music streaming landscape. Yes, a useful addition to a market that requires more competition, especially against the quasi-monopoly of Spotify, and perhaps an improvement in the quality of available streaming services. But scratch beneath the surface and what is TIDAL offering that others aren’t?

All of Taylor Swifts catalogue!! After her recent spat with Spotify, claiming that it didn’t fairly compensate artists, she has announced that all her tracks will be streamed on TIDAL.

Not a deal clincher in my book I’m afraid!

It is being promoted on a number of levels- firstly one of them being that it is ‘artist owned’ with many of Jay Z’s already wealthy music mates becoming shareholders of TIDAL.

I think the ‘artist owned’ moniker though is somewhat ambiguous in its rhetoric, these are artists who are ‘businesses’ which are owned by  a number of existing shareholders, so one could argue it will in fact  be ‘business owned’. Secondly it is promoted as being ‘artist led’ including exclusive first streaming release window for artists, though it is yet to be announced what those artists will get in return. Within this there is, and will continue to be, the continuing problem with royalties with artists having to stream albums to approximately 75 more people, to get the same return as they would from selling the album as a whole. Additionally 80% of streaming subscription fees currently goes to rights holders, so there is very little headroom for increasing those payments.

Thirdly it is promoting the fact that the music you get will be ‘lossless’, a process that preserves the original audio data, even when the file is compressed, which in turn offers a higher quality listening experience. Neil Young’s recently released high quality PonoMusic player, which has faced harsh criticism since its release due to its lack of streaming ability and limited catalogue, will be some competition for TIDAL. Deezer Elite already has a foot in the high quality audio streaming market but  is struggling to make a significant impression to warrant the investment and the cost to the consumer. It seems that most consumers don’t see high quality audio being an important part of the music streaming equation as they struggle to hear the difference, though interestingly the spend on high end audio products has increased, with a 65% increase in high-end headphones alone. So perhaps Jay Z is predicting an explosion in the demand for lossless audio streams.

However with a generation that’s grown up on all-you-can-eat, free streaming, one could argue it’s going to be difficult to sell especially with the monthly $19.99 price tag Tidal has put on its service to pay for the high cost of the infrastructure required to stream large numbers of ‘lossless’ files.

Finally of course this could be seen as another obvious way of promoting the artists already signed to Jay-Z’s entertainment company Roc Nation and  the potential for TIDAL to sign artists direct. With a rather lacklustre launch that was peppered with awkward moments, one can only wait to see if that is a portent of TIDAL and ultimately which way the tide will turn for music streaming.

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Matt Grimes

Degree Leader for Music Industries at Birmingham City University

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