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We’ve Reached Peak Streaming Wars

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Last week was a roller-coaster ride for Tidal, the streaming service bought in 2015 by Jay Z and co-owned by an X-Men-esque cabal of famous pop stars. On April 18, a subscriber named Justin Baker-Rhett sued Tidal and Kanye West over claims that West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, would be a permanent Tidal exclusive. (It was for the first six weeks, but was released to other streaming platforms on April 1.) “Even if their streaming service is struggling,” Baker-Rhett’s lawyer told Pitchfork, “they can’t trick millions of people into paying money (and giving up personal information) just to boost valuation numbers.” Fair enough. Three days later, Prince died — a morbid but fortuitous boon for Tidal, the only service streaming the artist’s catalog. And finally, on Saturday night, after premiering an album-length music video during HBO’s free preview weekend, Beyoncé surprise-released her new record, Lemonade, an incendiary meditation on black womanhood and her husband’s alleged infidelity … as an exclusive Tidal stream. Each of these incidents provoked varying levels of frustration from streaming music listeners, but only Lemonade caused a widespread crisis of conscience. As a friend (and bravely vocal Beyoncé skeptic) texted me on Sunday afternoon, “Like, ‘Here is an album about my husband cheating on me and I’m going to surprise-release it so he makes a lot of money for his flailing music-streaming service.’”

The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that: Beyoncé is also a Tidal shareholder and, despite the Beyhive’s vehement wishes to the contrary, as of press time she was still legally wedded to its owner. But who knows how much money she or anyone else is making off Tidal streams. (She’s making a lot off Lemonade elsewhere, though: On Monday morning the album became available for purchase on other platforms at the princely sum of $17.99, but it will remain an exclusive Tidal stream “in perpetuity.”) Although Tidal claims to pay artists considerably higher royalty rates than Spotify or Pandora, they’ve kept the exact numbers close to the vest. (Shortly after its launch, Mr. Becky With the Good Hair himself tweeted, “Tidal pays 75% royalty rate to ALL artists, writers and producers” — an inaccurate claim that Tidal’s chief investment officer later had to clarify in The Hollywood Reporter. Most of that money goes to labels, not artists directly.)

But, as Baker-Rhett’s lawsuit makes clear, Tidal’s greatest error has been in projecting that it cares more about its (top-tier) artists than it does about its listeners (you know, the people whose trust they must earn to survive in a competitive streaming market). And even if the (hidden) numbers contradict this idea, the optics have been enough of a failure. Last week felt like a breaking point: Exclusive streams are becoming increasingly frustrating for music fans, especially us ex-iPod owners who got used to having all of our music in one place. (O Click Wheel, we hardly knew ye!) There are plenty of people who’d want to hear both the Tidal-exclusive Lemonade and Drake’s upcoming Views From the 6 (out on Friday, and for the first week an Apple Music exclusive) on the days of their releases. Annoyingly, they’d have to subscribe to two competing streaming services to do so.

For music fans in 2016, the Streaming Wars ask a question with no good answer. Do we pledge our consumer dollars to Spotify, which has an impressive catalog but pays artists abysmal royalties? Or do we go with Tidal, the “artist-owned” option … though the artists who each own 3 percent shares of the company are already richer and more famous than most musicians will ever hope to be? Or do we support the Big Guy, Apple Music, thus ensuring even more of those commercials that feature Taylor Swift rapping? I know we’re supposed to be living in the post-sellout age, when listeners have apparently accepted that their favorite musicians’ corporate shilling can — and even must — coexist with their art. But increasingly, as listener convenience becomes a casualty of our pop titans’ Streaming Wars, I’m starting to wonder how much longer that will hold true.

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on April 26, 2016.