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Is Jay Z About to Take a Bite out of Apple?

Or is it the other way around?

AP Images
AP Images

Yesterday, when news broke that Apple was in talks to acquire Tidal (which may not actually happen), I thought of a scene from Steve Jobs.

Standing in a hallway before the Next Cube’s big, showy launch in 1988, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) explains to a frustrated Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet) why — with the product launch just minutes away — he hadn’t developed anything resembling an operating system for the computer — the equivalent of putting a car on the showroom floor with no engine. Jobs lays a comforting hand on Hoffman’s shoulder as a wry smile creeps across his face. “The plan will reveal itself to you when you’re ready to see it,” he says.

Jobs had been waiting to see what Apple needed first. You know what happens next — Apple eventually bought him out for for more than $400 million in 1997, he went on to rule the free world, yada yada yada. Watching that hallway scene, it dawned on me: Jay Z is about to do the same thing.

How well do you remember the Tidal launch? A quick refresher: The irritatingly grand ceremony skirted actual details, instead featuring mega-successful artists harping on rights and earnings, and therefore making it seem incredibly self-serving. But ultimately, the product over-promised and under-delivered. Post-launch, lossless audio turned out not to be worth $20 a month, the service posted meager subscription numbers, and lawsuits over unpaid royalties arose.

The trailer (ha) for the service featured Tidal stakeholders talking about how artists should get paid more for what they create. They could’ve just as easily been discussing how to kill the Batman. Alicia Keys referenced Nietzsche in her keynote speech. Kanye West and J. Cole stood together, “united” in their efforts to “change the course of the music industry” when they probably didn’t even have each other’s phone numbers. Madonna swung a leg over the podium as she signed her name on that eye-roll inducing “declaration.” And do you remember how none of this motivated you to ditch Spotify?

The Next Cube was supposed to be one of those “change the world; a computer for every student” deals. But educators couldn’t justify the $10,000 list price — $10,000 was and still is a shit-ton of money. Sales were unimpressive, to say the least. Next laid off half of its employees. As the story goes, it was all part of Jobs’ dastardly, mustache-twirling plan to stage a coup on Apple, culminating in him returning to the company and being named CEO in 1997. I don’t presume to know precisely how the sausage was made, nor do I want to thrust an unfair comparison onto Jay Z, but his latest smash-and-grab sort of calls for it.

By offering equity in the company to super-giant stars including Kanye, Rihanna, and his better half, Beyoncé, in exchange for exclusives, Jay Z tried to throw a wrench into the wheel of the streaming-service industry. Now, with the possible sale of one self-proclaimed “artist-first” platform to another self-proclaimed artist-first platform, Tidal isn’t smashing the wheel, it’s becoming a spoke.

You can look at this in one of two ways. If you subscribe to the idea that cutesy Hallmark notions like loyalty, steadfastness, and (scare quotes) “homegrown principles” exist in the world of business, you might be disappointed. (You probably also haven’t been paying attention because this is only the latest in a long string of Jay Z’s house-flips.) However, if you put on your mogul monocle, this could be good for everyone involved: the artists get their money, Jay Z potentially gets an executive position at the second-most valuable public company in the world, and no one ever has to look at the disheartening words “TIDAL EXCLUSIVE” ever again. It’s not a far cry from how he sold his part-ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets for the second-highest price in NBA history, and used his established position inside the professional sports world to create a viable sports management agency.

This could work for Apple, too. It could pitch Apple Music as Artist-Friendly™, and Spotify, who currently dwarfs both Apple and Tidal by just about every measure, comes off looking like The Evil Empire that swindles musicians out of their hard-earned money.

Of course, the deal isn’t close to finalized yet, so this is all conjecture. On its face, the whole thing seems far-fetched, but mind you, we’ve laughed at Jay’s business moves before — more often than not to our own chagrin.

I suspect the plan will reveal itself to us when we’re ready to see it.