Surfing the TIDAL Wave (So You Don’t Have To)

Emma Gase | Medium Talk Co-Creator

What happened when I tried the new Jay Z-endorsed music-streaming platform for a month. 

TIDAL’S ORIGIN STORY

Less than two months ago, Jay Z bought the Swedish streaming service company Aspiro for a bargain $56.2 million. As this is the type of thing moguls tend to do fairly regularly, it was no great surprise that the transaction took place. More compelling is the fact that Hova is choosing to enter the music-streaming market, a place fraught with shit-talking artists, Taylor Swift editorials, and where Spotify reigns supreme with no sign of letting up. Legendary rap mogul or not, competing in the streaming market is a highly ambitious move.

Enter TIDAL, Hova’s horse in the online music-streaming race. Marketed as a hi-fi challenger to Spotify, TIDAL officially went live on April 1st with a bizarre livestreamed press conference that resembled a lovechild between a TED Talk and a smug Grammy’s acceptance speech.  At aforementioned press conference, it was also revealed that TIDAL is co-owned by Rihanna, Kanye, Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire, Jack White, and Daft Punk. You know, just your average struggling musicians. But what else could anyone expect? Jay is a business, man, and he’s got a lot of powerful friends.

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT IT, REALLY?

The sonic benefits of TIDAL read like a physics formula: Lossless streaming at 1,411 kbps, 44.1kHz/16-bit sound. Compare that to Spotify Premium, which streams at 320 kbps. TIDAL is $20 a month for hi-fi streaming, whereas commercial-free Spotify is $10.

Given that millions of people don’t mind hearing Chevrolet Cruze advertisements interrupt their “Morning Hipster” playlist on Spotify, it’s doubtful these same folks would give a shit about lossless compression. Or at least be willing to pay double.

MY TIDAL EXPERIENCE

I signed up for TIDAL for two main reasons: One, because I’m a shameless pop culture/music slave whose greatest fear is not being first in line at getting the Next Best Thing. And two: because Jay Z endorsed it, and he’s married to Beyoncé.

Perhaps those reasons are reductive of my actual interest in listening to hi-fi audio. As someone who is uncomfortable if music is not playing in some capacity during 85% of my waking hours, I figured if TIDAL is offering something better than Spotify, it was worth checking out. Why continue to drink Starbucks if a Blue Bottle opens up down the street? For a couple more bucks, you get an immeasurably better experience. And with that pretentious reference, I cannot proceed without acknowledging the inherent elitism in TIDAL.

In TIDAL’s former CEO Andy Chen’s words, TIDAL is “not for everyone.” Discounting that this haughty attitude is probably what got Chen to the “former” part of his CEO status, it’s no mystery that Jay Z is couching the same approach. Jigga has no qualms about making us plebeians pay the Roc-a-fella price for the Roc-a-fella product.

But steep price or not, you couldn’t have stopped me from trying TIDAL with a Taser. To give it a fair shot, I ignored the constant deluge of Internet pieces on the subject (most of which are negative), and spent a full month getting acquainted with its many features.

My free TIDAL subscription ends this week. I won’t be renewing. Here’s why:

The Interface. While the all-black-everything design is sleek, TIDAL’s structure is unusually convoluted. Example: On the mobile app, the music videos are featured prominently at the top of the page. This seems counterintuitive to me. On a platform built for audiophiles, why is the latest J. Cole video (a video replete with puppies, of all things) the first thing you see when opening the app? One must scroll down to the bottom for an actual list of newly released songs. This is too much effort for Millenials.

The Play Delay. On TIDAL, it often takes a least 5 “Mississippi’s” between pressing play and hearing music. We live in a post-dial-up internet world, but when listening via TIDAL, you may as well be trying to get cell reception during halftime at a Michigan football game. Perhaps it’s due to the lossless quality taking longer to load, but this should have been priority A1 for the IT team at TIDAL. If I'm connected to Wi-Fi, I want my shit to blast the second my finger presses play.

The Hardware Problem. At the end of the day, I'm listening to TIDAL’s master-tape quality music on ten-dollar Sony earbuds that I buy in bulk on Amazon.  Elevated sound quality is moot if your hardware isn't equally premium. Of course I want the best listening experience possible, but it's not like I'm going to ONLY listen to music in my bedroom with Bowers and Wilkins headphones while reveling in just how crisp the treble is on that new Hudson Mohawke track.

Anti-Social Network. No one I know is using TIDAL. What’s the point of making playlists if you can’t foist them on your friends? Or make fun of them for listening to Demi Lovato when they forget to turn Private Session on? Reconstructing an online community and library is work, and anyone who exists in the digital world knows that convenience trumps quality.

The Elite Factor: Another supposed boon in its favor: TIDAL claims it pays artists their due, yet it's curated and owned by the richest and most successful artists in the industry. These artists could give away their music away for free for the rest of their lives and STILL be richer than 99% of most musicians. #TIDALforALL? Maybe for all platinum-selling, major-label signed artists, that is.  

The Coke vs. Pepsi Test. I listened to Kanye’s “All Day” with my best headphones on, once through TIDAL and once via Spotify. If I’m being honest…it sounded the same to me. All that changed was a renewed reverence for the “Ride-around-listen-to-Sade” line.

But today is not the day to philosophize if Artists Are Being Fairly Compensated On Streaming Sites, or to stress about The Future of The Music Industry In the Digital World. (Perhaps next week!) For all intents and purposes, TIDAL is a good idea. In a world where it’s standard practice to use MacBooks and iPhones in place of real speakers (disgraceful as it may be), a push toward quality listening is something I can get behind. For anyone who is more than a casual music fan, it’s really a victory if we're getting streaming at a non-embarrassing bitrate.

But is TIDAL worth 10 extra bucks a month than trusty ole Spotify? Unless you’re an audiophile who is truly disgusted with the streaming quality on other platforms (and if you’re an audiophile at all, why are you streaming your music?), then not yet. Stick with Spotify until further notice.   

-EG