Get In Formation: Tidal Exclusivity

In the same week, Prince has died and Beyoncé has released another surprise album – Lemonade. Was Lemonade‘s arrival a coincidence? More than likely. But one factor ties both artists together. Both have made a decision to block the streaming masses from accessing their music, one way or another. Prince was more radical about it, to the point where the same few MTV videos were making the rounds on the day he died, not crappy YouTube Mp3s of ‘Purple Rain’ with lyrics in papyrus font. He was defensive about music, to the point where the generation that favours streaming and Mp3s over physical music cannot access this ‘classic’ music. There are arguments in both directions, many artists have made it clear that services such as Spotify and Apple Music are not very good at paying them, but does it really matter when you’re Prince? It’s a strange experience trying to find Prince for free on the (legal) internet, it’s like going back in time when time and money actually meant something and the internet didn’t make music ready to stream at the fingertips. It’s actually something of a reminder, that we’re lucky to have so much easy access to music from around the world, whereas before you’d have to go to a record shop or just be content that you couldn’t get hold of that weird 7″ from a Brazilian punk collective. But maybe we just should have what we want, considering most other artists have given into streaming. Even Prince let his music be available on Tidal, Jay-Z’s star-studded service. And that’s where our stories become intertwined.

Beyoncé released Lemonade as a Tidal exclusive. The same was apparently the case for The Life Of Pablo, and now that Kanye West lied about that, he’s been taken to court. But Lemonade is more likely to stay an exclusive for two reasons: One, Beyoncé isn’t as unpredictable and erratic as Kanye, two, Tidal’s had a bad reputation for a while now, and maybe Beyoncé sticking to her guns and firmly calling it a Tidal exclusive would be less costly than backtracking, sticking it on Spotify and Apple Music and suffering some embarrassing parallels to the Pablo story. Are exclusives going to become more and more common? From Tidal anyway, that’s very possible. Spotify doesn’t have the same selection of exclusive artists that Tidal nabbed when it began, and perhaps in order to compete in the same way, they will have to rope in direct rivals to Tidal’s artists. That means getting artists from across the genre board. It’s already happened in other forms of entertainment, look at videogames and the Nintendo Vs. Sega or Sony Vs. Xbox debate.  These four companies (well, three of them now, discounting Sega) have their own ‘consoles’ and their own ‘exclusives’ – Nintendo has Mario and so on, in order to generate sales for their own console and garner a tribe mentality. It can get pretty dirty, with the fans of each company fighting between themselves. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened to music yet, but heres what could happen:

Currently, access to music is democratic… to an extent. Anybody can access anything for £10 a month, but when Spotify and Tidal and Apple Music go head to head, with Tidal exclusively releasing Beyoncé and Kanye’s albums, Apple Music (hypothetically) releasing Taylor Swift and Drake’s albums, and Spotify picking up the scraps with something like Justin Bieber and Coldplay (That one’s entirely guesswork, Spotify’s a bit like the cousin that the rest refuse to acknowledge). Music becomes less spread out and artists withdraw to their respective services. Sounds pretty bad, right? However, this is ignoring the physical sales altogether, which makes up 39% according to a 2015 report. That’s still a hefty margin that isn’t going to be spoilt by toxic streaming. Because, let’s be honest, even if Lemonade is a Tidal exclusive, that doesn’t mean it will be an exclusive when it goes physical – which it will – because Beyoncé and Jay-Z, both businesspeople, know that people are going to want to own that album physically, and they’re missing out on sales. It would be a mistake to assume that everybody’s going to want files instead of a CD or vinyl. That’s where music becomes different from videogames – you get to choose between playing a game on a console or on PC, where both are mediated by the company in-fighting. In music, there’s so many different ways to consume, many that are so old they predate the rise of competitive company fighting. However, even vinyl had different competitors; 7″ and 12″, both of which live in relative harmony now. There’s so much choice that it’s impossible to create exclusivity in anything that predates streaming. The next type of music delivery may come along and it has even more exclusivity, but the diehards will remain stuck to their old ways, where there’s a lot more peace and a whole lot less restriction.

25/4/16 Update: Since releasing this, Beyoncé has released Lemonade on iTunes and the album might not be a Tidal exclusive forever. Tidal loves a good u-turn.