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“If I don’t scream, if I don’t say something, then no one’s going to say anything.”
-Kanye Omari West
The concept of Tidal is utopian in the abstract, but darker in truth. A black owned business where artists take the helm of their own revenue streams seems to be the perfect streaming model for the #BLM generation. But nothing is ever as simple or innocent as it may seem. At Tidal, artists are taking control of their business, but the artists involved are already household names, with a checking account as deep as their fan base. Beyond that, Tidal’s “exclusive streaming” model may be good for attracting subscribers and fattening Tidal’s bottom line, but from a public perspective, it sure looks like JAY-Z and company are using their fans as pawns in the multi-billion dollar streaming wars. Upon closer inspection, the egalitarian image Tidal seems to be pushing doesn’t hold up.
Enter Kanye West, the most outspoken and uncompromising artist of his time who has recently taken action against the darker truth of Tidal. Innumerable words have already been typed in dedication to Kanye’s long track record of pushing boundaries and speaking his mind; whether George Bush and Hurricane Katrina or Donald Trump and the 2016 election, Kanye West never shies away from sharing his opinion, which makes his recent legal activity regarding Tidal all the more prescient. Multiple reports have emerged claiming that West is unhappy with Tidal and seeking financial compensation to the tune of $3 million. Allegedly, West’s complaints originate from a lack of fair compensation given the number of subscribers added to the platform in the wake of The Life of Pablo, as well as disputes over the release of contractually obligated music videos to the platform. Both theses issues however, all stem from the same root cause: exclusivity. Kanye West is bringing about an issue that is already familiar to most labels, streaming platforms, and artists–exclusive streaming deals only benefit those at the top of the streaming services.
Though large labels have already begun to move away from exclusive streaming deals, Kanye West is the first major artist and Tidal stakeholder to take a stand. Labels as large as Universal Music Group have clearly expressed their disinterest in exclusives, with UMG CEO Lucian Grainge making waves in 2016 when he told board members in a private meeting that exclusives were a thing of the past. However, it is one thing for a major label corporation to condemn exclusives, as they have financial incentive to do so; it is another thing entirely for an artist like West to speak up. Kanye West actually stands to benefit from exclusivity if Tidal were willing to pay his fair share, for West would receive a larger share of the profits of his album as well as receive profits as a shareholder in Tidal. But West is rejecting the possible paycheck, leaving fans to wonder, why? Perhaps the answer is best expressed by an unlikely source: Spotify communications head Jonathan Prince. Prince stated that “[exclusives] are bad for fans and they’re bad for artists… Artists want as many fans as possible to hear their music, and fans want to be able to hear whatever they’re excited about or interested in — exclusives get in the way of that for both sides.” Take it from a man who knows the industry inside and out; streaming exclusives are not for the people.
If that statement is taken as fact, then the real heart of the debate lies in the facade that Tidal has perpetuated since the infamous announcement photo wherein millionaire artists all stood, remarkably pleased with themselves, as Mr. Rocafella himself proclaimed his streaming service to be the only “fair” business model for artists. Kanye West was one of those smiling millionaires, but now he is on the other side, and his reason for switching over is clear when the numbers are broken down. According to Tidal’s own public disclosures, the hype generated by The Life of Pablo resulted in around 1.5 million new subscribers to the platform, thereby more than doubling its existing user base. Sometime thereafter, Tidal received a $200 million dollar investment from Sprint Mobile at a valuation that placed Tidal’s worth somewhere in the $600 million dollar range, and verified sources suggest that Tidal is aiming to reach a billion dollar evaluation in the near future. In short, Tidal is strapped with cash, and some of those funds must be directly correlated to the fact that West played a massive role in turning a niche streaming service into a veritable player in the streaming game off the strength of his art. Yet, all West is asking for financially is $3 million. West deserves his share of the profits he reaped and he deserves to have power over his artwork at a company he helped create.
JAY-Z has consistently portrayed Tidal as a streaming service for artists, for the culture, but at the end of the day, Tidal is a streaming service for its shareholders. JAY-Z is an artist yes, but when it comes to Tidal, he is a business(man) through and through. His goal is to ensure that Tidal reaps the most lucrative profits and continues to gain ground in the streaming wars. Tidal’s whole angle, the whole model, is based on exclusive access to music’s biggest artists. But as it has been shown time and time again, exclusivity only serves the executives in the boardroom, not the average Tidal listener. Kanye West is right to rebel against the suffocating arrangement Tidal has wrapped around his art. West claims his music is “a living breathing creative expression.” If that’s the case, his art deserves to be shared with as many fans as possible, thereby generating the most revenue and having the most lasting impact for West. It cannot be tied down to the whims of Tidal executives who only want to exploit the art for the profit it can bring. West understands that it is his fans who most deserve the art he creates, and that it is his fans who are most hurt when commerce gets in the way of creativity. He knows his worth and is demanding his fair share for his contributions and for his fans. Men lie, women lie, but those 1.5 million subscribers Kanye brought to Tidal don’t.