I am starting to feel sorry for Jay Z.
Sure, the rap mogul from the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn still has a few things going for him. According to the International Business Times, when you combine his net worth with that of his super-spouse, Beyoncé, it adds up to more than $1 billion. And after two decades - Reasonable Doubt, his debut album, came out in 1996 - the Made in America mahoff remains a relevant musical force as well as an entertainment industry mover and shaker.
But ever since last month's celebrity launch of Tidal, the streaming music service he acquired when buying the Swedish company Aspiro for $56 million in March, Jay Z has been taking it on the chin. The company means to compete with dominant player Spotify, as well as other on-demand services like Rhapsody, Rdio, and Beats Audio (now owned by Apple).
Tidal presented itself as an artist-friendly service that can afford to pay higher royalty rates to musicians than its competitors, in part because it offers no "freemium" model, in which users don't have to pay but are forced to listen to ads. Instead, it costs $10 a month for a basic version that grants access to its 25 million songs (compared to Spotify's 30 million) and 75,000 videos (Spotify has none). Or for $20, you get that in a high-quality "lossless" audio format.
Tidal was launched with a bloated media event in which Madonna, Kanye West, Jack White, Nicki Minaj, Jason Aldean, Chris Martin, and Rihanna all pledged their allegiance to the artist born Shawn Carter's new venture. Alicia Keys quoted Friedrich Nietzsche ("Without music, life would be a mistake") and called the launch of Tidal "a powerful moment that will forever change the course of music history."
She should have heeded Hans Christian Andersen's dictum: "Where words fail, music speaks."
Since that boondoggle, Tidal has been doing damage control, fighting the self-created impression that it's a for-the-rich-by-the-rich service whose owners want to charge you more money to listen to music on the Internet - where nobody pays for anything if they can help it. The snark increased once Tidal fell off the list of 700 most popular apps, while Spotify, which has 15 million paid and 45 million free subscribers worldwide, compared to Tidal's 770,000, actually moved up the chart.
In the online rush to call Tidal a "spectacular failure," Crave Online declared Tidal a "musical Titanic" that is "already sinking."
Plenty of musicians have joined in, including Lily Allen and Mumford & Sons. In an expletive-filled rant in Rolling Stone, Noel Gallagher of Oasis asked, "Do these people think they're the . . . Avengers? . . . They were like, 'We're going to save the music business.' " He suggested they "might want to write a decent chorus" for a start.
Jay Z has been pleading for patience, with tweets such as: "We are here for the long haul, Please give us a chance to grow & get better."
Spotify seems unbothered. "I've got 99 problems," cofounder Martin Lorentzon said at a recent tech conference, referencing one of the rapper's hits. "And Jay Z is not the one I'm thinking about."
The Tidal launch certainly was a P.R. disaster. As Ben Gibbard told the Daily Beast, "If I were Jay Z, I would have brought out 10 artists that were underground or independent and said, 'These are the people who are struggling to make it in today's music industry.' "
The focus on the botched messaging, however, mostly fails to address a key question: Is Tidal any good?
I've been attempting to get a grip on that question for the last week. I've used the app as my principal streaming service - in place of Spotify, which I've had for years - on my phone, iPad, and laptop, while also piping it through my Sonos home audio system.
I'd been holding out on any comparison-listening until Apple launched its own streaming service, rumored as soon as next month. But when Jay Z announced he had an exclusive to stream the first hour of Prince's Rally 4 Peace concert in Baltimore last Sunday, I jumped into the Tidal pool, with a 30-day free trial (for which you have to give up credit card info).
The Prince stream disappointed. The sound quality was sketchy, like an old bootleg audience tape from the 1970s. I'm sure the show was awesome, but I pushed my laptop aside after 20 minutes. I'll give the Tidal live concert exclusive another chance tonight, when Jay Z live-streams the second of his two "B-Sides" concerts for Tidal contest winners at an undisclosed venue in New York.
But what I've seen and heard from Tidal since - particularly on the music-discovery end - has been impressive. There's some overhyped "exclusives." A Beyoncé-made Stevie Wonder mix to celebrate his birthday was no more fabulous than what any serious Stevie fan could put together him- or herself. And no, I would not care to watch a video about what Jay Z client Robinson Cano does as game-day prep while playing second base for the Seattle Mariners.
But the Tidal homepage and Tidal Rising features looked much more like a digital version of an indie record store than I expected. The touted album of the week was Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba's Ba Power, a masterful combo of African rhythms from Mali with rock and roll. I had never heard of Kouyaté before, so chalk one up for Tidal.
Also on the Rising list is Sarah Gayle Meech, a Nashville honky-tonk singer I was also unfamiliar with, whose Tennessee Love Song album is a winner. I like the new-artist display on Tidal far better than on Spotify, which tends to rely on "you liked this, so you'll like that" computer programs. This felt more human.
I just got back from the always awesome New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, so I decided to put Tidal to the test and see whether I could cull all the swamp-pop and NOLA R&B tunes I'd need for a Louisiana playlist.
Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"? Warren Storm's "I'm a Little Boy"? Allen Toussaint's "Pelican Parade"? Yep, Tidal had them all in stock. There does not appear to be a way to embed those playlists in blogs, however, so I can't share it with you. Work on that, Jay, would you, please?
So, will Tidal survive? It's dubious, I'd say. There is room for only so many players, and it's doubtful that people who listen to streaming music care enough about sound quality to pay an extra $10. Spotify is firmly entrenched, and Apple is all-powerful, with 800 million people with credit cards holding iTunes accounts. But from what I've heard so far, Tidal deserves a fighting chance.