Updated March 31, 2015
A change has come to music, and its color is hex #00ffff. Additionally known as cyan, aqua, electric cyan, and waterspout, the hue in the past 24 hours took over the Twitter avatars of some ultra-famous musicians—Jay Z, Beyonce, Rihanna, Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, Jason Aldean, Madonna—and then, at those musicians' request, replaced the profile-pics of their fans. The idea: to raise awareness for the relaunch of the music-streaming service Tidal, whose website is black.
In the past, change-your-profile-pic campaigns have boosted political causes, such as gay marriage or the safety of Christians in Iraq. If its use in this case seems like a capitalist co-opting of activist methods, just wait till you read the tweets. Nicki Minaj told her followers to show their “support of what is fair” by going cyan; Jay Z edited a Bob Dylan protest title to “The Tides They Are-A Changing.” Then, in a broadcast on Monday afternoon, an incredibly high-profile array of musicians (the ones previously mentioned, plus Jack White, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, Deadmau5, J. Cole, and Usher) signed a “declaration” of co-ownership. Tidal exec Vania Schlogel announced that "every great movement has been started by a few brave people" before thanking Sprint for its vision.
Change your avi in support of what is fair, of what is the future. The tides have changed, Barbz.… https://t.co/UqGLHerO37— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) March 30, 2015
Together we can make music history. Start by turning your profile pics blue. #TIDALforALL— Jason Aldean (@Jason_Aldean) March 30, 2015
What makes this movement great, or even a movement? Not totally clear. Tidal’s a lot like Spotify or Rdio or perhaps Apple's much-rumored forthcoming new service: Pay a subscription, get unlimited access to a vast chunk of all the music ever recorded. What’s different is the proprietary content (music, videos, articles, playlists) and a $20-a-month “hi-fi” option that provides lossless sound quality. There’s also a $10-a-month tier that doesn’t provide the lossless audio; that's the the same cost as a Spotify premium membership, though unlike Spotify, there's no ad-supported option to listen for free.
In the announcement video, the various superstar owners talked about how important it is that they're involved. "People at this table, we know how this shit should be," Will Butler of Arcade Fire said. Madonna pointed out that it seems wrong that technology companies have become more important than musicians when it comes to song distribution. A robot-costumed member of Daft Punk said it was time to stop thinking of artists as products. By this logic, putting musicians in charge—at least nominally, with each of Jay Z's 16 artist-partners getting a reported 3 percent equity in the company—will have a great but perhaps intangible effect that makes the service better than others.
One concrete way it could stand out is with exclusive content. Taylor Swift pulled her albums from Spotify last year, but most of them (though not her newest, 1989) are on Tidal.* If others follow her example, it could attract some of Spotify's 15 million paying subscribers; to follow Swift's example, though, most other artists would have to feel like they're not sacrificing the size of their entire potential audience. In other words, to get popular Tidal needs to start getting popular.
Unmentioned in the announcement livecast was the word "royalties," a term that would seem essential to any discussion of how to, per Keys, "reestablish the value of music" or per Minaj, promote "what is fair." The entire problem with the current streaming ecosystem, according to conventional wisdom, is that artists don't make enough money when their songs are streamed. Talking to The New York Times' Ben Sisario, a Tidal representative "declined to comment on the company’s rates other than that they would be higher than services that have free tiers supported by advertising."
If those payouts indeed are much higher, and the company is successful, Tidal really could amount to a revolution. But the folks who were on stage today, the folks mobilizing fan armies to pay for and evangelize for Tidal, don't exactly look like they've been handed a bad deal by the current music landscape. In fact, they're people whose work and public presentation have often emphasized just how much cash they make every day: Log onto Tidal right now, for example, and one of the first titles you see is for Rihanna's new single, "Bitch Better Have My Money." If music-industry justice is needed, it would seem, it's needed for new and niche artists. It's possible that Tidal will help them, but it's also possible they'll find the changes that come with this new platform to only be as meaningful as a new Twitter picture.
* This post has been updated to clarify which of Taylor Swift's albums are on Tidal.