If “disruption” is the goal of new products entering an established marketplace, Tidal and Apple Music have been wild successes. Before they arrived last year, people interested in popular music had relatively straightforward options for hearing that music legally: Subscribe to one of the extant streaming services like Spotify or Rdio, pay to download albums on iTunes, or keep maintaining a physical collection by buying CDs and records. Now that seemingly every major album and song rolls out as part of an exclusive deal with one distribution platform or another—and physical releases often arrive long after the corresponding digital releases, if at all—the “ors” for consumers have become “ands.” Want to follow the music of both Drake and Kanye? Of both Taylor Swift and Beyoncé? You’ll need both Tidal and Apple Music to hear the latest from them all. Want an intuitive, un-buggy interface with social-media integration for your day-to-day listening? Better also maintain that Spotify subscription.
Competition is often said to be a good thing for consumers. But in this case, that hasn’t turned out to be true. Platform-exclusive album releases aren’t wins for listeners; they’re wins for platforms. Subscription prices haven’t fallen below the $9.99 industry standard established years ago. Nor has competition seemed to make the services pursue excellence in all things. Nearly a year after it debuted, Tidal still (in my experience) stalls out while playing songs pretty frequently. Apple Music still has the crime against coherence that is a “My Music” button being next to a “For You” button in its toolbar (or maybe it’s a Faulknerian exercise in shifting perspectives?).