Music-Streaming Peace in Our Time?

The irony and the allure of the rumors about Apple buying Tidal

Mark VonHolden / AP

The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple is considering buying the music-streaming company Tidal, but the New York Times reporter Ben Sisario’s sources say a sale is not happening. Whatever the case turns out to be, popular music fans would be forgiven for daydreaming about this hypothetical soulless corporate merger. The current state of music-listening feels unsustainable, a VHS-vs.-Betamax transitional phase where it might matter to consumers less which particular format wins out so long as one, eventually, does. The problem is exclusives: While it was not long ago that most new mainstream music was all listenable in one place, staying current in 2016 means paying for multiple platforms and using multiple apps. Beyoncé’s, Kanye’s, and Rihanna’s new albums initially were only available on Tidal; Drake’s, Chance the Rapper’s, and The Avalanches’s were on Apple. (Spotify doesn’t really do exclusives.)

These are not the first whispers of Tidal giving itself to big business since its launch in March 2015. When rumors went around about the celebrity-owned service joining with Spotify, Google, or Samsung a couple months ago, I wrote about why streaming-platform competition has so far just been a drag for the public:

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?).

There would be distinct irony in Tidal selling out to Apple, which has been accused of trying to undermine rival streaming apps via the iPhone interface and App Store. Tidal, infamously, arrived via a pompous press conference and video filled with popular musicians slinging anti-corporate platitudes. This supposedly wasn’t a new product—it was a movement. As Madonna put it then, “It’s about bringing humanity back to the forefront. Not technology, art." Leader Jay Z has rapped about his independence from monoliths like Apple in pointed racial terms—“You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?”—as did Kanye West in a recent verse about siding with Jay Z over Tim Cook.

Tidal has faced well-publicized struggles over management and technical issues, and its paid subscriber base of 4.2 million lags behind Apple’s 15 million—which in turn lags behind Spotify’s 30 million and, reportedly, industry expectations for where Apple Music would be at this point. To be fair to Tidal, its reputation has been shifting from being a boondoggle to being something approaching hipness due to its string of splashy exclusives in the past year, including Prince’s otherwise un-streamable catalogue.

So the thought of Jay Z and friends trying to cash out with dignity brings to mind Bernie Sanders exiting the Democratic race: It would be a capitulation to the machine they supposedly existed to fight in the first place, but they could perhaps, in defeat, try and reform that machine. Tidal allows consumers to pay more for higher-quality files, reportedly gives artists better flexibility in how they release their work, and is the only major streaming platform to show the production credits on each song. Meanwhile, today the musician Bon Iver tweeted that Apple Music is “literally a horrid platform”— he seems to be talking about the interface, and he’s not the only one with such complaints.

Of course, pop music thrives on disposability and obeying the dictates of commerce. If Tidal sells out, it’s not hard to imagine that the reputation hit to the affiliated artists would be offset by the business upsides. One of the memorable moments from the service’s launch video was when Beyoncé, filmed at a gathering of millionaire musicians talking about how visionary they all are, said, in earnest, “This collaboration feels so ego-less.” Maybe she’ll turn out to have been right.