Jay Z's Launch of Tidal Is Far From Pitch Perfect

Mega-Stars Awkwardly Inaugurate a Music-Streaming Service in Crowded Field

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Madonna, Deadmau5 and Kanye West unite for Tidal.
Madonna, Deadmau5 and Kanye West unite for Tidal.

Jay Z is recruiting music's biggest names to make his high-fidelity streaming service, Tidal, seem like a real threat to Spotify, Pandora and whatever Apple has planned for Beats. But the launch event last week achieved all the momentum of a four-way stop.

Tidal's movement-esque pitch invokes love for music and musicians, good sound quality and compensating artists fairly. Spotify is periodically attacked by the likes of Taylor Swift for the rates it pays; Tidal is granting equity to performers like Madonna, Kanye West and Beyoncé.

So they and other stars appeared at the big rollout to sign a "declaration of independence" of some sort (presumably against more miserly music services). Alicia Keys delivered an uplifting but weird speech quoting Nietzsche and describing a mission "beyond commerce ... to preserve music's importance in our lives." And the musicians took to social media to promote the business, or cause, via the hashtag #TidalForAll.

Promises to put money back in musicians' pockets might have piqued consumers' interest at another time and place. However, a stage full of superrich stars didn't exactly send the right message. Jezebel.com compared Ms. Keys' speech to the Scientology rallies in HBO's new exposé "Going Clear."

And Twitter users countered #TidalForAll with #TidalForNoOne, asking why celebrities were mobilizing for themselves instead of needier causes.

As part of its mission to recognize the value of music, Tidal has no free, ad-supported tier: It costs $9.99 per month for standard streaming and $19.99 for hi-fi. Spotify, by comparison, is $9.99 per month, unless you listen for free and let advertisers pick up the tab.

Jay Z acquired Tidal in March with his $56 million purchase of its parent, Swedish tech company Aspiro. Aspiro has also developed hi-fi video capabilities, which Tidal promises to make part of its offering along with exclusive content from the musicians it features.

Sprint, the struggling third-placed phone carrier, was announced as a launch partner at the event. It joined in on the feel-good lingo, then rejected reports from the New York Post that it or its parent, Softbank, are investors. "We are working together in partnership for the vision of the common cause of reestablishing the value of music, it is NOT a financial investment or exclusive partnership," a Sprint spokesman wrote in an email.

Ultimately, most industry observers said the high cost and stiff competition will make it hard for Tidal to recruit streaming consumers, who prioritize price over quality. (Many millennials have probably listened to high-fidelity music only rarely, if at all.) Music industry veteran Bob Lefsetz called Tidal "dead on arrival."

That's likely a little strong. Since its initial introduction last October, Tidal has acquired about 500,000 subscribers. With Jay Z's marketing apparatus behind it, Tidal should be able to expand that number—even if it's unclear by how much.

Step one is recovering from that launch event. Two days later, Jay Z told a new audience that the message had been misunderstood. "It's not us standing here saying we're poor musicians," he said. "If you provide a service, you should be compensated for it."

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