Why Tidal's a Sham

Tidal promises to be the music service that rewards fans and artists alike. It’s a nice idea, if Tidal can pull it off someday. That day isn't today.
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Tidal promises to be the music service that rewards fans and artists alike. It’s a nice idea, if Tidal can pull it off someday. That day isn't today.
tidal

byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >

This was supposed to be an in-depth review of the newish streaming service called Tidal. You may have heard of it. I've spent the past twelve days kicking its tires and the more I kicked, the more my purpose changed. Make no mistake, there are details I could quibble about at length — the questionable UI, a pitiful music library, and many smaller flaws. For example, gapless playback only works half the time. This may be annoying, but it’s the least of Tidal’s troubles. Imagine you’re in the market for a new house. Would you nitpick about formica countertops as the ceiling collapses atop your realtor? Some problems are so critical they overshadow all else. So this isn’t the inside-out evaluation I intended to write. After all, I still can’t answer two fundamental questions. Why does Tidal exist in the first place? And now that it does, who is it for?

The Warm and Fuzzies Don’t Come Free

Let’s start with the big announcement. On March 30, Jay Z convened a stageful of solemn pop demigods to unveil the relaunch of the service. (Aspiro, a Norwegian company, introduced it last year under the name WiMP. The original moniker remains accurate.) Tidal’s value proposition, as laid out by spokesperson Alicia Keys, is three pronged. Its so-called “HIFI” version streams lossless, CD-quality music, even to mobile devices. Both versions of Tidal offer “premium” content, such as curated playlists and high-def videos. One day, it may also debut exclusive new albums by its luminary co-proprietors. (A safe bet, I think.) Finally, and cue the timpani because this is a big one, everyone must pay for Tidal. Ta-da! You see, artist ownership and control is Tidal’s key feature. It charges $9.99 for the “premium” edition and $19.99 for the hi-fi upgrade. You may be thinking that “premium” implies a “basic” option. You’d be right. It’s called Spotify.

Tidal Launch Event NYC #TIDALforALL

A paywall, and a $20 per month offering, suggests an increased payout for all artists on Tidal. What this means in practice remains anyone's guess. What we do know is that Keys and Co. were, in essence, guilt tripping fans. We’ve been so good to you for so long. Now it’s your turn to give back. Tidal's cost amounts to simple reciprocity, an obligation of sorts. Indeed, joining the service is proof of personal enlightenment. Though not yet tax deductible, subscription payments more or less carry the moral weight of charitable giving.

This, of course, is preposterous. There's already an easy and direct method to support the artists you love. Amazon and iTunes are happy to sell you an MP3 download of Songs in A Minor for $9.99. There's a lossless version too — the CD will only set you back $10.79. The ethical justification for Tidal’s existence is beyond weak. It should be met with scorn, if not mocked outright. (True to form, the internet did both with gusto.) If Tidal is to survive, it has to offer the consumer something more than just warm and fuzzy feelings. Enter its much ballyhooed “premium” content and hi-fi streaming.

Daft Punk’s Hi-Def Ennui and Other Tidal Exclusives

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Unlike lossless playback, Tidal’s “premium” content is uncontroversial. The service does in fact offer curated playlists and a full library of videos, including a handful of exclusives. No argument there. Now, whether anyone outside of a few niche populations will care about any or all the above is up for debate. Devotees of Jason Aldean may thrill to discover his party soundtrack suggestions. They include such obscurities as Maroon 5’s “Animals,” Lorde’s “Royals,” Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” and Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” (What a soirée! Oops, I’ll be washing my hair that night.) Beyonce put together a helpful playlist to warm us up for the summer festival circuit. Having listened to it, I’m happy offer a bit of advice. Run as fast as you can from any stage where Avicii, Jack White, deadmau5, No Doubt, and Calvin Harris perform together and in that order. (Perhaps you’re not at a festival but at a VMA telecast. In that case, head for the fucking hills.) Throw in an intro course to Usher’s oeuvre, and you’ve already justified the $10 minimum price of entry. Have I mentioned the 11 track overview of Coldplay’s influences? Lucky you — that’s just gravy.

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Right now, Tidal’s video library is the service’s best reliable feature. There’s a healthy selection of music videos, and the web player is intuitive to navigate. I’ve often found my favorites, ad-free and at times in high definition. Tidal’s exclusive content is another story. The new Beyonce video is great, as is the footage of the White Stripes performing on Detroit public access. But a tour clip of Alicia Keys at Madison Square Garden and a HD version of Kanye West’s recent BRITs performance is the thinnest of gruel. Of Tidal’s longer, marquee videos, I only sat through Daft Punk’sElectroma. This stylized and confounding 2006 art film stars the titular French duo (as played by actors) on a quest for…humanity I guess? Footage of gorgeous desert vistas, and a charming sequence set in a town of Daft Punk replicants, held promise. But this interminable feature sprawls over the 70 minute mark. And for large stretches, it’s music-free. I know this is only a single data point. And Tidal’s embrace of outré content is admirable. That said, it will take more than this to convince anyone, even those on the fence, to pay up.

In general, Tidal’s playlists and videos are nice to have (the latter more so than the former). But nothing here is a Spotify or YouTube killer, or even a Spotify or YouTube substitute. Those services remain free and offer a wider selection of content. More for nothing remains a hard combo to match and an impossible one to beat.

The Elusive Quest for Lossless Playback 

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When working as advertised, FLAC streaming can be marvelous. It’s the only reason I’d become a paying subscriber after my trial period ends. I’ve been previewing Tidal with decent, mid-range gear1; I compared the same recordings of some chamber pieces (including Brahms’ Piano Trios) and full orchestral performances (including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique) on the web player (Chrome browser for Mac) and three iOS mobile apps (two iPhones and an iPad). I also A/B tested a variety of pop albums spanning the 1960s to the present.2 The differences between Spotify and Tidal were startling with regard to the symphonic works. Lossless streaming was less striking, but still impressive with the pop cuts. And depending on their production quality, some albums were more improved by the upgrade than others. (Acoustic songs fared better in general.) In all cases, hi-fi playback delivered a wider aural space for the music to play in my ears. The lossy alternative seemed true to its name: compressed in the middle and muddier. I’d forgotten how detailed CD-quality music could sound, something I used to take for granted on a daily basis.

Then the troubles started.

I began to notice, here and there, no difference between hi-fi playback and its degraded doppelgänger. This became clear early on, when I revisited Bon Iver, Bon Iver for fun (if that’s the right word to use for such an activity). I’d previously tested the album and noted a marked improvement in quality. This time, nothing. According to the web player, the album was indeed streaming in full lossless, as indicated by the highlighted “HIFI” icon. A quick visit to Spotify confirmed both now sounded alike. I spot checked other recordings with the same result. Thinking the culprit was my wifi connection, I switched to mobile and streamed Tidal over two different LTE cellular networks. Nope. As a last resort, I took Tidal’s own A/B exercise again. I’d first clicked through the test a few days earlier as a baseline, and received a perfect score. The site even flattered my “ear for detail.” (Thanks, Tidal!)  Attempt number two was a total disaster: zero correct. (“Are you sure you have connected your audio system correctly?” Tidal to Peter: it's you, not me. How rude.) Something was amiss.

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This issue of disappearing playback quality continued to come and go, seemingly at random. It became exhausting. Tidal’s “HIFI” icon should have switched on and off accordingly. But there it was, highlighted every single time, daring me to perform yet another A/B test. Who has the interest or energy to execute regular sanity checks? As a result, I questioned whether I was getting the full “HIFI” experience, over and over again. Truth be told, lossy playback sounds pretty good on pretty good headphones. The glory of lossless streaming isn’t worth all this suspicion and anxiety. If it’s a crapshoot you’re looking for, 20 bucks would be better spent on monthly lottery tickets.

Move Along. Nothing to See (or Hear) Here

I can picture the idealized version of Tidal. This service would reward artists and listeners alike. The latter would receive worthy original content and better sounding music at a higher cost. As a consequence, the former would reap greater remuneration for their work. All would be improved by the exchange. Tidal, unfortunately, is not yet that service. The notion doesn’t seem crazy on its face. I plan to stick around and see how Tidal evolves. But you can feel free to move along. There’s not much to see or hear here. For now, Tidal gets a C.

1: Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones and Klipsch Image S4 II earbuds. ↩️

2: For A/B testing, I zeroed in on the following classics: Live at the Harlem Square Club, Pet Sounds (Mono), Highway 61 Revisited, Blue, Exile on Main St., Talking Book, Physical Graffiti, Marquee Moon, Remain in Light, Graceland, Purple Rain, Like a Prayer, Automatic for the People, MTV Unplugged in New York, Reasonable Doubt, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Kid A, Stankonia, Discovery, FutureSex/LoveSounds, Sound of Silver, Merriweather Post Pavilion, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Modern Vampires of the City, and Black Messiah. ↩️