Anyone that has been following the music industry knows that the 2010s have been an exciting, yet turbulent time. The digital age has led to a mass democratization of nearly every possible information source, but few areas have been rocked by that impact like music. Once a dependable source of revenue, physical sales of albums have dwindled to fractions of their former strength for all but a few superstar artists. Even while artists and chart hounds continue to boast about massive amounts of streaming activity, the truth is these plays earn just cents on the dollar when compared to physical sales. To turn a profit today, artists have had to get rather creative.
One leap in that creative space was Tidal, formally launched on March 30th, 2015 by rapper Jay Z and other Artist Owners. Tidal’s goal was to set a standard for paying artists a larger percentage of royalties than mostly free streaming titan Spotify at the time. And while Tidal has actually kept that promise (able to pay between twice and 6 times per stream what an artist would receive on Spotify, dependent on their record label’s contract terms), the service has had a tough time building a sizeable subscriber base. With no free tier for music listening, Tidal subscribers have to pay a minimum $9.99 per month to utilize the service.
Another significant set back for Tidal? The service’s streaming data was not previously counted on any of Billboard’s official charts. In other words, if an artist released music exclusively to Tidal, they would be unable to claim success on the charts.
But after months of confusion and social media debate, Billboard has finally confirmed that Tidal streaming data is now factored into their charting methodology. On the strength of Jay Z’s explosive new album 4:44 being certified platinum by the RIAA in less than a week, Billboard gave this clarification…
According to an RIAA spokesperson, a sale can count towards a certification if purchased directly by the customer, or a business can purchase the album or song and offer it to customers. In the latter case, customers must take affirmative steps to acquire the album or song (submitting an email address and promotional code, for example).
Note: for Billboard charting purposes, as per the current pricing policy, the Sprint-supported downloads would not count towards 4:44’s chart ranking. However, any streams reported by Tidal to Nielsen Music for the album’s songs in the week ending July 6 would contribute to the album’s ranking based solely on streaming equivalent album units.
So by next week, fans should expect to see Jay Z’s new album somewhere on the Billboard charts, even if it doesn’t place as high as it would if streamed on all services.
For those confused as to how a platinum certification is even possible if the album’s not “for sale”, here’s the breakdown…
- As part of Tidal’s mammoth deal with Sprint, Jay Z gives exclusive rights to the music to Tidal subscribers for a window of time.
- Upon release of the Album, Sprint offers its customers a free 6 month trial of Tidal and attach the album as a free download, as long as they actively sign up using their email address.
- Tidal can then report these sign ups as equivalent sales, with Sprint being the sole purchaser of the content. And they clearly got over a million people to sign up.
- It’s worth noting that before anything was even posted on Tidal, Jay Z probably made far more from the Sprint deal than he ever could have in traditional album sales or digital downloads. Even under the old sales model of $15/cd ($15 million) an artist would be lucky to net even a quarter of that sum after paying product costs, distribution, the co-writers and artist performers and the label.
But this victory is only one in a much longer fight. Though the launch of Tidal and Apple Music have improved the dismal profits of streaming since their low point in 2014, audiences continue to prefer the ‘freemium model’ of music consumption via Spotify, or illegal piracy. And while Tidal’s superstar artist owners like Jay Z, Madonna and Beyoncé have the power and influence to be able take risks and discover innovative new methods of revenue generation, less known artists are still caught in a challenging situation to profit from their craft. Just like the political landscape, the music industry’s future is a lot more complicated than one success.
We’ll see what comes next for Tidal.