Company / division: Tidal
Jay-Z, one of the principal owners of the Tidal music streaming service, released his latest album, 4:44, on the service last night through a partnership with Sprint, which of course recently invested in the service and gave its subscribers six months’ free access. The intent was clearly to get more people to sign up for the service, while rewarding Sprint customers, but the effect was to aggravate many others who assumed they could merely sign up for the service after the album dropped and then found that it wasn’t available, at least right away. In addition, the exclusive seems pretty porous, and potentially short-lived: iHeartRadio has been streaming the album and will continue to do so for the first day, while Apple Music is reportedly getting the album a week in too. That’s a reflection mostly of the realities of the industry: though Jay-Z and Tidal’s other owners might like the idea of boosting subscriptions through exclusives like this, the reality is that the service has a tiny fraction of global streaming users, and over the long term Jay-Z and other artists are best served by the broadest possible distribution, especially given that he can’t pay himself for the exclusive in the way Apple has paid for them in the past. Exclusives generally seem to be waning as a source of differentiation for music services, but for Tidal its connection to artists (several of whom have been owners) has always been a major selling point. But if even its artist owners aren’t willing to stay the course on exclusives for more than a few days, it doesn’t have much hope of ever reaching significant scale, making the Sprint investment more of a temporary lifeline than true salvation.
Sprint Offers 6 Months of Free Tidal HiFi to Subscribers (Jun 9, 2017)
Tidal Loses Third CEO in Less Than Three Years (May 26, 2017)
Jay-Z quietly removes catalog from Apple Music and Spotify as Tidal continues fight for exclusives – 9to5Mac (Apr 7, 2017)
Jay-Z, one of the owners of the Tidal music service, has apparently pulled all his solo music from both Apple Music and Spotify, though without any kind of official explanation or much fanfare. In theory, it’s likely that he’s trying to reinforce one of the original value propositions of Tidal, which was that its artist-owners would provide exclusives for their music, though in practice most of the owners have continued to license their music to other streaming services, which have far bigger subscriber bases. Tidal has struggled financially, and recently got something of a lifeline from Sprint, but it may have decided that it needs more exclusives to drive interest and subscriber numbers. I’m not convinced it’s going to do all that well on that basis given that the vast majority of the global music catalogue is still available on other services, but this is yet another sign that exclusives – whether temporary or long-term – are one of the few sources of differentiation to streaming music services, whether or not that’s good for their subscribers.
Sprint Acquires 33 Percent of TIDAL and Creates Game-Changing Partnership – Sprint Newsroom (Jan 23, 2017)
The one thing missing from this Sprint/Tidal press release? Subscriber numbers for Tidal, which have been the source of recent controversy. As I said in commenting on that news, Tidal may have a tough time surviving if its subscriber numbers are as bad as they seem, and I’m guessing this Sprint investment is designed to stabilize things a bit. Partnerships between streaming services and wireless carriers are old hat – Spotify has lots of these in Europe, and they’ve helped its paid subscriber numbers enormously, while we’ve seen several others here in the US too. From a Sprint perspective, this can be seen as a response to T-Mobile’s Music Unlimited program, which offers free music streaming from every major music service, though Tidal is a much more niche approach, which means it’ll likely have limited benefit unless Sprint heavily subsidizes the service for its subscribers.
Tidal has been one of the second tier music streaming services that often gets rolled up into the “Other” slice of streaming music subscriber number pie charts, but its reported numbers have been big enough in their own right to be broken out in some cases. There are only a handful or so of major music services around the world with more than a million paid subs, and Tidal is one of them, along with giants Spotify and Apple and fellow medium sized players Rhapsody/Napster and Deezer. But this report suggests Tidal has been exaggerating its actual subscriber numbers, which have always seemed surprisingly high, and that its real numbers are much closer to one million than the three million it has reported publicly. The reality is that Spotify and Apple between them dominate this market, with Spotify quite far ahead, and everyone else well behind Apple, which has also been growing rapidly. The other players have all struggled to find meaningful growth here, though the ad-supported streaming business is far more popular (though it also delivers far lower revenues to the industry). I wouldn’t be surprised if Tidal exits the market in the near future if this is the true state of its business.