AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In a surreal press conference yesterday, more than a dozen pop stars fired the latest salvo in the music streaming wars. Beyonce, Madonna, Arcade Fire, Jack White and other big-name artists are backing rapper Jay Z's newest business venture, a subscription music service called Tidal. Streaming services - Spotify is probably the best-known - grabbed 32 percent of music industry revenues last year. But artists have long argued that these services which offer free ad-based music streams pay too little. Tidal's backers say it will pay more, plus it will be co-owned by artists and offer high-quality audio. Singer and songwriter Alicia Keys spoke at the press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
ALICIA KEYS: Today is the day that we begin that journey together, all of us as one. Because we believe that Friedrich Nietzsche couldn't have been more right when he said, without music, life would be a mistake.
CORNISH: To learn more about Tidal, we turn now to Eric Harvey. He teaches communications and digital media at Weber State University in Utah.
Welcome to the program.
ERIC HARVEY: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So, give us the lay of the land. Just how crowded is the battlefield of streaming services? What is Tidal up against?
HARVEY: It is a very crowded field and it's only going to get more crowded in the upcoming months and years. Right now its main competitor is Spotify, which has 60 million registered users - 15 million of which are paying. And coming later this year there are going to be big announcements coming from Apple, which bought Beats Music and is going to re-launch a streaming service. And then there's always the biggest player in the field, Google, which owns YouTube and is in talks to launch a similar streaming service sometime in the future. So despite Tidal's glamorous launch, it is coming up against a lot of well-established competition.
CORNISH: And in the announcement yesterday this was pitched in really grand, almost political terms, right? We mentioned they, like, signed this declaration on stage and you know, Jay Z told Billboard magazine, people aren't respecting music, they're devaluing it. And he says people really feel like music is free, but they'll pay $6 for water.
HARVEY: Exactly. The video that came along with the announcement almost looked like these 16 artists at a Davos economic summit, deciding the future of music in some form or fashion. The important thing I think with Tidal, as with a lot of these upstart services, is the branding and the celebrity aura that they can bring to this service and use to sort of try and draw fans and music consumers to use it.
CORNISH: The initial response on social networks like Twitter involved a lot of people complaining about the cost. This subscription service will cost, I think, between $10 and $25 a month, and so, in what ways could that be a challenge for this new service?
HARVEY: The way I like to think about it is a streaming service almost like bottle service. So you will pay more money to get a higher-quality digital experience. Now, whether the average music consumer is able to actually tell the difference between a high-quality compressed file versus an uncompressed file is a very dubious proposition to bet the farm on, but I think that Jay Z has, at least initially, established sort of a niche market based on prestige sort of streaming music service.
CORNISH: The A-listers on stage are getting a tiny stake in the company, right? But what does this mean for the artists who aren't, you know, Madonna or Kanye West? Is this really a better deal for them than any of the other streaming services?
HARVEY: It is not. These are the one percent of pop music artists in the world right now. These are artists who do not answer to record labels, do not answer to corporations. While technically they are performing the same sorts of labor as independent musicians are, they're doing so at a fairly radically different scale. And so, it would not surprise me at all if smaller up-and-coming musicians sort of looked at Tidal, yawned and waited for the next thing to come along.
CORNISH: Eric Harvey, he teaches communications and digital media at Weber State University in Utah. Thanks so much for talking with us.
HARVEY: It's been my pleasure.
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