By John Jurgensen
Jay Z isn't the only star with a stake in the streaming-music company he recently bought. On Monday, the rapper was flanked on stage by more than a dozen fellow equity owners, including Beyoncé, Kanye West and Madonna, at a media event for the relaunch of the high-resolution music service Tidal.
The news conference in New York, marking the service's new ownership, was short on details about the business arrangement behind the collective, but it did offer starpower from across genres. Country singer Jason Aldean, electronic-music act Daft Punk and rocker Jack White joined in the signing of a "declaration" of Tidal's mission.
Alicia Keys, who spoke for the group, described Tidal as "the first ever artist-owned global music and entertainment platform. We want to create a better service and better experience. Our mission goes beyond commerce and technology."
Tidal faces a major challenge in gaining a foothold among streaming giants such as Google, Rhapsody and Spotify AB, which has 60 million total users, including 15 million who pay for access. Tidal's parent company, Aspiro, reported 503,000 paid users in January.
Tidal has been available in the U.S. since last year. The service's main selling point is higher-quality sound, but Ms. Keys also made a reference to exclusive music, which will no doubt include releases by some of the artists with her on stage Monday.
Long a weapon in the battles among music retailers, exclusive release windows could shake up the world of streaming music. While some acts temporarily keep their releases off streaming services such as Spotify's to maximize more lucrative CD and download sales, most digital releases debut on all the streaming platforms at the same time.
Monday's splashy--and at times awkward--event marked Jay Z's unveiling of the latest addition to his corporate stable, which includes the artist management, music publishing and sports marketing company Roc Nation. Earlier this month, his S. Carter Enterprises said it had acquired the Swedish company behind Tidal following an initial bid of $56 million in January.
Tidal is betting that giving fans a release by, say, Rihanna (a co-owner) weeks or months before its rivals will convince music fans to switch over or sign up for $10 or $20 a month.
The Tidal interface offers a familiar array of genre categories, curated playlists and a personalized music queue. The offerings also include high-definition music videos. A subscription costs $9.99 per month, or $19.99 for access to high-fidelity tracks. That premium package costs about twice as much as a monthly subscription to Spotify, which also offers a free, ad-supported version.
The tone of the Tidal relaunch signaled an implicit attack on Spotify, which has more than 15 million paying users but has faced a drumbeat of criticism from musicians who argue that the companies royalty rates are too low. That debate came to a head last fall when Taylor Swift pulled her catalog from Spotify. Her albums still aren't available there, but they are on Tidal, minus her biggest and most recent release, the album "1989."
Tidal hasn't disclosed what royalties it will pay musicians but Jay Z suggested to Billboard magazine that they will be higher than Spotify's.
The Tidal rollout is being couched in terms of a pro-music "movement," and was pumped up in advance with coordinated messages from the stars in the collective. They posted Tidal hashtags and put swatches of aqua blue in their social-media profiles, urging their fans to do the same. A cryptic video clip showed many of these stars, including Nicki Minaj, gathered at a meeting in stone-faced silence.
For the most part, mainstream music fans seem pretty content with the sound quality of their MP3 and digital streams. Still, Jay Z isn't the first music star to recruit his peers to rally for Tidal. Neil Young marketed his Pono music company with video testimonials (including one from Tidal participant Jack White) and signature editions of the Pono player from Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead.
Still waiting in the wings is Apple Inc., which is expected to soon launch its own streaming platform built around the Beats Music service that the company acquired last May.
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