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Tidal adds free tier – and announces artist bonuses and user-centric plans

By | Published on Thursday 18 November 2021


Tidal yesterday had a little shake around, just in case anyone had forgotten about this particular streaming service, or had been wondering what was going to happen there ever since Jay-Z sold a “significant majority” of the company earlier this year to Square, the fin-tech company of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

Well, this is what’s going to happen. First, Tidal is launching a free version of its service for the first time, though only in the US. And second, it is following the lead of Apple and Amazon and making high quality audio – what was Tidal’s USP for a while – available on its standard $10 a month subscription tier.

But what does that mean for the higher level $20 a month subscription tier, which was originally the home of better quality audio? Well, that’s where most of the interesting stuff is happening.

For starters, what will now be known as Tidal Hifi Plus will come with ever better better quality audio, in that this will be the tier where Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 and all that nonsense will be employed. But more interesting is how Tidal plans to pay artists whose music is played by Hifi Plus subscribers.

Two innovations are being tested. First, Tidal is committing to directly make bonus payments to each subscriber’s favourite artists. These will be on top of any royalties those artists are due via their label or distributor, with the bonus payments basically come out of Tidal’s cut of the subscription money. The service will make these payments directly to the artist via PayPal, Cash App or – hey, synergies! – Square. Or, in some cases, via an artist’s distributor.

Second, the grand plan is to start paying out recording royalties on the Hifi Plus plan in a user-centric fashion, so that each subscriber’s monthly payment is shared with the artists and labels whose music they actually listen to, rather than that money and each subscriber’s usage data being pooled. Plenty of people in the music community have called for an industry wide shift to user-centric payments, of course, it being seen as a fairer way to share out the money each month.

The aim is to shift to user-centric payments on Tidal Hifi Plus from next year. That will require music industry support, of course. And Deezer has been hoping to shift to user-centric – in France at least – for some time, but is yet to get industry-wide buy-in. However, Tidal says that “well over 100 partners” have agreed to user-centric payments on its top tier – including majors, indies and distributors – and it hopes to have complete buy-in by earlier 2022.

It’s possible that labels that have resisted Deezer’s efforts to shift things over to user-centric are agreeing to Tidal’s plan because it’s limited to the high level tier and therefore will likely involve a relatively small subscriber base. And that would be a decent pilot to test the impact of user-centric across a full catalogue. SoundCloud has already shifted to user-centric, of course, but only on that catalogue directly uploaded by independent creators, not label and distributor provided music.

All of this is an attempt by Tidal to reclaim the “artist friendly streaming service” title that Jay-Z claimed when he first bought the service in 2015.

To what extent these changes will actually benefit middle-level artists remains to be seen. The direct artist payments could end up mainly going to the superstars, although should also help more niche artists with super loyal fanbases. And, of course, the jury is still out on quite what impact user-centric would have on how monies are distributed across the industry. But still, interesting developments nonetheless. And hey, you’re talking about Tidal again.

Says Head Of Tidal Jesse Dorogusker: “We’re building a platform that values art, artists, and culture, and for the first time, opening the platform experience up to a wider group of fans with the free tier. Tidal is giving artists fairer earning terms and quicker payments, and fans are getting a better way to support their favourite artists. These offerings are the first step of many, as we’re excited to collaborate with artists to evolve our tools to help them continue to grow and create on their own terms”.