Tidal hits ups and downs with Jay-Z release, possible Kanye West defection

Music service Tidal got a big bump from Jay-Z's new release, 4:44, but could take a hit if a report that Kanye West is departing is true.

Tidal jumped to No. 1 in Apple's App Store on Friday and Saturday — Jay-Z's album launched early Friday morning — according to Apptopia, an app tracking firm. Tidal's app also jumped to No. 12 from No. 432 in the Google Play store.

This was despite the grumblings among some new Tidal subscribers, who were surprised to learn they couldn't hear 4:44 unless they were already subscribers or were customers of Sprint, a part owner in Tidal. The service loosened that policy on on Monday, saying the album would be available even for customers who signed up for the free 30-day trial.

The new album is now also available to all new Tidal users, even those who have just signed up for the free 30-day trial (previously, only Sprint customers and current Tidal subscribers could listen.)

Overall, Tidal had the most downloads on a single day in the last year, Apptopia data found.

The last time Tidal topped the app charts? Feb. 14, 2016, the day Kanye West's The Life of Pablo landed for its one-week exclusive stint on Tidal.

West was among the original group of artists — others included Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Usher, deadmau5, Madonna, Rihanna, Jason Aldean, Nicki Minaj, Jack White and Chris Martin of Coldplay — who joined Jay-Z at Tidal's relaunch more than two years ago and were reportedly given equity stakes in the company.

The music service, which has a $19.99 high-definition music tier along with a $9.99 monthly standard-res subscription, had other high notes with April 2016's release of Beyonce's Lemonade album.

But it's had a harder time turning those bursts into a mass subscriber base. Last year, Jay-Z sued the former owners, claiming they inflated subscriber numbers. Then in January, wireless carrier Sprint  took a 33% stake in the company, a financial boost for the company.

Sprint's 45 million subscribers — all of whom get a free six-month pass to Tidal's service — could help the service expand its subscriber base, something Tidal has struggled to do despite its star power. At 3 million subscribers, the last figure publicly announced , Tidal is dwarfed by Spotify (50 million paying subscribers worldwide) and Apple Music (27 million). 

A reported rift with West wouldn't help matters. West has left the company, arguing he is owed more than $3 million, according to entertainment news site TMZ. West's attorney has sent two letters to Tidal saying the company "was in breach and the contract terminated," the site reported, citing unnamed sources. Tidal did not pay West a bonus for attracting new subscribers with Pablo and did not reimburse him for music videos, West alleges according to TMZ's report.

In response, Tidal sent a letter to West threatening a lawsuit if he attempts to join another streaming music service, TMZ says.

Neither Tidal nor RocNation, which represents both artists, responded to requests for comment from USA TODAY. 

There have been signs of ill will between West and Jay-Z, who have collaborated in the past. Last August, West took to Twitter to say that Apple CEO Tim Cook should "cut a check" to Jay-Z and buy Tidal because Jay-Z was "[expletive] up the music game."

Continuing, he tweeted, "We'll all gon [sic] be dead in 100 years," and argued, "Let the kids have the music." (In response, Jay-Z rips West in new song Kill Jay Z.)

West likely had tired of Tidal's business strategy of using exclusives to build its subscriber base. Many others are also beginning to question the viability of exclusives, with Spotify global head of creator services Troy Carter telling Variety recently it has abandoned the strategy.

"I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers," Carter told Variety. "If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model."

And exclusives can time out quickly. Tidal had Beyonce's Lemonade to itself for only one day, before it hit other services. No word yet on how long Tidal will be the exclusive home to 4:44.  MacRumors reported that iTunes and Apple Music would get the album this week.

"The problem is the exclusives don't last long and now there's a pattern of that so there is not as strong of a sense of urgency amongst people to sign up for the service when they know they can wait and get it via other means," said Apptopia spokesman Adam Blacker.

Jay-Z's album has "received a ton of positive feedback and the exclusive early release on Tidal certainly could not hurt the service," said Glenn Hower, senior analyst with Parks Associates. "However, as we see now with the Kanye West fallout, exclusivity can be complicated when dealing with larger-than-life personas."

Taylor Swift ended her beef with Spotify last month, returning her music to streaming services. "This is not necessarily a new issue in the streaming music space," he said. "Even for household names like Spotify and Pandora, margins are still razor-thin and there are plenty of questions about the profitability and long-term sustainability of streaming music services," Hower said.

Parks Associates estimates that Spotify increased its subscriber base to 7% of all broadband homes in 2016, up from 4% in 2015. The leader: Amazon Prime Music (15%, up from about 10%), followed by Pandora One (remains about 6%), SiriusXM (5%) and Apple Music (4%). Tidal is in less than 2% of broadband homes, Parks Associates estimates.

Losing West may not help Tidal's cause, but it won't likely be fatal for Tidal, says Zach Fuller, an analyst with Midia Research. "People want to make these sweeping statements and say that Spotify has won, or Apple Music can come in, or someone can bundle (Tidal) with another service," he said. "But as we have seen Tesla want to get involved in streaming. There’s all these competitors. It’s really early days."

© 2017 USA TODAY


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