Giving Tidal another shot

To say I enjoy music is a huge understatement.

There is no other art that speaks to me so deeply in such a breadth of emotion. It’s more than just being greater than the sum of its parts: Whether instrumental or combined with lyrics, well done, music creates a whole other magnitude of impact.

Music has always been a big part of my life.
One of my earliest memories is falling asleep on my mother’s lap at a party while Pink Floyd played in the background.
I remember the song I loved hearing while playing a particular part of a particular video game in my teens.
Hearing a single song created a vision in my head for a scene it could accompany in a movie, which I then wrote an entire screenplay around.

I’ve played drums since grade school. I played cello starting in grade school and through high school. To this day, I hack around on guitars and ukuleles and piano and any other instrument I can get my hands on, trying to make some… any… music.

So yeah, I’d argue music isn’t just nice to have around in my life, but necessary.

Vinyl records were in their waning years when I started having much disposable income. Yes, I used allowance money and bought some vinyl in “record stores” (ask your parents about those, kids), but way, way more of my money went to CDs as they came into favour around the time of my early jobs and were the powerhouse musical format for decades. And I kept buying CDs, at times multiples per week, as I had a second job two blocks from a great little used CD store, until they started to become harder to shop for when music streaming became a thing.

Added to their increasing rarity was that several hundred–perhaps over 1000–CDs my wife and I had combined when we moved in together started to become impractical for storing, let alone hauling around when moving residences. While wanting to support musicians by buying their albums, continuing to do so just wasn’t something we could continue doing.

Enter Spotify.

For those still so ensconced in their vinyl/CD collection that they may be blissfully unaware of the modern juggernaut of music streaming, Spotify is among the biggest music streaming service on the planet. As with other competing services, you pay Spotify a fee to access their huge library of music, which you can then stream or download to a computer or device to listen to at any time. Subscriptions also allow you to make your own playlists. I have playlists for everything from listening to while showering (kid friendly) to listening to while going to work (basically the shower playlist, but with the addition of songs with swearing), heavy music, musical songs I like to sing to, Jazz To Read To, Classical To Read To, Music To Check Out… it goes on.

And being on a family plan–which lets my wife have her own account and make her own playlists separate from mine (though we can share them), and will let our daughter have her own account once we opt to give her some more free rein on such stuff without needing to keep as much of an eye on it–we’ve been pretty happy with Spotify for what it offers us.

But…

BUT

…. that old drive to support musicians hasn’t gone away (I daresay, as I look at turning 50 this year, it’s a safe bet that it won’t ever go away). Particularly these days, when live shows have been on hold through the pandemic, streaming is perhaps the only way some musicians are making money from their art. And in trying to stay at least somewhat informed of things happening around the world, I have come across articles about how little Spotify pays the musicians it streams. My understanding is that while the specific amount varies depending on a bunch of criteria, they get paid around one third of one cent per song stream.

Spotify, a company valued earlier this year at $67 billion and whose entire business model depends on streaming music, pays the artists making that music about one cent for three times one of their songs is streamed.

My thing: If you can’t afford pay the people your business model depends on, you need a new business model. Full stop.

So if Spotify–or any other music streaming service–can’t pay musicians, the people whose work the entire business relies on, a livable amount, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with how the business operates.

I don’t care that your six-figure CEO has experience with this kind of business, or that the shareholders aren’t getting as much as they’d like. Couldn’t care less. Because to me, first and foremost, the people making the product, the ones literally creating content from nothing that you’re turning around and making tens of billions of dollars from, should be getting paid a decent amount for their work.

Without the CEO working, the music will still exist.
Without the shareholders involved, the music will still exist.
But without the musicians creating music, the business doesn’t exist.

Who’s the key player there?

The counter-argument, of course, is that without the streaming service, musicians wouldn’t be heard other than on radio stations. And that’s true. But I’m not calling into questions whether these companies should exist, or even that they’re needed these days. I’m saying if you’ve built a major company worth several tens of billions of dollars, you can easily afford to pay the people well for making that linchpin content.

So began my distaste for Spotify and my search for music services that pay musicians better.

Enter Tidal.

Started in Norway seven years ago and since bought out and sliced up by other parties, Tidal set out to stream a better quality of music than other services and to pay artists more than other services do.

They continue to succeed on both fronts: To my ear, they do have improved sound quality–just doing a simple head-to-head of the same songs between Spotify and Tidal in even passable headphones demonstrates Tidal has a more full, better sound–and Tidal pays artists around 1.33 cents per song stream. That’s 4X what Spotify pays, and twice what any other (western) music streaming service pays.

Is even 1.33 cents per song stream fair or livable? That’s a can of worms to try to answer, and I don’t claim to have the knowledge or insight to even try. But it’s obviously at least better.

Tidal has fewer subscription tiers than Spotify, though their family plan for their normal (but better-than-Spotify) sound quality streams is about the same cost. Before I even considered what tier to opt for, though, I tried out their promoted free first month of use. If I was going to make the switch to Tidal from Spotify on behalf of the whole family, who I’d then need to familiarize with the app, I needed to make sure it was solid and hopefully pretty intuitive to use.

I frankly found the interface not great, and the attempts at playing shuffled songs within my playlists (ported over from Spotify, which is a nice touch on their part) was a big stumbling block. Upon being asked to shuffle the songs in a playlist, Tidal tended to play mainly the same songs in mainly the same order, so not actually shuffling much at all. I tried this out a number of times, and each time it had the same result. Suffice to say, shuffling playlists is easily the most common way we use Spotify: ‘Here’s a playlist I want to hear stuff from, now play them in a random order.’ Tidal not being able to manage that was not only confusing, as that’s a pretty basic music player feature, but was frankly a deal killer for us.

A bit of poking around online suggested I wasn’t the only one having these shuffling issues. It seemed that, asked to shuffle partiularly larger playlists, Tidal would play mainly the same songs in mainly the same order each time. There were some people who didn’t have this issue at all, but as I wasn’t in that camp and wasn’t getting any answers from Tidal tech support about the problem, I bailed on the service before even getting through the first free month. Disappointed, I went back to Spotify: The company that doesn’t pay its creators much but at least actually works for what we pay it to do.

I planned to revisit Tidal in future months or years to hopefully find that their UI worked better, but had largely put it out of my mind.

Then I got an email from Tidal earlier this week with an offer.
“Psst, hey,” it paraphrased, “we’ll give you two months of subscription for $2.”

Quickly concluding that two months is a huge amount of time to fiddle with their settings and hopefully get some Why No Shuffling? answers from their support department or ask around elsewhere online more thoroughly, I dove into the offer and fired up Tidal on my phone.

Right off the bat, it looked… different.
Cleaner. More professional.
Better.

I tentatively tried out shuffling one playlist (it oddly seemed to have my playlists still readily available, perhaps thanks to cookies somewhere) and… it shuffled.
Good start.
But oh-ho, I’d been lured in by that before. The real test was to see what happened when I stopped that shuffle and re-started a new shuffle. Would it give me the same mix of songs?
As it turned out, no, it didn’t.
Pleasantly surprised at what seemed to be it shuffling properly, I tried it again: Stopped that playback and started a new shuffle play on the same playlist. I checked the queue again and… lo and behold it was once again a whole new mix of songs from that playlist. Shuffling a playlist actually plays a shuffled playlist!

Huzzah!

Their desktop app could still use work–it’s not nearly as full- or finished-looking as their phone app–but we stream music way more often from phones than laptops anyway, so that’s neither here nor there.

For all it seems to be trying to do right, Tidal isn’t entirely without its controversy. In my striving to make more ethical choices among companies to support (*glares at many companies*) I try to be informed about their business and social practices, and Tidal has run into some backlash about their proclaimed number of streams tallied. They want to appear to be a bigger player than they are, so quick math suggests they’re adding a few million here and there to their reported streaming plays. That seems to be about the start and end of their questionable business practices, and as corporate behaviour goes, that ain’t bad. I mean, who among us hasn’t boasted we’re bigger than we are, right, gents?

So I’m now heading on a two-month stint of using Tidal as my primary music streaming service to get a really good feel for how it goes.

I’ll post more about it as anything notable comes up.

Disclaimer of sorts: I should say that as much as it sounds like I’m shilling for Tidal, it’s not that at all. I’m just relaying how I’m hoping to get on board with a company that gives me what I want and gives its content creators more of what I think they damn well deserve. I’m tired of seeing billions being earned by companies (and individuals) while the people at the bottom of the company food chain, who make the entire organization operate, struggle to make ends meet. Tidal seems to have the right idea for that, or at least a better one than any readily available competitor, so it’s in better alignment with what I want to support.

Maybe if I–if we all–tried to do more of that with more aspects of our life, with what we listen to and where our clothes are made and how the food we eat is grown and raised and collected, we’d start seeing more companies behaving in ways we could (better) get behind.

Money still talks, dear reader. Spend yours conscientiously.

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