Jay-Z and Neil Young Won’t Make Streaming Music Better

Currently, you can listen to Courtney Barnett’s great new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, on at least three sites for absolutely free — and not illegal pirate streams, but legitimate sites like Spotify and YouTube.

Barnett seems to be all right with this idea since one of the streams on YouTube was uploaded by the label she owns and runs, Milk! Records, but not everyone in the music industry wants you to be able to hear their music for free through your smartphone or computer.

Earlier this year, two musical legends, Jay-Z and Neil Young, decided it was time to start their own forays into the way we listen to music. Because obviously, they would know the best way to listen to “99 Problems” or “Cinnamon Girl,” and not the people who run Pandora, Spotify, or, even, Apple.

In March of this year, Jay-Z purchased a Scandinavian tech company called Aspiro for $56 million. Aspiro was mostly known for its streaming music service, which is why Jay-Z was interested in purchasing the company. Less than a month after the purchase, Jay-Z held a press conference introducing Tidal — which had actually been providing service to 500,000 customers since late 2014 — the first artist-owned streaming music service.

Jay-Z was joined on stage at that press conference in New York City by a handful of well-established artists like Madonna, Jack White, and Nicki Minaj, who all own a small piece of Tidal. The site contains 25 million songs, along with exclusive content and artists not available on other streaming sites, and the company also states that it will provide artists with the highest royalty rate per play of any streaming site.

On paper, that sounds admirable. But in reality, the majority of musicians are not making any money from any of the streaming sites, including Tidal. According to The Guardian, an unsigned band on Tidal would still need almost 30,000 plays just to make minimum wage ($1,260 a month) in the United States.

Also, in stark difference to major streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora, the site does not offer a free streaming service. Listeners can pay $9.99 a month for a standard plan, or upgrade for $19.99 to hear their favorite songs in “lossless high fidelity” through FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files. FLAC files are CD quality and don’t produce some of the audio issues related to MP3s.

Audio issues with streaming sites was one reason that Neil Young decided last Wednesday to pull all of his music from these sites, writing on Facebook:

“It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.”

The sound of music has long been an issue for Young, and was the main reason he began work on his own portable media player and music download site, Pono. Just a word of warning: Do not type “pono.com” or “pono video” into your browser because even the internet thinks Pono sounds like a child saying the word “porno.” It’s actually the Hawaiian word for “righteousness.”

In 2012, Young appeared on Late Night with David Letterman with a prototype player and last year, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign raising over $6 million. The campaign was highlighted by a 12-minute video of musicians, record executives, and music fans apparently being completely blown away by the sound quality of the prism-shaped player that will cost you $400 to purchase.

Like the upgraded service on Tidal, Pono uses FLAC files to restore the “ear-body connection” with music, according to Pono’s website. Albums and single tracks on the Pono Music site — which currently does not have a streaming service — are slightly more expensive than other sites. For example, Tame Impala’s Currents is $10.99 on iTunes, but $14.29 on Pono, with single tracks from the album .40 cents more.

Both Jay-Z and Young would argue that their sites offer more expensive alternatives because the quality is better, and by using FLAC files, technically they’re right. But does the average music listener care? Based on the bad press and lackluster sales, it would appear that both Tidal and Pono are not creating the revolution expected by those involved with both companies.

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Almost as soon as Tidal was launched, bloggers, other artists, and fans denounced the site as nothing more than a way for Jay-Z and all of his elite musician friends to further line their pockets with money from fans. Tidal states that it has over 700,000 subscribers, but many of those may be subscribers using trial offers that will soon be canceled.

Also, the launch of Tidal appears to have helped its competitors. Both Spotify and Pandora have seen an increase in users and revenue since the launch of Tidal, which some analysts believe is due to consumers realizing that Tidal is not a free service.

Remember how everyone was amazed by the sound quality of the Pono player? Numerous tech sites have tested the player, and have concluded that the average listener really can’t tell the difference between the Pono and other digital listening devices. Essentially, unless you have the right headphones, or stereo system, you’re paying $400 for a digital music player that’ll look weird in your pocket.

Pono and Tidal stumbled out of the blocks partly due to bad marketing and publicity. If Jay-Z stood on stage with the artists he is supposedly fighting for with Tidal’s high payouts to artists, instead of Arcade Fire and Kanye West, our perception of Tidal may have been different. It also would have felt smaller, and less bombastic, leading to more press about what Tidal was standing for, and less about who was standing with Jay-Z.

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As for Pono, it’s a piece of technology for a very select group of people. It was created for people who lament the end of the industry and have disposable income. Time will tell if Pono becomes the next Zune, but it has a very steep climb ahead of it. Without a streaming service, or more artists, it will be very hard for Pono to compete as anything more than a novelty.

Jay-Z and Neil Young have legions of fans and, for the most part, have been very successful throughout their careers. But what they have created in an effort to help the music industry are products that can be found at much lower prices. At a time when the average consumer spends about $100 a year on music, they have started companies that don’t appeal to the average consumer.

About Jeremy Klumpp

Jeremy is a contributor to The Comeback. He lives in Ypsilanti, MI.

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