In an apocalyptic 2015 video, leading totems of Western popular music culture parroted an impressive range of 20th century romantic revolutionary language within a mere 122 seconds. “Changing the course of history”, Jay-Z quipped, was on the cards. #TIDALforALL no less. Beyoncé prophesised that “every great movement started with a group of people being able to get together and really just make a stand”. To the barricades! But wait, this was not Sierra Maestra, it was Los Angeles. There were no Molotovs or Godards, only champagne flutes and embarrassing sartorial exhibits.
This was the portentous launch of TIDAL, a self-styled revolutionary music streaming service, unique for its lossless audio quality. Shame the promo was only accessible in 480p. The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but as we know from May ‘68, somewhere else beneath this pavement – sous les pavés – is the beach. In the context of this juxtaposed image, TIDAL is probably the pavement. Definitely not the beach.
The platform would revolutionise popular culture because it would re-centre the artist and dispense with the capitalists. Beyond the music quality, the innovation of TIDAL was about, in Madonna’s words, “bringing humanity back to being artists, not technology, art, human art”. There’s a kind of untranslatable term in Danish that summarises such musings aptly as ‘pocket philosophy’. Observations of the type that only figure in banal pseudo-philosophical books so lacking in rigour as to fit, appropriately, in almost two-dimensional books. In the Anglophone world the closest approximation might be an ‘Alain de Bottonism’.
Like with faux-philosophy, so it goes with faux-revolutionary attempts to topple the dynastic status quo. The most wealthy pop musicians launching a challenge to the music business was presented as dynamiting a stymied industry: “I just thought about like how crazy this is, how this is the beginning of a new road”, Kanye interjected. Cutting out agents, labels, and managers will eventually land a larger slice of the pie to Rihanna, Daft Punk, Calvin Harris and the other TIDAL owners. Like a bourgeois revolution against the aristocracy! There is nothing emancipatory for anyone else but the few who wrest away power from the dinosaurs and into their own hands. “We’re the most powerful”, Chris Martin admitted in passing. Turns out the artists were the capitalists were the artists after all.
In a further ironic turn, perhaps the name ‘tidal’ foretells its own eventual fate. Tides are powerful, but their primary characteristic is adhering to a cyclical pattern. Tides come and go. Hey there, moon. They are epiphenomenal of other factors. There is no agency for tides. TIDAL came and went faster than a lunar cycle. But tides are also fleeting, quotidian, and in most locations unnoticeable. Kitschy no doubt, a truly cataclysmic phenomena would have better represented the alleged impact of the service: TSUNAMI. QUAKE. DELUGE. Or, if they had been genuinely woke, why not TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE.
Replacing dynasties with other dynasties is akin to the ebb and flow of tidal waters: Neither permit transcendence but remain trapped within their structural constraints. The moon prevents tides from overflowing, keeping them in clockwork synchronicity. New dynasties, qua dynasties, replace only the position of old dynasties and do not fundamentally alter their metaphysics. You can’t escalate a tide. You can’t reform your way to a revolution.
The pinnacle of dynastic naiveté unfolded when this same farrago of celebrities joined on stage to ‘relaunch’ TIDAL in May 2015. The sparse audience was left suspended in a void of doubt - was this a joke? An epochal interlude between Kanye West’s pocket-philosophical existentialism and Twitter Trumpism? Or a plain-sighted profit-oriented expansion of Jay-Z’s bourgeoning business empire? An unclear combination of all, intended to further line the wallets of the music industry’s most well-lined while echoing postmodern attempts at ironically pursuing authenticity beyond the commodity? Just how was this platform meant to surpass Apple Music and Spotify?
Unanswered questions aside, the sheer awkwardness of the entrance of these unrivalled celebrities took this launch from pop-cultural ephemera to immortalised artistic artefact. Followed by an uncomfortably long interval from the previous person on stage, Jay-Z entered to a round of applause similar in scale to the tepid excitement of a distant aunt’s work anniversary. The video is now hard to come by as the TIDAL website greets its visitors with a disappointing “Sorry: This video does not exist”. Ephemeral indeed.
This spectacle resembled a high school open mic night more than a parade of authoritative billionaire businesspeople and musical artists. Nobody seemed to really know what was going on. One imagines the dissolution of the star quality aura by an audience faced with very ordinary, normal human beings rather than Instagrammatic demigods. Calvin Harris and Chris Martin joined via grainy videolinks on a small television set. Toe-curling in the most literal sense of the word, it was too ridiculous to be passed off as pastiche. Too pathetic to be genuine. It was a kind of nightmarish simulacrum.
The attempt by Jay-Z and his A-list accomplices to unseat the duopoly of music streaming was always going to be a Panglossian project. It was primarily an aesthetic venture - steeped in slick minimalist mo-chro graphics and the gimmick of streaming lossless music on lacklustre Beats headphones, TIDAL seemed an empty threat to Spotify. Rooted in moralism proclaiming that one set of very rich people ought to be richer at the expense of another set of very rich people, the appeal was limited to creative millennials bankrolled by their parents, like a celebratory article on a website called The Interns surmised. Those of us growing up in the Kazaa era, rejecting legalistic intellectual property rights and without a steady stream of intergenerational subsidies, would be hard pressed to fall for Jay-Z’s ploy.
The penny finally dropped when a collaborative effort between journalists and academics in Norway further unclothed the already naked emperor. Jay-Z boastingly revealed the alleged listening figures for the streaming service only to thereby also reveal the scale of the Tidal scam. The figures for two of Tidal’s exclusive releases, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, were deliberately inflated by about 320 million plays according to data leaked to Norwegian paper Dagens Næringsliv. Pablo alone had been streamed 250 million times in 10 days, according to the official figures. The collaboration between the business daily and digital forensics experts culminated in an extensive statistic report determining the extent of the TIDAL fraud: a concerted effort to manipulate listening figures. “We really have an opportunity to change the way we all experience art”, we were told by Beyoncé. But TIDAL is surely part of the pavement, not the beach. La lutte continue…