Last night, Tidal, a music streaming service that is owned by Jay Z when he remembers, put on a huge concert in Brooklyn's Barclay's Center. Like any event of its scale, its objectives were manifold: to celebrate 1 million subscribers, to promote a new HTC phone, to raise money for "nonprofit organizations dedicated to advancing positive community relations and effecting systemic change for the development and sustainability of just societies." It was also, as with previous Tidal X events, a show of force from the star-studded array of artist-owners that still seems to be Tidal's only real claim to fame.
That lineup alone could cause mass heart failure anywhere in America, but I expected the crowd at Atlantic and Flatbush to be particularly frenzied. Gathering that concentration of stars, many of whom claim New York City as part of their artistic identity, in one city block in the heart of Brooklyn seemed like cause for an unofficial local holiday. Instead, as with all things associated with Tidal, the energy seemed sapped from the air from the jump.
Impressive and hollow, just like Tidal
Part of that could have been because we didn't know what to expect. The lineup looked packed for a single-day festival, how were they going to negotiate that many artists in three hours? Back-to-back duets? One long "We Are The World" redux? Would they throw up their hands and just stage an arena production of Les Mis? (Don't even get me started on casting. Okay, Rick Ross and French Montana as the Thenardiers, that's it, END DISCUSSION.)
It turned out that the Tidal X: 1020 was more or less the live show version of streaming music: all the artists in one place, playing one or two hits, then clearing out for the next act. And as such, it was both impressive and hollow in the exact same way.
In hindsight, this may have been the reason behind Prince's late backing out of the show — as an artist who is famous for long teases and the explosive climaxes, who could blame him? The audience started to get wise to the odd rhythm of the evening when Alessia Cara vanished almost as quickly as she had appeared, after performing a single song, her sleeper hit (and Beats radio fave) "Here." "That's it? That's all she's going to do?" I heard multiple people around me ask. I could hear them because there was no transitional music in between acts; the lights came up and the monitors were cut as the crew scrambled to adjust the minimal staging for the next artist. This happened between every set.
Going into the evening, I had both feared and anticipated a kind of happy sensory overload, a piling on of artists in one long unbroken train of hits, but Tidal never let me get to that brain-ache joy-point. The closest the show got was the Maybach crew's smart decision to perform together, batting around a mini set on the heels of Meek Mill's performance. (Meek, by the way? Still tons of love for him in Brooklyn last night.)
The undoubtable high point was Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé's "Feeling Myself," the first time the two had ever performed the song live together. If the night was building toward anything, it was that performance, and indeed, those three minutes of girly, ferocious ecstasy are all that has been popping up in my assorted feeds this morning. That was the shareable moment, the takeaway, Tidal's best hope at a lasting impression reaching beyond the cavernous walls of Barclays. It would be hard to relate to anyone not at that show how disjointed and anticlimactic the rest of the night was, much in the same way that someone in the year 2000 would have a hard time believing that a future of unlimited streaming music isn't the best, most awesome thing ever — that it's easy to get lost, and forget what you wanted.
There's a lot of mutual trust at a live show
I went to the Tidal show by myself, which I'm sure accounted for some but not all of my muted mood upon leaving the arena. I've been going to shows by myself for a long time, ever since I worked at a college radio station and snatched up any comps I could in search of free entertainment. I've spent countless hours, some with the buffer of a smartphone and some without, waiting around in enormous arenas or crowded polo fields or beer-stinky bars for bands to play for crowds of varying enthusiasm through sound systems of varying reliability. I'm sure I could find a way to romanticize it all (I do feel a pang of nostalgia for the time I nearly got into an all-out brawl with a gaggle of drunk girls at a 2004 Of Montreal show, of all things), but overall I wouldn't recommend it as a lifestyle choice.
You're not really supposed to go to shows alone, for the same reason you're not supposed to put on a show comprised of 15 five-minute sets. Live concerts, whether they're at the Staples Center or Gabe's Oasis, have inevitable lulls — a song that's not your favorite, a technical glitch, a tall person in front of you. You get through it because of relationships: with the people you're with, or with the songs coming through the speakers. There's a lot of mutual trust happening at a live show just by nature of its duration, the same way there used to be a lot of mutual trust in an LP. When one party stops trusting the other — to stick it out through the new material, to hold your spot when you go to the bathroom — the magnetic pull of the event evaporates.
The magnetic pull of a live event is about all the music industry has going for it right now, primarily because they offer a sustained connection with an artist that is less and less attainable in today's crowded marketplace. Megashows like Tidal X: 1020 will grab headlines and raise eyebrows, but they're not what keeps the artist's relationship with their audience alive — the artists do that on their own tours and Instagram feeds. If the goal was to build a similar relationship between an audience and a streaming platform, Tidal still has a lot of work to do.