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Tidal is still great, except for all the nonsense

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Lossless streaming is the real deal

It’s difficult to imagine now, but when I first stumbled upon Tidal, it was a truly harmless, innocent thing. There was no buzz to speak of. No one had heard of it. Its parent company Aspiro had been around since 1998, but it was still a fresh-faced startup in every meaningful sense of the word: the Tidal app was kind of a mess, there was no guarantee of its continued existence, and there wasn’t much precedent for its business model that suggested people pay double Spotify’s asking price for better audio quality. This was October of last year. The service had just launched days earlier. Jay Z was not a part of the conversation.

Then, yes, you know the story: a bunch of extremely high-profile musicians held a tone-deaf VIP event in New York City to relaunch it. The "artists first" message delivered by Jay Z and his friends hasn’t resonated with consumers — perhaps because it was delivered by a dozen or so multi-millionaires — and there certainly hasn’t been a mass exodus from Spotify precipitated by dumb Madonna videos.

The "artists first" message delivered by Jay Z and his friends hasn’t resonated

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back to those heady days of late 2014, when a $56 million check from Jay Z was little more than a fever dream for Aspiro executives. For all its teething issues back then, pre-controversy Tidal was a wonderful thing. Of course, I’ve never needed convincing that streaming services were the way to go; I don’t need to own my music. I’ll gladly pay a monthly fee for it until the day they put me in the ground, as long as I have access to a reasonably large library and the latest releases. I hopped on the Rdio train forever ago, then I switched to Spotify. What drew me to Tidal very early on were the lossless 1.4Mbps FLAC streams. Even the best streaming services had traditionally fallen short of CD quality, and Tidal’s differentiator was in trying to do something about that. The catalog was surprisingly decent; the interface was merely passable, but I don’t use a music service for the UI — I use it for the music. (I think longtime Sonos owners would agree with me on that.)

It’s easy to write off those lossless streams as a gimmick completely unnoticeable to a middle-aged human ear that’s been assaulted by decades of police sirens, Creed concerts, and city living, but I ran a good 10 or 15 blind tests on friends and coworkers between Spotify’s highest-quality stream, 320kbps, versus Tidal’s FLAC. People guessed Tidal correctly every single time, using just mediocre headphones plugged into a MacBook. It’s absolutely the real deal. And it’s easy to make the argument that if you care enough about music to subscribe to a monthly service devoted to it, you may as well pay a little more to get the best quality that you can — especially if you’ve paid anything for decent audio equipment, like an amp or a really good set of earbuds.

That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, it’s nigh impossible to convince people to pay $20 monthly for something they can get for $10, which certainly explains why Jay Z’s relaunched Tidal introduced a $10 plan that doesn’t include the high-quality streams. But then it’s just a streaming service like any other, notwithstanding the occasional obnoxious exclusive. And now, Tidal doesn’t just have to draw people away from Spotify — it also has the much more daunting task of fighting Apple Music, which will be available out of the box on every iPhone. And while Apple Music may not be better than anything else, it may not matter in the end.

A streaming service like any other, notwithstanding the occasional obnoxious exclusive

That brings me back to the present day. In less than a year, Tidal has somehow gone from a blip on the radar, a lovely niche alternative floating in the Sea of Spotify, to a case study in PR mismanagement with a giant target on its back. The service and its stakeholders come across as both aloof and failing, a bizarre balance of undesirable traits that should normally be impossible to strike. If you’ve heard of Tidal, you probably chuckle when it’s mentioned. You probably haven’t tried it at length, much less subscribed to it.

I don’t know how Tidal digs out of this publicity hole and establishes a viable long-term stake in what has become a commodity business, even with a fleet of high-profile artists on its side. For now, it’s puttering along, adding features and the occasional Nicki Minaj collaboration. But the real tragedy is not that Tidal could disappear one day if Jay Z and the shiny French androids of Daft Punk get tired of dealing with the nonsense — it’s that beneath that nonsense, there’s still a great concept here that isn’t effectively addressed by Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, or Apple Music.

Lossless streaming isn’t a gimmick. In fact, it’s the opposite: streaming services can’t entirely obviate owned music without it. Average-quality streams are great for the bulk of the market, but hardcore music lovers will absolutely pay a little more for something that sounds noticeably better. (I’m one of them.) Spotify’s Daniel Ek suggested in a recent Billboard interview that lossless could be in his company’s future — shortly after Tidal’s launch, conveniently — and I hope it happens. I’m not saying I’m ready to switch the second another company lights up lossless, but it’d sure be nice if the only one offering it in the US wasn’t the pariah du jour of the streaming industry.

I could use my high-quality streaming with a little less drama.