What does the Tidal sale mean for audio brands?

Jay Z has sold his majority stake in Tidal to Square, a firm run by Jack Dorsey – the co-founder of Twitter.

There’s been much movement in the world of music streaming over the last few years. Amazon arrived, artists demanded a fairer cut, governments investigated the whole set up, Qobuz expanded, Spotify introduced Spotify Hi Fi and now Tidal has been sold to one of the silicon valley giants.

For audio brands, the continued growth of streaming is a win and the growth of HD or high-res services is even better and shows a real move towards quality sound over a lower quality format rooted in MP3 technology which, this year, celebrates 30 years since its creation in 1991. For more on that landmark creation and why music is now rented and not purchased, check out the brilliant book How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt. Written as a real thriller, it’s more relevant now than ever.

The sale of Tidal to a large group signals two things. The Tidal brand appeals with an artist first focus and high-res music isn’t going anywhere. Tidal also has other plays to make around video, sports, podcasts and artist access.

It’s taken a while for high-res digital sound to get to this point of acceptance of course but not as long as the acceptance of stereo sound, a format that few wanted first time around. This is something that wasn’t lost on us when we were asked to write a page about Alan Blumlein for the Grammys when he won the posthumous Technical Grammy in 2017.

The fact that another audio or hardware brand hasn’t purchased Tidal is good for a few reasons. It remains open, won’t be folded into another platform and it won’t be used as a carrot to get consumers to buy into an audio eco system created by, say, Apple. When Kanye West suggested that Apple should ‘give Jay his cheque’ and buy Tidal, audio brands began to worry about what that might mean.

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For artists, the Tidal sale could mean a fundamental restructuring of the recording industry. Tidal has a lot to prove but if, like Bandcamp and now Soundcloud, it’s moving to take on much larger rivals via a promise of better sound and better morals, there’s still key questions for music fans. Do you care about supporting your favourite artists? Do you want better quality sound? How much would you pay for a fair deal and high-res sound? You pay for organic food and support farmers, so why is your music consumption different?

The rise of vinyl sales shows appetite for supporting artists and sound quality but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the dominance of streaming. The challenge for Tidal is to find all music fans who have the same mindset as vinyl buyers (but not a turntable) and convert them so they can spread the message about artist fees and sound quality at speed over, say, a network like Twitter. Tidal tried to convey these messages around artist fees and sound quality before but it came from the wrong people – artists and the brand itself.

Real influence and change in habits come from fans, peer groups and media. Tidal needs a cultural movement to succeed, not a promotion.

The $297M Tidal sale price is a bet on the community of music fans to spread the word. Does Square, a financial services company, have the ear of that community? Time will tell but, in the meantime, audio brands should be happy that, again, there’s a focus on a music service which delivers high-res sound and, in 2021, there’s now a mature range of consumer audio products that can now do that sound justice…

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