It's been less than three weeks since Jay Z rolled out his music streaming service, Tidal, and the thing may already be more controversial than Napster ever was.
Acquired last month for $56 million from Swedish firm Aspiro, the platform offers CD-quality streaming and exclusive content at a premium: up to $20 a month, versus Spotify's $10, with no option of a free, ad-funded service. By sequestering a pack of Top-40 megastars—Kanye, Rihanna, Jack White, and Beyonce are among the platform's shareholders—Tidal hopes to increase the value of a stream and pay musicians more.
The shtick is that Tidal is for artists by artists, but it's come under fire as a way to make music's rich richer. Ben Gibbard recently condemned the service to failure for "bringing out a bunch of millionaires and billionaires and…having them all complain about not being paid," while Mumford & Sons guitarist Winston Marshall called its shareholders "new school fucking plutocrats." Lily Allen has also lamented Tidal's treatment of indie artists, and Steve Albini told Vulture this week that exclusivity is barely possible on the Internet. (Case in point: Rihanna and Beyoncé both used Tidal last week to release "exclusive" videos that have since appeared elsewhere.)
But we haven’t yet heard from an actual indie artist—the kind Gibbard and the others say are getting snubbed. To get that side, I called Lili K, a Chicago jazz singer who has appeared on Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap and Vic Mensa's Innanetape. Her debut LP, Ruby, comes out next week, and it is currently streaming exclusively on Tidal as part of Tidal Rising, the platform's discovery arm. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You're one of the first independent artists Tidal's promoting. How did they approach you about streaming Ruby ahead of its release?
Well, we wanted to expose the album to as many people as possible, and [Tidal] listened to it and loved it, so they offered to premiere it. They seemed really interested in me.
So your team reached out to them first?
I believe we contacted them, and then they wrote back, which I didn’t expect. They made me feel really good about the music.
What about their platform made you want to stream with them as opposed to somewhere everybody could listen?
Well, the album is going to be available for everyone on April 21. It’ll be on iTunes and Spotify. It’s not like we’re keeping it. I want as many people as possible to hear it. That’s one of the reasons I thought Tidal was cool—I thought it would be a great platform to reach listeners that really care about quality of music. Because sonically, Tidal does sound amazing. I thought it was overhyped until I actually heard it.
And since [the album] has been [streaming], I’ve had so many people discover me just because they’re on Tidal. They have me really prominently featured on the main page. On sites like Spotify and iTunes, there are so many artists, and it’s easy to get overlooked, especially when you’re an up-and-comer.
You mentioned how aggressively they're promoting your album. What's their incentive there? Are they taking a cut of royalties from streams they promote?
I’m really not sure. My label is dealing with that, but I do know that they’re saying more of the royalties [will] go to the artists than on Spotify. I think the biggest thing for them, honestly, is the backlash they got because of the huge, popular artists being promoted on Tidal. I just happened to come at a perfect time for them to be like, “No, we do support independent artists as well.” They launched my stuff the same day that they launched Tidal Rising. It was an awesome coincidence for them and for me. I’m getting promotion out of it, and they’re getting to show that they support up-and-coming artists.
Do you worry about alienating fans by aligning yourself with that sect of musicians—Team Tidal?
Not necessarily. It’s not like I’m keeping [the album] only on Tidal. If it was something nobody else could ever see, I’d be more concerned. But it’s just a pre-stream. It’s not a huge deal. And I try to be pretty vocal about my appreciation for my fans and support from any site that wants to lend it. At this stage, there’s not much [I] can afford to turn down. The people at Tidal have been really nice. I hope I’m not alienating people.
Does Tidal retain any exclusivity or ownership after the one-week stream is up?
No, no. I mean, you have to have the Tidal account to listen to the album there, but that’s not in my control.
Tidal is being marketed as artist-friendly. Has that been your experience so far, and if so, what makes them more artist-friendly than Spotify?
It's really early on to tell. I do think it’s cool that artists can make featured playlists. There’s a lot of content that’s focused on artists. There’s music videos on there. But I don’t know. [My music hasn't] been on Spotify before. My first time will be next week. I’m not sure how different the experience would be. But as far as working with [Tidal's] editors, they were really, really great and responsive and helpful and eager to put out good music. That’s the experience I got.
A lot of the guys you cut your teeth with—Chance, Peter Cottontale, Vic Mensa—have had insane success giving away mixtapes for free. What made you want to go a different route?
I had already done three free EPs, and I just thought it was time. So much goes into an album, especially when it’s all live instrumentation. It’s so much work to have complete live bands with live horn sections, live strings. It [takes] a lot of energy and money and time, and you put so much of yourself into it. People appreciate musicians' art, they listen to it, and I don’t think it’s a problem to have to pay for it. I buy albums that I love. The Tidal thing came across pretty last-minute. It wasn’t my initial plan. It wasn’t replacing anything.
You majored in music business. Do you think Tidal can really change the market value of a stream with exclusive content?
I might be a little biased because I have an old-school mindset when it comes to music. I’ve always been weird about it being free. Musicians, this is our livelihood, and I think it’s really great to get paid for it. That’s why I buy the albums I listen to. I view Tidal as buying the project. It’s more content. I’d like to see what they’re doing as far as more exclusive content—if there’s going to be things you can’t purchase, or things that let you get to know an artist. So I do think it’s possible. There are still people who are genuine music lovers. It might not be the biggest part of the Internet—a lot of the youth are all about free everything, free content, immediate content. But there are a lot of serious listeners who appreciate [music] as an art form, and those are the types of people who might gravitate toward Tidal.
Would you rather a fan stream your album on Tidal or buy a copy?
Whatever they want to do. If people are listening to the music and enjoying it and telling people about it, that’s what’s most important to me. If they buy it, I think that’s awesome. That means more.