Taylor Swift was back in the news last week – had she left? – after Nielsen and Mashable pointed out a fascinating trend. Her music, they found, has been played twice as often on YouTube in the month after she pulled it from the streaming service Spotify.
This marks a victory for Ms. Swift, who is on a steadfast crusade to assure her songs are only available on digital services that compensate her in ways she deems fair. But it also illustrates how market forces are guiding the streaming world: customers want value, and it's become clear that value is squarely is in Ms. Swift's capable hands.
Consumers aren't flowing so quickly toward higher-cost streaming options. YouTube may be moving into paid, ad-free subscriptions, but right now most listeners still sit through ads to see music videos. The biggest target market for streaming services is the demographic that would rather download music illegally than purchase it, and those people aren't looking to pay a pretty penny; they'll take what they can get for cheap – or, preferably, free.
New services, meanwhile, continue to flood the market. Each tends to be remarkably similar – universal access to millions of songs for about $10 a month – with only nuanced differences, like the availability of certain artists' catalogs.
One new service, launching in Canada this week, is trying a wholly different tactic: a whole other value proposition at twice the price point.
Tidal, a new service from Norway's Aspiro Group, streams ultra-high-quality digital music for $20 a month. Its "lossless" files are compression-free, meaning audio has lost no quality after being converted to playable digital files from the original recordings, unlike mp3s and other files commonly used in streaming. Tidal also offers curated (and Canadian) editorial content and HD videos, but high-fidelity audio is at its core. Chief executive Andy Chen calls it "the ultimate musical experience" – the next logical step in the proliferation of streaming.
It's a brilliant offering, but a huge gamble, because the target market Tidal is aiming for is incredibly niche. Since the dawn of digital music, a small but very loud segment of music fans have led an outcry against its sound quality. Their argument is valid: In compressing audio files to a size reasonable to play in iTunes on an mp3 player, or on a streaming service, it loses crucial detail, nuance and warmth.
That much is accurate, but for the majority of listeners, it's a barely noticeable tradeoff for the sheer quantity of music the Internet exposes them to. The proliferation of digital audio has been, in a sense, a people's movement, a democratization of music after a couple decades of $20 CDs. There's no question that the most stringent listeners – self-described audiophiles – are largely left out of this movement.
Now, just like in the $20 CD era, these audiophiles can pay extra for the value they want. There's a pretty good chance a few of them will bite on services like Tidal, or Neil Young's high-fidelity Pono player.
But high-quality streaming is a half-measure. The real audiophiles – the people who might be willing to pay nearly triple the price of Netflix each month for high quality music – probably aren't thinking about streaming at all.
The cash-flush demographic is still more likely to buy vinyl, and maybe a CD or two, and listen to hi-fi stereos and headphones manufactured by the likes of Denon, Bose or Sennheiser. The journey is crucial for the end result: the vast majority of today's headphones, computers and mobile devices aren't designed to deliver truly high quality audio. Audiophiles know this, and unless they're carrying $500-plus headphones around with them, they likely won't notice the difference in sound on their iPhones.
I'm something like an audiophile; I subscribe to a streaming music service regularly for listening at work and in transit, and have hundreds of LPs to listen to on my home stereo. I prefer those, but I understand the tradeoffs of mobile listening. When the folks at Tidal offered me an early trial of the high-fidelity service, I bit. Maybe I'd be blown away.
Armed with $70 AKG over-ear headphones and whatever PC sound hardware The Globe and Mail could afford 500 of, I spent a week conducting an unscientific survey of Tidal's sound quality versus my regular subscription service, Rdio. Tidal's audio has a bitrate of 1,411 bps, while Rdio's maximum is 320 bps; both have comparable libraries of 25 to 30 million songs.
Among my idle observations: On Tidal, the drum samples have a little more kick in the Wu-Tang Clan's new single, Ruckus in B Minor. But on Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea's Problem, there's no discernable difference. Turning my attention to twee, I listened to the latest Decemberists song, Make You Better; while I found the sound on Tidal fuller at first, I realized it was because the sound was jacked way up. After matching the volume on Rdio, the quality felt the same.
Listening to vinyl-loving Toronto punk heroes Fucked Up, the bass on Queen of Hearts sounded slightly warmer on Tidal, but only really when I strained to hear it. But listening through the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street on Tidal, I found the sound fuller, more present, than on Rdio; Charlie Watts's snare, in particular, has more snap.
Finally, I turned to the loudest voice in the fidelity wars: Neil Young. On Tidal, after hitting play on the remaster of Heart of Gold, I was struck by the detail I heard in the acoustic guitar, with all its imperfections and muted chords. So I toggled over to Rdio.
It sounded exactly, and underwhelmingly, the same.
I wanted to love Tidal so bad. Great-sounding music can be life-changing. But the average person – even entry-level audiophiles like me – doesn't have the equipment to match the ideal.
With the right hardware, I don't doubt that Tidal can be a game changer for digital audio. But that's costly prerequisite for a costly service, and a risky business proposition in a market where no one's really ready to pay much at all. At least its early hi-fi competitor, Deezer Elite, forces users to use high-quality speakers, and is supported by a standard-quality service for the rest of the market. Tidal's chips, meanwhile, are all in one pile.
It's commendable to preach the sermon of quality audio, and reassuring to see more diversity in streaming services. But at the end of the day, the deck is stacked against Tidal. If there's an easier way to get music, that's where most consumers will go. You can't shake off the market.