When Beyoncé’s sixth album, “Lemonade” dropped exclusively on Tidal last weekend, Shamika Sanders was pumped that she had been smart enough to previously subscribe to the streaming service. Indeed, the entertainment editor for HelloBeautiful.com had learned her lesson the hard way when two months earlier, Beyoncé released her “Formation” video on Tidal, where Sanders was unable to quickly access it.
“I realized I couldn’t miss out on epic things like this,” explains Sanders. “I knew [Beyoncé] would release her album on Tidal, and I could not— as a fan or as an entertainment editor— not have access to the biggest album of the year.”
Sanders learned what many have picked up in the last few months: if you are an alert, avid music consumer in today’s world which highly values instant access, Tidal cannot be ignored. Even though “Lemonade,” for example, was a Tidal exclusive for just a mere 24-hours, that was enough time for the album to have an immediate cultural impact worldwide. The message to non-subscribers was clear; miss out on these opportunities at your own risk.
Since February, Tidal has scored major triumphs with recent exclusive releases by some of the biggest names in music today including Rihanna (“Anti”), Kanye West (“The Life of Pablo”), and of course Beyoncé— all of whom are part owners of the company. A further coup came last week once it was announced that Prince had also hopped on the Tidal train before his untimely passing. Though numbers have yet to be released, Beyoncé and Prince alone have the capability of drawing a gigantic number of potential subscribers from their respective fan bases.
And yet, not all music lovers are in love with Tidal. For some newer subscribers, having these huge artists felt more like a strong-arming tactic where they were being forced or even coerced into signing up. The streaming service has had to contend with its share of damaging rumors and bad press since launching last March, but none perhaps more damaging to its reputation than the reaction from the make-or-break cultural juggernaut of #BlackTwitter. From day one, the company has been the butt of jokes on social media with many music fans swearing they will never go for it.
Obviously Tidal is not just aimed at African American consumers, but why had it failed to reverberate with this particular market? And why is the Black consumer not readily supportive of this Black-owned business?
The answers can be found in examining how much the Black consumer market has changed in the decades following Jim Crow, when segregation forced Black businesses to depend on the Black business market, says Robert Weems, a business history professor at Wichita State University. When speaking specifically about the demographic that would most likely utilize Tidal, he is not at all sure “how many Black consumers buy into the idea of supporting Black business.”
“Unlike earlier generations where you had ministers that consciously urged Black people to support Black businesses, you don’t see that happening today [with this generation],” says Weems.
It is an idea that Prince himself clearly had in mind when he decided to host his extensive music catalog solely on Tidal. Talking to EBONY.com last year about his decision, he said: “I think when there’s a company like [Tidal], or the OWN network—situations where we finally get into a position to run things—we all should help. “
Sanders assures that she absolutely did consider supporting Tidal early on because it was a Black business, but grew confused once a photo of the majority of the company’s employees was released last May, showing a very White staff. She questioned where exactly would her money be going and who it would be supporting. She also contends that people were further turned off by Tidal’s grandiose launch and mission to “put more money into the musicians’ pockets.” A message she believes went tone deaf for many fans when the musicians in question are mega millionaires like Madonna, Alicia Keys and Usher.
“It felt very ‘woe is me’ rich celebs,” says Sanders. “As a person who is likely living paycheck to paycheck, the last thing I wanted to do was hear about how rich artists are sad because they’re making four million instead six. If I’m poor that’s the last thing I want to worry about. It can be hard to see Tidal as a Black business offering all of these exclusives. Depending upon a person’s financial decision making, it can influence how you chose to support them.”
— Ice (@OfficiallyIce) April 24, 2016
Unfortunately, when the roll-out tanked, the glee that followed in seeing Tidal fail was a direct response to a self-aggrandizing launch and confusion in part from comments made by Jay-Z himself, who ranted via a freestyle rap that the lack of support for Tidal was because the company is owned by a Black man.
“We love to see people fail,” says Sanders. “Because Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a track record where everything they touch turns to gold, we expected Tidal to be a hit right away. But when it didn’t immediately break records, people laughed. When something isn’t a big success, we immediately consider it a failure.”
Weems has a different take on the ebbs and flows of Tidal’s success, citing the company’s inability to identify who to market the service to.
“They might have been better served if they researched the economic landscape before they launched because it hasn’t generated much in terms of publicity and sales,” he adds.
Obviously, Tidal has adjusted accordingly. Lately, you’ll find few negative comments. Clearly having back-to-back exclusives from the world’s most popular artists has not hurt their cause. Just two days after the release of “Lemonade,” Tidal jumped to the top of the iTunes app store. While they may not be gaining legions of fans, they seem to have found a way to gain enough respect.
In fact, just this time last year, Sanders wrote a scathing review of the company, vowing to never subscribe to the service. In retrospect, she laughs when reminded of her impetuous decision.
“They had to start from the bottom and build up,” she says. “They’ve gained more respect as it becomes a place where only the most exclusive artists are dropping their projects. I don’t know how long that will last, but I have been moved by the last few projects they’ve released. I can respect that.”