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Tidal rides sudden wave of popularity

Inside Tidal's launch event.  Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Roc Nation

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How do you stand out in the music streaming business? Star power helps.

That has been the concept behind Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal. But not until this weekend did that concept show its full potential.

Kanye West debuted his album on Tidal. On Twitter, he said the album will be on Tidal exclusively for a week, and urged his followers to go to the streaming service.

He made a similar call on Saturday Night Live over the weekend, where he performed selections from the album, “The Life of Pablo,” which had been the focus of some speculation and anticipation

Over the weekend, Tidal became the most downloaded app on Apple — not bad for a company that has struggled to compete against the likes of Spotify, Pandora and deep-pocketed rivals such as Apple Music.

“Tidal’s trying to position itself as having these exclusive deals,” said Jeremy Morris, a professor of media and culture studies at the University of Wisconsin. He credits West for the Tidal bump.

An exclusive single from Beyoncé of her Super Bowl song “Formation” a week earlier, along with an exclusive offer for her fans to get an extended trial of Tidal, also brought a lot of attention and new listeners to the streaming service.

“Increasingly we’re going to see these exclusive offers as these services jockey to say, ‘Where do we stand in this market?'” Morris said. 

On Twitter, West claimed that his exclusivity deal with Tidal is much broader.

“Tidal is also funding a lot of my scripted content ideas. It’s a new day people. More Ultra Light Dreams to be realized,” West wrote. There has been no confirmation from Tidal about that claim.

While exclusive artist deals are one way to stand out, they are also a hard way, said Casey Rae, head of the Future of Music Coalition, a musicians’ advocacy group that, among other things, wants better compensation from streaming services.

“We see a very, very small pool at this point of globally bankable superstars,” Rae said, and few of those superstars are on independent labels — allowing them the freedom to make deals with Tidal.

That’s why Casey Rae suspects Tidal’s bump is likely to be temporary. So does Jeffrey Rabhan, a music industry veteran and chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“Tidal may be experiencing a nice spike in users surrounding the Beyoncé and Kanye exclusives, but without a much stronger long-term strategy, the interest will most likely disappear as quickly as it came,” Rabhan said.

A long-term strategy is also on the mind of Gigi Johnson, who heads the UCLA Center for Music Innovation. The battle isn’t just about getting attention, she said, it’s about what streaming services do with that attention.

“It’s great to be popping up on the app list,” Johnson said, “[But] how do you get those people, when the free trial is over, to stay?”

Johnson said there is no firm answer to that question, yet, because listeners have been conditioned to expect music to be free. And as music streaming grows by double digits, the competition among Tidal and other streamers will grow, too, to figure out how to monetize those audiences, she said.

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