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Apple & Tidal & uncertainty & fear

  • If it bleeds, it leads. It’s been argued that a news outlet’s main line of business is fear propagation. The horror of a terrorist attack, the lives lost to a natural disaster or a fresh bout of economic gloom soon give way to questions: “When and where will the terrorist group strike next?”; “Could an earthquake of such magnitude happen here?”; “Who will lead our country out of recession?”.

    Being exploited by the news outlet, deliberately or not, is the ensuing uncertainty – a void that is all too often filled with speculation. That is, until the story develops further. Airtime and white space must be filled with something.

    We often hear on-scene TV newscasters specify “What we do know so far is…” before reeling off a list of possible scenarios in trying to get to grips with what might happen next. Uncertainty breeds fear which in turn keeps viewers watching and readers reading.

    For the publisher or broadcaster fleshing out its 24/7 news cycle with speculation comes the potential for a blurred line between what is known and what isn’t.

    News yet to be confirmed is, by any other name, a rumour. And as we know, rumours are big business in the publishing and TV industry. Doubly so when they involve celebrities.

    The big talk on the music streaming rumour mill this week centres on Jay Z’s plans to sell Tidal to Apple. According to a 29th June article in the Wall Street Journal. “Apple Inc. is in talks to acquire Tidal, a streaming-music service run by rap mogul Jay Z, according to people familiar with the matter.”

    Or maybe they aren’t.

    The WSJ article was soon updated with news that Tidal had denied the existence of such talks and on July 1st, Ben Sisario of the New York Times tweeted that “Two highly placed sources tell me that Apple is not buying Tidal.”

    In Apple’s crosshairs are Spotify who currently enjoy 30 million subscribers – twice that of Apple Music.

    The Tidal purchase would take Apple to just shy of 20 million but the more likely incentive for Tidal acquisition is its strong and numerous connections with big name artists. Tidal is the only streaming service owned by artists (a selling point that would ironically disappear should Jay Z proceed).

    Apple executives can’t be blind to how Tidal’s steady (err) stream of exclusive releases have caused large jumps in the service’s subscriber base.


    Whether the Tidal sale goes ahead or not [see footnote], the uncertainty is, like the truth, very much out thereSpeculation steps in to fill the conversational void but so too do a series of questions with almost no clear cut answers.

    In the event of its sale, would Tidal’s higher than industry average royalty rates be maintained? Would access to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, currently a Tidal exclusive, be expanded to every one of Apple Music’s subscribers?

    Audiophiles might ask: will Tidal’s roadmap for MQA implementation, through which hi-res streaming is possible, find itself meeting a sudden dead end?

    Exclusives aside, mainstreamers might care less than audiophiles about supply issues given the greater number of alternatives in the lossy space, about which the conversation might revolved around which company has the biggest/best catalogue or the most usable UX.

    For those who remain unsatisfied with lossy streams, Tidal’s biggest selling point in the relatively teeny tiny audiophile world is its lossless ‘CD quality’ service. In the result of a buy out, one might reasonably be concerned about the fate of Tidal’s “Hifi” tier. I know I would be.

    Would the lossless option disappear completely or would Apple look to incorporate it into their business model? And if lossless were to disappear completely from the menu, what are the alternatives?

    Qobuz offer a “Hifi” lossless tier but it’s restricted to select European countries. The absence of Qobuz’ North American market presence could be in part attributable to its close shave with bankruptcy in November 2015.

    Deezer’s lossless Elite service is available in the USA and Australia but only (presently) via Sonos. Like French neighbour Qobuz, Deezer isn’t without its own aura of uncertainty: last year’s planned IPO was aborted in October.

    Even if lossless audio supply continues, the audiophile uncertainty doesn’t end there. Many of us enjoy access to Tidal via third party applications like Roon or Audirvana Plus. What would happen to these software companies’ (tradesman’s entrance) API access? Would it continue or would Apple nix it?

    This same uncertainly must surely be troubling hardware manufacturers who rely on this same API access for Tidal integration in their streaming players and servers.

    If anything, this storm in a teacup serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t wholly trust the cloud for music supply. Streaming services by their very nature means that the terms and conditions of access remains wholly out of our hands.

    (How’s that for fear-dealing?)

    Further information: Tidal

    *Footnote: We should remember that rumours of Samsung buying Tidal came to nothing earlier this year. Ditto Apple’s rumoured imminent move to 24bit downloads back in 2014.


    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Great commentary and less reactionary than most of the pieces I’ve read.

      One very naive theme I’m seeing on audio forums is that Apple would acquire TIDAL for the lossless streaming component. Ridiculous. If Apple wanted to stream lossless, they would do it internally. Plus, I don’t think it makes sense for Apple to offer lossless music after they’ve brilliantly convinced so many customers that lossy is perfectly fine.

      • As long as lossless streaming supply relies solely on associated demand, it’ll remain an uber-niche concern. And in case we forget, before being purchased by Jay Z, Tidal was pitched more directly at audiophiles.

    2. I’ve been looking forward to Tidal’s implementation of MQA, and currently enjoy my hi-fi subscription thru Auralic’s DS Lighting app. I use Tidal primarily for new music discovery. This and the tight integration with Lighning DS is what I would miss the most. Let’s hope Apple does indeed go after Spotify and leaves us audiophiles alone.

    3. My guess, if this were to go through, is that Apple would develop its own lossless streaming format internally to replace Tidal’s, and you can absolutely forget about MQA. The idea that Apple would hand over ANY control of its delivery format to anyone outside the company goes completely against everything they’ve done since the Apple I. Apple doesn’t do FLAC, they do ALAC. Apple doesn’t do microUSB/Type C, they do Lightning. Apple begrudgingly went Intel only when PowerPC became completely unpalatable.

      Sony has historically been bashed for its proprietary formats, but really the only difference between Sony and Apple is that Apple has the muscle to make a successful alternative to the otherwise dominating MP3, whereas Sony’s Atrac came and went with very little notice. When Apple decides it wants something that it either can’t or won’t otherwise do internally, it buys out the company that makes it. So unless Meridian feels like selling the company to Apple, or selling off MQA and losing all control over it, I think it’s safe to say that any Apple service using MQA will never happen.

    4. Lets’ pray that Tidal doesn’t get consumed by Apple, as DAR says Tidal’s biggest selling point in the relatively tiny audiophile world is its lossless ‘CD quality’ service. Guess fair comment, except the quality of most over CD’s terrible (just like the quality and limited selection of the LP’s that used to be supplied to the Aussie market, inferior crap) – DAR to describe the audiophile world as tiny, the vast proportion of the population have never experienced half decent sound, never mind high-end. Historically, even with a decent audio system, only limited CD’s offered anything representing audio quality, not helped by the commercially driven corporate sound engineers and studios who over engineer, adulterate, compress, and compromise just about everything they record. Won’t discuss until very recently, how the Aussie public, and still is to a large extent restricted (fed) a very narrow range of music, monopolised by Sony’s of the world and largely controlled radio hacks.
      Thanks to the new evolving technology of DAC’s, refined active bookshelf speakers, affordable (other streaming devices I haven’t experienced) and high-definition streaming the average citizen now has access to a new level of music not previously available, or known in most cases.
      Sadly the average citizen remains totally unaware and has essentially zero appreciation of how good music can be – fair to say, to the detriment of the public and itself, the audio industry has no idea how to promote itself – the public has any idea what a DAC is, vague idea of streaming, and recently Tidal and absolutely never heard of HD music.
      And if Apple takes over Tidal or Spotify decent sounding music will remain a thing of the past, the only thing that concerns Apple is the bottom line, they couldn’t give a shit about providing a superior music experience. If they did we wouldn’t have to put up with such crappy software as iTunes, it goes from bad to worse, and the same applies equally to Apple software development, which has essentially ceased except, as for Mac OS it main purpose is designed to intrude and monopolise personal information, objective of Mac iOS similar, fortunately, its functionality is light-years ahead of Mac OS.
      Apple’s main revenue stream, the iPhone has no advantage over smartphones costing a third of the cost of an iPhone. iMacs sales like the computer market in general, is falling, and the MacPro is a joke, it is so far behind the competition it is sad, as with music Apple doesn’t give a shit about its original, and until recently loyal foundation graphic designers and professional users. By all accounts, Apple has lost its creative and innovative edge and has all the hall-marks of a falling star – from being one the world’s number one companies.
      Apple owning Tidal won’t improve the public music experience, just make it more expensive.

    5. My guess: if Tidal is sold to Apple, then the lossless streaming will disappear. Apple could have implemented lossless streaming at any time and apparently aren’t at all interested – why would they be interested now for such a small market? For smaller Tidal, the addition of lossless streaming is a unique feature that gets them a significant amount of income and market share they otherwise don’t have; for Apple it’s a very small (relatively) part of the market that probably isn’t worth the cost and hassle.

      Royalties: here’s betting Apple puts everything on it’s own royalty platform, and ends the more generous Tidal version.

      I’m not sure that if Apple buys Tidal all those exclusives remain in force. I think the artists can re-negotiate with Apple under that scenario. And besides, if it isn’t artist owned, why would they make such a deal with Apple?

    6. “Even if lossless audio supply continues, the audiophile uncertainty doesn’t end there. Many of us enjoy access to Tidal via third party applications like Roon or Audirvana Plus. What would happen to these software companies’ (tradesman’s entrance) API access? Would it continue or would Apple nix it?”

      This question is the least speculative in my opinion because Apple’s market/position strategy is well known and understood. Apple always (always always always) leverages everything to drive customers into Apple’s own hardware/software/services ecosystem (which of course is very profitable for Apple). What ever support/cooperation continues, it will be with this goal in mind.

      I admit to being torn. On the one hand, as I have written here and elsewhere MQA is so bad (even for “audiophiles” who otherwise can take advantage of its SQ tweaks) for out digital/music ecosystem that an Apple purchase would be “good” because it surely would head off MQA-over-Tidal at the pass (for all the reasons that other commentators have noted). On the other hand, I really enjoy my Tidal 16/44 service, so a non-purchase still leaves the MQA degradation of Tidal’s “Hi-Fi” and would mean a switch to Spotify 320 for me personally…

    7. A highly uncertain and fear-inducing topic for sure. Definitely scares me in a big way. Thanks for the great article!

    8. Interesting read. Could be that Jay-Z wants to sell out, follow in Dre’s foot steps. Especially since Tidal is awash in its credit card authorization lawsuit and as best I can tell, has pretty awful customer service ( my own support ticket took over a week to get a response ). He may be taking the longview and doesn’t like what he sees.

      On Apple’s end I would think Apple is simply looking to purchase market share regardless of lossless or otherwise but I tend to think its the subscribers they want and they can’t just dissolve Tidal or Spotify or Pandora and try to force people on to Apple music. The breakage from doing that would be too large a variable with enormous risk. Maybe they integrate their own streaming tech and make it easier/ more prominent to buy a song. A buy now button next to all the top tracks for a given artist.

      Even so, Lossless streaming on Tidal still falls well short of a true CD rip played through something like JRiver. I came face to face with that just today listening to The Cars…. The tidal hifi version was downright anemic. I enjoy my hifi account but if it disappeared tomorrow it’s not something I’d lose sleep over.

    9. > If anything, this storm in a teacup serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t wholly trust the cloud for music supply.

      I couldn’t echo this sentiment more strongly. If it’s on the Internet, what’s here today could be gone tomorrow. And if it’s on the Internet do you know exactly what you are getting?

      The ubiquitous nature of Internet delivered ‘media streaming’ has drawn many of us in. Of late it even seems that the fate of the next-gen audio format, MQA, is dependent on streaming for its adoption, with of course the rumors being that TIDAL will be the first to make it available.

      I was a slower adopter to streaming, mostly due to the late arrival of most streaming services in Canada. First I dabbled with lossy media via the likes of Apple downloads, Songza, and Google Play Music. Later with lossless from TIDAL and Deezer Elite when they became available. Today I still subscribe to GPM, TIDAL, and Deezer Elite. Each has a place in my music consumption model, and each complements the other, as there still is not one provider that can provide it all.

      Through my adoption cycle, my initial concerns were Internet reliability to deliver a stream without dropouts or interruptions. The Internet reliability concerns were squelched and the access to millions of tracks and the relative ease of navigating the vast library pulled me in. The initial allure for me was that I could finally have a lossless digital library of my long held, but haven’t played for 20 years, vinyl collection. I knew that a vinyl comeback was in process but I was interested. The vinyl format was too inconvenient and Internet delivery of lossless music lead to a convenience of access never imagined before.

      Having access to millions of tracks and more albums that I could ever imagine led to concerns of playlist and album management for my favorite albums. If you only use a single provider the plurality of the problem is not visible. I was using multiple providers and this exposed me to a number of issues related to streaming music delivery, especially if one was considering moving from one provider to another.

      I am old enough that I treated music as a physical asset. I hung onto my vinyl collection, as inconvenient as it was to play, as it was a physical medium that was manually selected and added to a physical collection over time. I spent a long time struggling with music as a physical asset vs the virtual nature of streaming and eventually the illusion that most of my vinyl collection was available in lossless digital streaming convinced me to let go of the “music is an asset” notion and I started to lease my music collection from the lossless provider of the time – TIDAL.

      I’ve been involved with Internet delivery and Internet based technologies for over 20 years and one of the first things I realized was that the Internet was an equalizer for access. An Internet based service provider can be replaced in a heartbeat by actions on either side of the Internet router. By the time I got around to sampling Deezer Elite through a Sonos promo, I was about to compile by favorite album collection a third time. Then I started to experience some of the flaws with the streaming model. First it was the realization there was no real portability in defining a collection when moving from provider to provider; then it was that not all albums or labels are available from all streamers; then it was the removal of a few of my favorite albums; then it was the replacement of albums with remastered versions, which lead to a realization that there was no assurance of what issue, re-issue, or remaster of a particular album you were streaming; and finally the expose that a good portion of content being streamed is watermarked by labels like those under the UMB umbrella. The bubble had burst, the panacea was no more.

      Over the last 18 months I have gone from an all-in for streaming attitude back to maybe for me, that for my really favorite music, it should be an asset. In the last year I have purchased 100’s of used CD’s so that I can be assured that the favorites in my music collection will remain accessible to me, regardless of what happens on the Internet.

      I am not sure what percentage of TIDAL’s subscribers are actually paying for the HIFI (lossless) streaming option, but the fate of any of the lossless streaming and associated cloud services will eventually depend on the magnitude of the market demand for lossless streaming, with MQA hi-res being an even further smaller niche. The market will expand and contract and will find it’s it balance over time and in doing do there will be casualties. For audiophiles, we are the minority and will eventually be blended with the rest. We just have to wait and see what remains after the dust settles.

    10. This deal goes nowhere once JayZ realizes that there are no corner offices in Apple’s new HQ… or at least when the FTC weighs in on the deal.

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