Steve Albini on Tidal and the Problem With ‘Little Streaming Fiefdoms’

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Photo: Jordi Vidal/2014 Jordi Vidal

Steve Albini would be a legendary figure in rock circles if all he'd done was produce Nirvana’s In Utero, the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and helmed the punk outfits Big Black and Shellac. But he also became a go-to industry gadfly after writing the still widely circulated 1993 music-business polemic “The Problem With Music.” His opinions since then haven't softened, at least in regard to streaming services, which was the subject of conversation when Vulture called him last week at his studio in Chicago to talk Tidal. “Historically, every time there’s been a new technological progression, there’s been a new convenience format [for listening to music],” he said. “So the question is, is it possible for something to be more convenient than streaming? And the answer is obviously yes.” He imagines a cheap app that autonomously searches for music from anywhere on the internet; streaming, like CDs and the 8-track tape, is just a temporary development in a long line of new technologies designed for convenience.

Albini calls Tidal a “budget version of Pono” — the fledgling digital music player launched by Neil Young last year — that won’t make a significant impact on the market because, “if you want your music to play at the push of a button, convenience is going to trump sound quality 100 percent of the time.” Furthermore, he argues that people preoccupied with "lossless sound quality" will always prefer the gold standard of vinyl over streaming. (Last year, vinyl sales reached 9.2 million, a 52 percent increase from 2013, and this week, the U.K. launched its first-ever vinyl-only album charts.) “It’s for the same reason,” he says, “that if you had a screen that displayed paintings in your living room, very few serious art enthusiasts would care for such a screen despite the fact that it might show you very high-resolution images of artworks. They want to own a piece of art that is a direct connection to the person who made it. Having an HD screen in your house that would display artwork might have a market, but it’s not the same market as people who are interested in owning art.” In other words, the difference between people who are willing to buy music and those who want music at the push of a button is being vastly underestimated.

Tidal, which costs $10–20 a month, hopes to convert those who use the “freemium” ad-supported model on Spotify by offering hi-fi sound and exclusive music and videos. Jay Z and Rihanna, both Tidal shareholders, have already pulled some of their back catalogues from Spotify. Albini believes this is a mistake. “The for-pay services are deluding themselves by trying to establish a permanent monetization of something that’s in flux,” he says. "The internet provides access to materials and things. Creating these little streaming fiefdoms where certain streaming services have certain artists and certain streaming services have other artists is a crippled use of the internet. If the internet has demonstrated anything over the years, it’s that it has a way of breaking limitations placed on its content.” To his point, last week, Beyoncé and Rihanna released videos exclusively on Tidal; both were immediately available through other sources within a few hours.

Thanks to the decline of the major label system, Albini says more artists have the opportunity to develop sustainable, independent careers with fewer corporate players involved to claim their cut. Meanwhile, streaming will serve its purpose until something more convenient comes along. Shellac, Albini's band, wasn’t originally available on Spotify either, until he started to feel “snobbish” about it. "For listeners, it’s great," he says, adding that he listens to Spotify himself on occasion, usually while playing cards with his wife, Heather. “The High on Fire channel is excellent if you want background music for poker.” Those must be some pretty intense games