Even before the last bit of glitter is swept from the celebrity red carpet of Jay Z’s Tidal launch, his new streaming service has been declared a failure. Of course, artists and consumers have a right to be skeptical of any new business that comes into the marketplace proclaiming both a better experience for listeners and a better payout for artists. Whether or not Tidal – or any streaming service - sticks around for the long term remains to be seen. However, those most vocal about reserving a place for Tidal in the economic graveyard of today’s music industry have illuminated something deeper about our cultural values. And it isn’t pretty.
Artists hold the major equity stake in Tidal – but the criticism is that they aren’t the right artists. Questioning the ability of elite artists making excellent money from their work to adequately represent struggling independent and niche genre artists is fair. But general sentiment isn’t that nuanced. Distilled into its ugly essence, it’s this: if artists have gotten rich off their work, why should we pay them?
Capitalism is used as an excuse to exploit artists all the time. Consumers want free! Music has no value! Tech companies gleefully tell us to purchase their apps or devices instead of purchasing music, even as the very content they claim has no value is essential to the device’s usefulness. The rich getting richer has always been characterized as a capitalist’s right. So why is it when artists threaten to succeed at capitalism, we want to slap their wrists and take away their Rolex?
We live in a society where CEO’s get paid astronomical severance packages when they leave the helms of failing companies that have left their workers without hope of retirement, and we don’t say a word. We live in a society where Spotify is raking in venture capital from investors like Goldman Sachs and not yet turning a profit, and we don’t dare tell them their offices are too shiny. We also live in a society where most artists and musicians are expected to give away their work even as they struggle to feed their families. We pass the hat for them every now and then, maybe if they’re dying and if their work has had a certain measure of critical acclaim. But if they ever reach an arbitrary level of success we reason we should stop paying them - because they have enough.
So which is it? Should musicians and other artists be a part of our capitalistic society and be allowed to stand up to corporations to fight for their true economic value in the marketplace? Or should we continue to police artists as if they were charities doing a good deed, and decide just who deserves our financial support and who should live in poverty while we enjoy their work in relative comfort?
Some artists are supported by government and organizational grants. Some artists are critically revered but are limited in their work output by the necessity of a day job. Some have financial support from spouses. Some make just enough from their creative work to survive. And some – very few – grow rich from their work. There’s no perfect artist. All artists who produce work that we consume deserve to be paid.