This week, reports emerged that Apple has entered exploratory talks to acquire Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, which he himself purchased less than two years for $56 million through the investment group he fronts, Project Panther Bidco. A little more than a year ago, Jay dissed major competitors like Apple, YouTube, and Spotify for giving artists such low percentages from streams of their music. “That’s where we differ/I take what’s mine, you accept what they give ya,” Jay rhymed in a freestyle at the B-Sides concert he gave in May 2015 for Tidal subscribers. “I don’t take no checks, I take my respect.” But now he might be doing the opposite and taking the check.
On the one hand, this move is of a piece with the sort of capitalism we’ve seen Jay practice all his career. Remember, this is the guy who, in Nov. 2011, tried to cake up off the Occupy Wall Street movement by slapping a logo and a price tag on T-shirts, embodying exactly what the movement fought against. Many labeled him a sellout for continuing to work with Barneys after the store was accused of profiling a black customer in Oct. 2013. (He eventually demanded a higher percentage of his deal with the department store, resulting in about $1 million donated to his foundation to send at-risk children to college).
Musically, he’s always been upfront about his money-making ambitions. We all know the lyric from The Black Album highlight “Moment of Clarity”: “Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” Later in the verse, he said he would make the money and give back, because “that’s the win-win.”
Does Jay Z have an ideological center? He reportedly started an education trust for the children of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man who was killed by the NYPD in 2006. He has also privately bailed out protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore, helped supply NBA players with “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to speak up for Eric Garner, and according to friend/co-author dream hampton, he has privately paid for college for hundreds of children who have trouble getting scholarships. Does Jay have a record of using his power and resources to help others, even if it’s a quiet one that involves work behind the scenes? Yes, absolutely.
But if there’s been a time that the sellout label looks fitting, this may be it. Jay isn’t just selling his company; he’s selling it to the same corporation that he previously deemed so unfair he had to partner with Tidal in the first place.
If the deal with Apple goes through, Jay wins and receives a greater amount for his music than he would have if he had made his music available on Apple before. If all Jay wanted was the most lucrative compensation, then it appears to be mission accomplished if these talks come to fruition. And a black business shouldn’t have its accomplishments invalidated just because it is acquired by a bigger company.
But Tidal was supposed to be bigger than Jay Z: It was supposed to be about giving all of its artists the slice of the pie that they deserved. (After he acquired Tidal, he gave out small stakes to other artists like Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kanye West, Usher, and Beyoncé.) The company’s arrangement even impressed Prince, who staunchly opposed all streaming services, including Apple Music. The news of this possible deal stings since just last month, on the remix to “All the Way Up,” Jay declared, “Prince left his masters where they safe and sound.” (Of course, we don’t know if Prince’s catalog will be included in the acquisition). If this acquisition happens, Jay would not only be putting his own music into those corporate hands—he would also be handing over the music from other artists who believed Tidal was the best way to get their fair cut. (At the very least, this deal would force massive re-negotiations between artists and Apple.)
But from the outside looking in, Tidal had been fighting an uphill battle. Tidal announced that it had 3 million subscribers in March, after the release of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and that they gained another 1.2 million subscribers with Beyoncé’s LEMONADE. But the stats don’t necessarily reflect the amount of members who sign up for free trials before never using the app again. Even then, these numbers are a blip compared to the competition: Spotify has 100 million active users and 30 million paying ones, while Apple Music reported 13 million users in April since its launch in June 2015. Tidal has also gone through multiple executive changes since Jay Z acquired the company. If it’s true that Tidal was plateauing, should Jay Z have kept up a business that we all think was doomed, just to keep up appearances? And what does it say about our expectations, that we would rather him take an L just to appease us?
As usual, Jay made the right business move. He’s not the heartless capitalist some believe him to be, but he’s not the indie spokesman he has sometimes portrayed himself as either.