Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.


A while back, Jay-Z and a bunch of other musicians purchased Tidal, which is one of the only streaming platforms around that also offers lossless music. They relaunched the service yesterday, and it was really weird: the unveiling started with a speech from a Tidal executive who introduced all of the major musician backers one at a time, each to tepid clapping and a few shouts, probably from Tidal staffers.1 Then, Alicia Keys took the mic and gave a speech about how music changes everything, closing it with a quote by Nietzsche, which seemed like a depressing turn.

Then, Radiohead’s “National Anthem” played2 while each musician signed a declaration of some kind. The song went on way too long while the artists all sort of hung around, then got a group photo, and walked off the stage. Bizarre.

Then came a prerecorded video of all these artists sitting in a warehouse or some kind of photo studio talking about how this is some kind of revolution. Which seems a little overcooked, to be honest.

The service itself is $10 per month if you opt for high quality 320 kbps streaming, which is pretty much the same as any other streaming service. For $20 per month, you get lossless streaming. As I’ve written many, many times in the past, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between high quality compressed audio and lossless audio. Tidal thinks you can, so they’ve set up an A/B test of five songs. I picked all five lossless files successfully on my first, but if anything, the difficulty with which I had choosing between them — even though I know what to listen for — convinces me that high quality compressed formats are just fine.

The artists say that they want their music heard the way with the quality they intended. But most music made today is terribly mastered and engineered, including much of the music from these artists. Tidal doesn’t make any of this better; it just means you can hear the full sonic range of clipping. Kanye West’s “New Slaves” clips, while Deadmau5’s “Avaritia” just barely skates under the limit. So even if you can tell the difference between lossless audio and lossy audio, what difference does it make to the actual recording quality or the listening experience?

If artists were serious about starting a revolution and trying to get their work heard in a more respectable, high-fidelity way, they’d fire Rick Rubin and Nick Raskulinecz, improve the mastering of their records, and not rip off their peers.

  1. Chris Martin and Calvin Harris couldn’t even be bothered to get on a plane to New York, so they Skyped in. The revolution may not be televised but it will be video conferenced. ↩︎

  2. Which, by the way, is cut from all the videos I can find, presumably for licensing reasons. So there’s just this silence while a bunch of people sign a piece of paper. ↩︎