When the news broke earlier today about Prince’s death, the outpouring of grief and shock was immediate. Fans took to social media to share their favorite Prince stories and their favorite Prince performances — but few of them were able to share their favorite Prince tracks.
That’s because Prince licensed his music to stream exclusively through Tidal, the subscription-only streaming service of which Prince was an early and enthusiastic supporter. Sites like Spotify were only able to cling on to HITnRUN, his most recent album.
What is Tidal?
Tidal has existed in one form or another since 2009, was named Tidal in October 2014, and was acquired by a company owned by Jay Z in March 2015. It pitches itself as a premium, socially conscious, artist-friendly alternative to streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify. Tidal is the only major streaming service that provides the same quality of sound as CDs.
But what really sets Tidal apart from other major streaming services is its royalty model. It pays artists double the industry standard royalty — a major coup for musicians who have grown increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the royalties offered by Tidal’s competitors. (Notably, Taylor Swift made headlines after she withdrew her music from Spotify and wrote an open letter to Apple Music decrying their royalty models.)
To pay for the increased royalties, Tidal depends on pay subscriptions. $9.99 a month gives you access to the "high-quality" music library. $19.99 a month gives you access to the CD-quality music library.
Why did Prince go for Tidal?
In an interview with Ebony that has been severely redacted since its first publication (more on that later), Prince spoke approvingly over how much control Tidal gave him over the way his music was presented, instead of relying on algorithms or on someone else’s vision:
We’ve changed the format of how our music appears. Where it would normally say "RELATED" and have a bunch of random stuff pop up—I love D’Angelo but he's just getting started, he came way after—what we did is we changed that to INFLUENCES. Then all these black and white pictures come up and you can go back and look at all the people who influenced me. Then in each one of those situations, Tidal allowed us to go and work on those pages.
That's the problem with these formats is that there's a lot of laziness out there. They have to do so much, so a lot of times it's just a program. It's an algorithm. I didn't want to be a part of that. …
Technology is getting all of humanity to the point where we're gonna be able to dial up our own experience here. So I may have a version of it, and Jay Z may have a version of it, and Kendrick Lamar may have a version of it. There isn't gonna be one size fits all. You could see that with hip-hop, really. They didn't say "courtesy of," they just jumped on people's records when they felt like it. You're talking about grown men asking another grown man permission to sing. So yeah, there is no perfect.
It's classic Prince: Tidal is the best program not only because it pays better, but because it gives him the most control over his music and his persona. And Prince never let someone else control his persona if he could help it.
Prince's control over his own image is legendary
Take, for instance, this very interview with Ebony. Prince refused to let Ebony record or transcribe the interview as they went, which was par for the course with him. As Gail Mitchell wrote in 2013:
He remains adamant about not allowing reporters to record their conversations with him. ("Some in the past have taken my voice and sold it," he says. "I can't remember the incident that triggered it and it's probably best that I don't.") And he still frowns at the idea of a reporter taking notes. ("That would be just like texting.")
So like nearly all Prince interviews, Ebony's story is the result of a reporter frantically attempting to transcribe an entire conversation from memory after Prince's departure.
But the first version of the interview that Ebony published was much more extensive than the version you can read on their website today, Billboard reports. It used to discuss Prince's philosophy of ownership, the stories behind some of his most iconic songs, and his relationships with other musicians. Prince's team apparently contacted Ebony after publication and told them that Prince had believed portions of the conversation were off the record. Ebony denied that, but they took down most of the interview anyway.
Prince didn't want his thoughts on what it's like to hang out with Jay Z to be on the public record. Prince just wanted you to know how much he liked being able to control where he was placed in the musical canon.
And because he controlled his own image so tightly, Prince was able to make himself into a pop icon. The same philosophy that led Prince to stream his music exclusively on Tidal is what made him such an important and titanic figure.
And in the meantime, if you don't have a Tidal subscription, Minnesota Public Radio's The Current is playing Prince on a loop. You can live-stream the whole thing.