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Viva El Jay

In his 2003 song “Public Service Announcement,” Jay Z claimed he was “Che Guevara with bling on”—a reference to a Che T-shirt he’d worn on an episode of MTV’s Unplugged. In both the MTV stunt and the song lyric, the rapper-cum-entertainment mogul invited criticism that he was, like many hipsters of the early aughts, merely capitalizing on Che’s cultural cachet without bothering to reckon with the Cuban revolutionary leader’s actual politics.

Earlier this week, he delivered another public service announcement that lent credence to such carping. At a duly blinged-out press conference, Jay Z declared that Tidal, his newly acquired music streaming service, was going to “change the course of history.” In an era when Spotify’s and Pandora’s freemium, ad-supported model rules, Jay Z and his fifteen other principal shareholders, including Kanye West, Madonna, and Beyoncé, presented an alternative—an artist-owned platform featuring both standard and CD-quality sound, at a respective subscription price of $9.99 and $19.99 per month. There was plenty of muted cheering, standing, and clapping at Tidal’s Monday night coming-out party, which resembled nothing so much as an anodyne political rally—or perhaps a State of the Union address to the artists and staff of Jay Z’s record label, Roc Nation. The owners’ triumphant closing gesture was a formal signing of a declaration of artistic independence—a moment clearly intended to echo the founding declaration of independence of these United States, and like that momentous ceremony, Jay Z’s great symbolic flourish was meant to be a foretaste of grander, world-conquering things to come.

Instead, the press conference and its attendant promo video sparked a miniature Shays’ Rebellion among the culture commentariat: a bevy of think pieces promptly appeared, dissecting the real-world obstacles to bringing Tidal’s bold millennial promises down to earth, chief among them a confusing pricing structure and a reliance on revolutionary rhetoric in lieu of true innovation. Its features, which include offline-streaming, curated playlists, and original editorial content, are already commonplace offerings on other streaming services. On the face of things, Tidal seemed to be more of a ripple than a tsunami—and certainly a far cry from what Tidal executive Vania Schlogel called in her introduction, “the most revolutionary music and entertainment platform for the planet.” Its most heavily advertised draw, the higher-priced high-fidelity audio, seems a hard sell given it sounds pretty much the same as Spotify’s free compressed versions without the right equipment.

During her keynote address, A-list partner Alicia Keys claimed that Tidal would “create a place that brings artists and fans together”—disregarding Twitter, Reddit Ask Me Anything sessions, and the existence of pretty much any other form of social media in the process. In reality, the most unique benefit of the new service appears to be its first-of-its kind, artist-owned model. However, even that shift in ownership structure doesn’t seem to have altered the core business model of the streaming industry one whit. Indeed, Schlogel declined to divulge its streaming rates, which strongly suggests that artists who have yet to ascend to Jay Z or Beyoncé levels of superstardom aren’t going to see any appreciable changes in the music-streaming status quo, which is a model for further beggaring the starving-artist class. In other words, it seems all too likely that Tidal will disappoint true-believing adherents for the same reasons that other revolutions have: a lack of opportunity for the masses—in this case, fledgling musicians.

This kind of half-hearted altruism is not unfamiliar to anyone who’s followed Jay Z’s career. He has a long entrepreneurial history of presenting mogul-scale market triumphs in a misleading veneer of revolutionary iconography. In the midst of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, his clothing brand Rocawear sold shirts with the phrase “Occupy All Streets,” spinning the mantra of the 99 percent into a blandly provocative directive emblazoned on a 100 percent cotton crewneck. Two years ago, he promoted his most recent album (released on Independence Day), by spouting faux-revolutionary gobbledygook like “we need to write the new rules” while his mega-rich associates Rick Rubin and Pharrell appeared in cameos to float new-age aphorisms and generally lounge. It turned out that for Jay Z, drafting the new rules meant pre-loading one million copies of the album onto a free Samsung app, thus circumventing established industry protocols in order to go Platinum before the record was actually released. (Jay’s Project Panther Bidco, Ltd., which obtained Tidal’s parent company Aspiro for $56 million in March, sounds, in name at least, like an offshoot black power organization, though it doesn’t appear to be launching any school lunch programs or confrontations with the white power establishment.) The music industry he sought to upend then and now is gruesomely unfair to artists, but Jay Z has eschewed using his influence to change things for the better in his home industry. Instead, he’s commandeered a rhetoric of rebellion to institute a series of high-profile publicity stunts, of which Tidal is but the latest example.

In 1993’s classic music-biz tirade, “The Problem with Music,” Baffler writer Steve Albini provided an itemized list of his own gripes with the industry. Then, disingenuous A&R reps, bad contracts, and greedy labels fucked the artist, as did “producers and engineers who use meaningless words to make their clients think they know what’s going on.” (He cites words like “Punchy,” “Warm,” “Groove,” “Vibe,” and “Feel.”) Today, streaming is the music industry’s most profitable revenue source, and the myriad problems with popular services like Spotify and Rdio present a forbidding challenge for musicians seeking to earn a living at virtually every level of success. No workable solution has yet emerged, despite the call for “new rules.” As Jay Z has made all too plain, these terms are no more than advertising buzzwords, offering some “new and improved” take on the oligarchic system already in place. (Although the lingo does have its own undeniable warm and punchy vibe).

Since the beginning of its publicity push on Monday, Tidal has earned frequent comparisons to the artist-founded movie studio United Artists. And while there are other precedents, like Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, and the Beatles’ Apple label, UA does offer the most relevant, and cautionary, example. If Tidal locks up-and-coming artists out of revenue sharing, the new venture might become Jay Z’s Heaven’s Gate, UA’s bloated 1980 flop, which now serves as an industry byword for rudderless and out-of-touch studio excess. Despite its hashtag #TIDALforALL, the service does not yet seem truly inclusive; the closest it comes to any democratizing gesture is a limp, vaguely detailed “discovery program” for up-and-coming artists, which sounds a lot like the A&R programs Albini abhorred. As it stands, undiscovered musicians should stick to Bandcamp. It’s true that this artist-run service doesn’t offer any streaming revenues either—but it does at least permit its users to follow Jay Z’s example and retain most of the profit on their music and merch—including any number of questionable T-shirts.