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Interview: How hi-res audio streamer Tidal plans to cut the crap

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Interview: How hi-res audio streamer Tidal plans to cut the crap

How Tidal plans to surpass Spotify

We've sung Tidal's praises before. Launched in September 2014, the music streaming service already has 17,000 users and looks poised to grow thanks to one audio-savvy rapper shelling out $56 million (about 37 million, AU$73 million) in a deal that could make Tidal a household name.

But even if you know just what Tidal is and why people love it, you haven't heard the full story until you've talked to Pål Bråtelund, strategic partnership manager at Tidal. On a call with TechRadar from Scandinavia, Pål enlightened me on the history of Tidal (formerly called Wimp), and his version of what's to come for an industry that's "ready to explode."

Pal Bratelund

A bit of background: Tidal is a music streaming service, but it isn't Spotify. It's close, but Pål explained Tidal is different because "it's CD-quality music streaming. Similar to how you can watch Netflix in full-HD on your iPad, you can listen to full CD-quality [music] on your phone." It's not the first streaming service to dive into higher-end audio, and by the sounds of it won't be the last.

Tidal has big plans for 2015, and thanks to some generous bankrolling on behalf of Jay-Z, it finally has the funds to see them through. A new tiered payment model may be en route, as well as even higher resolution audio. Then there's the elephant in the room: a music mogul dropping $56 million on the service and its future.

TechRadar: You've launched in the US, UK and elsewhere, but does the world seem ready for easy-access, hi-res music?

Pål Bråtelund: The answer here is "of course," but we can discuss this a little bit. There's a lot of confusion about the definition of hi-res. I think a lot of it has to do with marketing people getting involved [laughs] and a lot of them have been talking about hi-resolution TV. We had HD-ready screens, then full-HD screens, then we got 4K, then 8K, then 15K


The comparison to the audio world is natural to make, sure. But in my world the term 'lossless,' for when we go back from a compressed format to CD quality, is pretty much the ground floor of hi-resolution. I'm almost reluctant to use the word hi-resolution for CD quality, because in my world that's actually higher than CD quality. But I think the giant leap now is to get back to CD quality because we've lived for two decades now with crap. And we had something good. So let's go back to something good. From there we will go into higher resolution.

TR: Does the team at Tidal consider Spotify 'the competition?'

PB: Yes and no. We are trying to do something different. Of course we get compared a lot, and I understand why - I constantly compare HBO and Netflix. But then again, we are trying to do something else. We are trying to create an entertainment channel where you can read quality articles inside the application, you can see music videos and that functionality will only get better. It's a whole experience. It's more than just music streaming.

It's only the very beginning, and it's only going to get better.

TR: Really? How?

PB: We're opening in more countries so you're going to see more articles from different places. If you wonder what the music scene is like in Berlin, you'll be able to find out from where you're sitting.

But what I didn't mention is that we're dabbling with higher than CD-quality streaming.

TR: Come again?

PB: We're working on a product with higher than CD quality resolution.

TR: I thought lossless was the best it could be. What's higher than lossless?

Tidal talks price, Jay-Z and streaming master

format audio

PB: I divide music quality into three categories. One is the lossy format where you have MP3, AAC and stuff that Spotify uses. The next up is lossless, which is the same as CD quality, which is 44.1KHz audio. Which means the sound wave has been sampled 44,100 times per second. Because of the physical format some compromises had to be made. But now we live in an age where we can just download music. We're not limited by physics. Most people record at 96KHz/24bit. That's the typically production format. We've talked so much of CD quality, but we're starting to talk about original master format.

TR: When would master format audio come to Tidal? Could that happen in 2015?

PB: Yes, it could very well happen in 2015.

TR: Your $20/20 per month subscription price may seem steep to some people. Do you see it changing anytime soon?

PB: In one way I hope we're going to be alone with lossless streaming for a long time. I don't think we will. It's going to commoditize. The price for our lossless offering will probably go down a little bit, but there will probably be an introduction of a real, high, above-CD-quality resolution offering as well.

In streaming we'll probably begin three to four tiers. The first one, which I dislike very much because I'm a studio artist, is the freemium model; then [we'll offer a] premium option for around $9.99/10. Today's $20/20 offering will drop to around $15-16/15-16, and there will be a real studio quality option will be above that, though I can't begin to speculate on the price.

TR: I know Scandanavia has strict laws about disclosing information on pending deals, but is there anything you'd like to say about Jay-Z's plan to buy Tidal?

PB: I've been away in London for the last week. I know I can't say anything, but honestly I just haven't been around.

TR: What's the mood like in the office?

PB: I'm sensing everyone's excited, curious maybe. Of course the deal isn't through yet.

TR: Do you think Jay-Z is going to move there?

PB: [laughs]he's more than welcome to. For us it's about making good, high-quality music available to people. Nothing has changed overnight. For us, it's business as usual.

TR: What are you personally excited about in audio in 2015?

PB: I'm looking forward to a better experience in the car - anything that does portable audio and follows you into the car. I want to talk to the car to play the newest album and have it do that. Funny enough, I see portable music devices that have a high spec coming back. Look at what Sony is doing with the NW-ZX2 Walkman.

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