What’s not to like about an artist owned streaming service? Why wouldn’t one support sticking it to “the man,” aka Spotify, iTunes, Amazon etc.? Shouldn’t artists be properly compensated for their work by streaming music services? Is it not a crying shame that Aloe Blacc had a song that was streamed 168 million times but got paid only $4,000? Nothing. Hells yeah. Yep. And it’s gahtdamb shame. But, to connect the contemporary civil rights movements such as #blacklivesmatter and the entrepreneurial energies of a streaming service, by artists for artists, is to build a bridge that takes you to nowhere else but delusion. In as much as Tidal represents revolutionizing potential for fairly compensating artists and everyone involved in producing music and music related products, in ways that other services have not, it does not hold similar potential for revolutionizing the material inequalities that ail society at large. Nope. Tidal’s success is not the force for making black lives matter. This is primarily because the logic of entrepreneurial fairness and profit generation, on which the success of Tidal relies, is the same logic that belies the systemic discrimination that present day civil rights movements are working to make more visible, so they can be dismantled. Today, this logic, boys and girls, is called neoliberalism.
But lemmie back it up a bit before I start laying down the heavy business of the relationship between contemporary economic theory and social justice and why we would need to think about these things alongside each other, when figuring out exactly what power something like Tidal possesses and for whom. Depending how far under a rock you may have been you may or may not know that Jay-Z launched a new music streaming service back in April called Tidal. Many of the biggest and most successful names in the music game, past and present, are stakeholders including Rihanna, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Madonna, Arcade Fire, Usher, Chris Martin, Alicia Keys, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, deadmau5, and Drake among others. It is billed as the first artist-owned streaming service and starting at $9.99 a month, the same price as Spotify’s Premium service, audiophiles can enjoy hi-fi music, videos, and exclusive curated content from some of the biggest names in the music industry. Exclusive content in particular is how Tidal is distinguishing itself from similar services, a marketing strategy that is drawing both excitement and criticism from music fans.
Take just this week, the video for “Feeling Myself” by Nikki Minaj featuring Beyoncé was exclusively released on Tidal, joining among others, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The much-anticipated video featuring two of the biggest performers in the game generated buzz aplenty all over the interwebs for Tidal, especially among those who had all but forgotten about it – like myself. You see, I follow both Queen Bey and Nikki Minaj on the Instagrams and Nikki had been posting shots from the video all day. Of course I had to see the video, but I am not among those who are currently spending $9.99 on any streaming service and as such waited patiently for someone to come through with the free albeit bootleg YouTube link. Yes. It does not escape me that such is precisely among the behaviors that the Tidal engineers endeavor to curtail, but I came up in a Napster world and while I do buy music, there are still vestiges of a freeness mentality at work in how I consume music. Explaining this further might take me down a path I don’t want to go right now because it will take me too far away from the whole economics and social justice thing that I’m building to, so suffice it to say that while I do buy the music I want to listen to over and over again, I am also quite alright streaming the deadmau5 I grade papers in my office to for free, with commercials via Spotify, and am disinclined to pay for a subscription to any streaming services.
And I am not the only one. One of my favorite bloggers Luvvie Ajayi echoes this sentiment about Tidal in particular.
Of course this did not go without criticism, because soon after, she posted this hilariousness:
Buy a T-shirt, y’all, because I respect Luvvie’s hustle and she should be rewarded for giving a girl life and laughter daily. Fun and jokes aside though, what was meant to be a crabs in a barrel reprimand for refusing to support a venture that should be supported for its underlying ethos of fair compensation for the work of artists, is what I want to hone in on here. This is because it is in this place of support that Tidal and its fans try to meet social justice. With Jay-Z as front man, we can think of Tidal as a black owned business. In the wake of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson last summer, consumerist activism was mobilized via #BlackLivesMatter and campaigns like #BoycottBlackFriday that advocated against spending money during the biggest shopping season of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, there was an 11% drop in spending. Whether or not this drop correlates to the social media generated protests is not an immutable fact, but it was significant enough to bring about the #BlackDecember and #NotOneDime campaigns that advocated for holiday shopping only at black owned businesses.
Against this politicized backdrop geared towards putting your money where your mouth is, it is easy to imagine why the refusal to buy into a service fronted by black faces and dollars would seem impolitic. Moreover, what this convergence between buying power and civil rights activism conveys is how easy it becomes to imagine a refusal to buy into Tidal as de facto support of the racially discriminatory power structure against which so many have been struggling over the last year.
Indeed, Jova himself says as much in a recent clip circulating on social media under the title “Jay-Z Slams White Supremacists.” I note the title here not because Jay-Z himself utters the phrase “white supremacists,” but rather that his performance is read as a response to this power structure.
In the freestyle/Tidal commercial, Jay-Z promotes the virtues of his streaming service by mixing the politics of business and civil rights activism. Entrepreneurial energy – “don’t ever go with the flow/be the flow” – is marshaled to advocate for striking it out on your own, against companies that refuse to compensate workers equally for their work. The flow that Jay-Z performs here is one that is poised to go against the likes of YouTube, which is identified as “the biggest culprit” because “Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get.” Working for this tenth is likened to slave labor: “You know when I work I aint your slave right?” Tidal presents an alternative to artists like Jay-Z to own and receive full compensation for their work, and no longer be subject to exploitative arrangements in an already established system. Thus, “You know I aint shucking and jiving and high-fiving, and you know this aint back in the day right?” “Back in the day” harkens back perhaps, both to slavery and Jim Crow, presenting a lyrical opportunity for Jay-Z to merge his arguments for the necessity of launching his own streaming platform, outside of the established system, with a larger critique of the continued existence of institutionalized racially discriminative power structures. Thus though he may “know this aint back in the day,” he cant tell based on “the way they killed Freddie Gray right/ Shot down Mike Brown/ how they did Tray right?” He goes on to conflate Eric Garner’s death with the continued exploitative actions of existing distribution companies, “Let them continue choking niggas,” but positions Tidal as the embodiment of defiance: “We gon’ turn style, I aint your token nigga/ You know I came in this game independent, right?/Tidal, my own lane.”
In the freestyle, Jay-Z takes the racist injustices at the core of multiple killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement — and those like George Zimmerman who imagine themselves to be enforcers of the law — and positions them alongside the logic of working outside of the existing system through the establishment of a new system, in a manner that makes a streaming music company a beacon of political and civil rights resistance. I dunno about you, but that makes me a little bit uncomfortable, in part because what is being lost here, in favor of successful business promotion, is the systemic and material transformations that are necessary for freedom and justice to truly be equitable for all. Arguably, new equitable systems like Tidal are thusly positioned as potentially powerful alternative sources for the generation of systemic change, but the neoliberal ethos that belies such projects makes them more enabling of the systems they imagine themselves bypassing, than disabling and dismantling these same systems.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not at all questioning Jay-Z’s political integrity, neither am I critiquing Tidal’s intentions. I think it is poised to do great things for artists and those who work in the production of music, so stand down, Beygency. Moreover, as far as politically minded super rich folk go, I am Team Jay and Bey, largely because their philanthropy and political activity is transnational and treated in much the same way that they do their private lives, with the utmost privacy. dream hampton, in her attempt to defend Jay-Z from critiques of his silence surrounding the events in Ferguson, New York, and more recently Baltimore, revealed in tweets that “when we needed money for bail for Baltimore protesters, I asked hit Jay up, as I had for Ferguson, wired tens of thousands in mins.” As NeNe Leakes criticized Kenya Moore on the most recent reunion of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, true charity is not about being seen on social media writing them checks. If NeNe is not your cup of tea for moral authority, hop on over to Matthew 6:1-4 for the stuff about hiding the things your right hand does from your left hand. As far as social justice is concerned the Carters often get it red-letter right. The Tidal business though, requires some careful decoupling – business from social justice – because really, it is in no way the revolution everyone who is for a more equitable and just society, including the Carters, hope for.
Why not though? This is largely because of its complicity with neoliberal values. Now that’s the third time I’ve used that particular troublesome n-word and this time I shall tell you what it means, at least in the context of what I am talking about here. Neoliberalism is both a set of economic logics and political rationales that promote free market competition as *the* optimal source for producing the best possible outcomes for everyone universally. Put another way, subscribing to and participating in free markets is the only way for all of us to be successful. Free market means everyone gets to compete in a variety of commercial markets on equal terms. This equal term is often tricky though, because equality does not mean sameness, and in a world where a variety of differences mediate in matters of equality – because history – justice becomes necessary for producing the mediating equitability (fair and impartial conditions) that can in turn deliver true equality, despite historically manufactured differences.
Free market competition considers itself equal in theory, but it isn’t equitable. Thus neoliberal values in many ways deploy logics of freedom and equality to obfuscate material differences that put some on a better footing towards economic success than other. Entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion are the hallmarks neoliberal values. We can be all that we can be if we just try super hard! Neoliberalism is at once a set of ideas, an over-arching ideology, and even governmental programs. It is in large part successful because of our relative unawareness of the ways it structures our everyday lives. Thus, according to David Harvey it is a “conceptual apparatus” that has “become so embedded in common sense” that it is “taken for granted and not open to question” (5). With this unconscious indoctrination in mind, the questions I began with about what could possibly be the problem with something like Tidal that has fair competition and entrepreneurial innovation at its center, merit revisiting.
Neoliberalism champions entrepreneurial innovation, individualism, and self-promotion under the aegis of free market competition at the same time that it dictates state divestment of public resources, deregulation of trade, finance and labor markets, and the withdrawal of state support and provisions for organized labor. At its simplest, at the same time it encourages you to pull yourself up by your own boot straps, it also removes all the protections and facilities that allow you to possess a pair of boots to stand on to begin with. Or better yet, shifts fiscal supports to corporations who in turn have the privatized responsibilities of attending to public welfare – if they feel like being charitable. What’s more, as far back as the nineteenth century, the rhetoric of personal responsibility held the promise of transformation from slave to agent, familiarizing us with a logic of self-reliance that licenses the state under neoliberalism to gradually relinquish all its responsibilities to its citizens, relegating social welfare instead to the charity of private corporate institutions. You ever wonder why collective bargaining is always on the chopping block whenever new corporation comes to town with promises of social sponsorship and recreational facilities? You ever wonder why corporate sponsorship is just about everywhere, but schools are under-funded and under-reseourced?
We see this at work in Baltimore, where the city supported the development of Under Armor’s downtown headquarters through $35 million in tax incremental financing at the same time that it divested itself of city run recreational facilities. Thus, “while the city ran seventy-six recreation centers twenty years ago, it now only operates only forty-one (another ten are privatized). City officials credit the reduction to a lack of resources.” Ironically, at the same time that it enables corporations to function profitably, neoliberal logic encourages bodies electorally charged with the social welfare of citizens to delegate this responsibility to private entities. We could also talk about the financial predation on the citizens who live in Ferguson Missouri, by the city. A condition that, according to the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department, contributed to the circumstances that led to Mike Brown’s death. Thus:
Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans.
Rather than facilitate conditions that are beneficial for all, free market policies encourage such predatory approaches within municipal governance, disproportionately benefits those already in the material position to compete, and disadvantages those who are not. We see the effects of this most clearly in the US’s wealth gap
The bottom 90% of American families holds 25% of the country’s wealth. Sobering, no? No? Let me try again. The wealth gap in the America is also divided along racial lines. Surprise!
According to The Pew Research Center the median wealth of white households was thirteen times (13 times!) more than black households in 2013. But what about folks like Jay-Z and Beyoncé or even the Obama’s who have achieved places in the highest echelons of all the land? Their success means that the possibility for material equitability under neoliberalism exists, right? Sure, if you only want it among an exceptional cohort rather than universally.
So herein lies the problem of Tidal: it participates in a larger pervasive structure of free market governance that celebrates entrepreneurship at the same time that it shirks larger material social responsibility, and perpetuates the success of an advantaged few while continuing to deny the same from the many. What’s more in its subscription to neoliberal values, it is also predicated upon a system of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. If we are more attentive to our own individual efforts towards profit generation, who is paying attention to how material inequality is built into the very system that organizes and structures all our lives? The same system that created the need for things like #BlackLivesMatter ?
Can a person live though? I mean, can a person make some paper and live? I’ma hit up the OG Black Atlantic scholar, Paul Gilroy for this one:
The continuing effects of systematic racism on black life cannot be dismissed and there are instances where that very impact seems – perhaps even where racism is to be sacrificed in capital’s interests – to have inclined people towards the solutions proffered by neoliberal styles of thought which can be taken over, possessed and made one’s own. In other words, the history of being denied recognition as an individual has actually enhanced the appeal of particular varieties of extreme individualism.
In other words, the desire to live, to eat, to make good, even obscene paper – to be successful according to the measure of neoliberal norms and values – is all the more attractive to those subject to historic discrimination and disenfranchisement. At the end of the day though, this is a catch 22. Nonetheless, here is what I think is true: Tidal does not offer the possibility for making material realities more equitable for everyone. To see it as a force for universal civil rights transformations, particularly ones that will bring equitable value for black lives, is to miss its reliance on the same economic power that continues to devalue black lives for its own success.