A leading Norwegian newspaper caused a stir this week when investigative reporters Markus Tobiassen & Kjetil Sæter claimed that Tidal, which was founded in Norway before it was bought by Jay Z and others, manipulated audience figures for the two leading artists.
Friends with benefits?
This matters because Tidal pays artists based on the number of listens, and the two artists in question have strong links to Tidal part-owner Jay Z. Beyoncé is his wife, while Kanye West is a lifelong friend.
Such inflation of figures would reduce the pool of money left to be split between the millions of smaller artists on the platform. Tidal has denied the allegations, but the news has been picked up by the music press and mainstream media all around the world.
The report was published in Dagens Næringsliv and claims that three analysts suddenly left the company in 2016, shortly after Beyoncé released an album exclusively on the streaming service. They signed silence contracts and refused to talk to the journalists.
The newspaper has been investigating Tidal since 2016, when Tidal claimed that Kanye West and Beyoncé albums had received hundreds of millions of listens within the first few weeks of release. Given relatively low subscriber numbers at the time, this would have meant every Tidal subscriber would have been playing the albums nearly a dozen times a day.
Data security and cybercrime experts from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim helped the newspaper put together a 78-page report concluding that Tidal seems to have intentionally manipulated its data for the two albums.
Their analysis indicates that more than 320 million false listens had been logged for the two albums, spread across more than 1.7 million user accounts.
Industry experts say Tidal’s future looks bleak
Bendik Hofseth, a professor of music at Norway’s University of Agder, told the Norweigan newspaper Aftenposten that the story could mean it’s “over and out” for Tidal. Another professor told the newspaper he was not surprised by the reports. “This case is the biggest scandal in the streaming industry so far. It is terribly sad to see how Tidal has manipulated data, but this is something I have suspected for a long time”, said Arnt Maasø from the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo.
Although there is no precedent, if the accusations turn out to be true it is possible that Tidal executives could be sued for causes of action such as collusion or fraud. “Illegal cooperation between parties, internal or external, to inflate streaming numbers and thus increase royalty payments for certain artists is clearly illegal and fraudulent. If Tidal is found to have manipulated numbers, then Sony and Universal would probably be required to pay back some funds plus a possible penalty, similar to a clawback”, says a Forbes report.
Tidal come out fighting
The company’s lawyers deny the allegations. “This is a smear campaign from a publication that once referred to our employee as an ‘Israeli Intelligence officer’ and our owner as a crack dealer,” a spokesperson told Rolling Stone. “We expect nothing less from them than this ridiculous story, lies and falsehoods. The information was stolen and manipulated and we will fight these claims vigorously.”
According to Aftenposten, Tidal’s lawyers have written to NTNU leadership demanding the withdrawal of the report. “It’s not up to us to remove anything. We stand by our findings”, said Nils Kalstad Svendsen, head of Information Security and Communication Technology at NTNU.
Whether the claims turn out to be true or not, the story is only likely to damage the struggling streaming service as reports continue to circulate in the world’s media. Read on for our selection: