Tidal has some explaining to do

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Static is rising around the music-streaming platform Tidal, after Oslo-based newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported in detail this week about how Tidal seems to have manipulated its listener statistics by several hundred million. Recording artists are stunned and Tono, which manages rights and royalties for Norwegian songwriters and composers, is demanding a full audit.

Beyoncé performing with her husband Jay-Z in 2010. He owns the streaming platform Tidal, which was developed in Norway as Wimp. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

“We want access to all relevant data,” Cato Strøm, chief executive of Tono, told DN on Friday, after DN‘s documentary on Tidal startled the music industry both in Norway and abroad. DN‘s reports have shown how listener numbers for artists Kanye West and Beyoncé have been greatly inflated in their favour. Beyoncé is married to artist Jay-Z, who has owned Tidal along with other artists since it evolved from the Norwegian-founded streaming service Wimp.

DN hired the Center for Cyber and Information Security (CCIS) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (NTNU) to analyze logs that show when Tidal’s customers allegedly have listened to music. CCIS found more than 320 million examples of false listening sessions for songs on the Kanye West album The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. That can lead to them receiving much bigger payments than they should have. More than 1.7 million user accounts at Tidal were affected.

Tidal officials deny there’s been any manipulation, have sent several threatening letters to DN and are threatening to sue NTNU if the university doesn’t withdraw its CCIS unit’s report that’s behind DN‘s revelations. Not only is the award-winning Norwegian newspaper standing firmly behind its documentary, the leader of NTNU’s research institute that produced the data claims “it’s not up to us to withdraw anything.” CCIS boss Nils Kalstad Svendsen added that, in line with DN, “we stand for our findings.”

Customer confirms wrong numbers
When songs managed by Norway’s Tono are played through the streaming service Tidal, it’s supposed to get around 12 percent of the subscription income Tidal collects from its customers. Now Tono isn’t at all sure it can rely on Tidal’s numbers, systems or payments.

Nor is customer Geir Rakvaag, a Norwegian music critic and journalist in another Norwegian newspaper, Dagsavisen. He’s among Tidal customers contacted by DN after its journalists noticed unusual listening patterns in the logs produced by the university’s CCIS. “They showed that I had listened to an amazing amount of songs on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and Kanye West’s Life of Pablo during the spring of 2016,” Rakvaag wrote in his own column in Dagsavisen on Friday, “and exactly between the hours of 2am and 5am, night after night.”

Beyoncé performing at Wembley Stadium in London during The Formation World Tour in 2016. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Rakvaag wrote that he did indeed listen to both albums when they first came out, not least since both were initially released only on Tidal. “But I did not listen to them around the clock, or night after night in the middle of the night,” he wrote. He added that he “could only confirm to DN‘s journalists that ‘no,'” Tidal’s numbers tied to his listening couldn’t possibly be correct.

Rakvaag is unhappy, as are many other Tidal customers, that it was even possible for the university’s researchers to obtain his and other listeners’ data on Tidal. “Such personal issues pale, however, in relation to what’s really grim about this,” he wrote. “DN has revealed that such (inaccurate) numbers don’t apply only to me. This kind of logged listener pattern is tied to a striking number of other listeners. It looks like Tidal has blown up streaming numbers from two concrete albums, both with tight connections to Tidal’s owner, Jay-Z. It clearly was important to show huge response to both these albums.” Lemonade ended up debuting in the top spots on Billboard magazine’s hit lists, after the New York Times reported that it had set a record for the most-streamed album in a single week by a female artist ever.

Now Tidal’s numbers are in doubt. Rakvaag points out that since payments from streaming services are based on a pro-rata model, not only can Beyoncé and Kanye West have received too much of the pot of subscription money, any excessive payments would have come at the cost of other artists. Norwegian musician Ingrid Olava raised the same point in her angry response after reading DN‘s stories over the past two days.

“Beyoncé and Jay-Z are really artists and entrepreneurs whom everyone in the industry has looked up to,” Olava wrote on Twitter after reading DN’s documentary. “Disappointment is thus even greater if they’re propelling their careers in the same manner as Claire and Frank Underwood (a reference to the series House of Cards). Being at the top at any price, and at the cost of others, is especially incompatible with the message they try to convey through their music.” Beyoncé is also known as a philanthropist who donates large amounts to various causes, including disaster relief after the hurricane on Haiti.

Tidal trashes DN‘s report
It’s Tidal’s reputation, however, that’s most at stake, and which it now must defend. Tidal denies any wrongdoing, with DN reporting that Tidal’s lawyer maintains the CCIS report is built up on false premises. Tidal’s lawyer also claims DN has altered the data provided to CCIS and lied to the university about its origins and content. Tidal claims the data was stolen and that both US and Norwegian authorities have been alerted.

NTNU’s data technicians stand by their analysis of the logs showing when Tidal customers allegedly listened to music. DN journalist Markus Tobiassen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Tidal’s logs show extra listening sessions added to customer’s actual sessions. He said DN doesn’t know who added the extra sessions as of now, but noted that he and his colleagues are still actively working on the story.

Neither Tidal officials nor Tidal’s lawyer have responded to DN‘s questions since Monday. Nor have they provided any evidence to counter DN‘s report. They have told a variety of media including NRK and the US entertainment industry newspaper Variety, however, that DN‘s documentary amounts to a “smear campaign … full of lies.” DN‘s information, it was claimed, was “stolen and manipulated,” and Tidal officials claimed they would fight the claims against it with full force.

DN‘s editor in chief, Amund Djuve, went to the unusual step this week of appearing live on NRK himself to defend DN‘s work. He said the newspaper had received its information about Tidal’s logs “several months ago” and had spent a lot of time documenting that it was correct. He said the newspaper had “all reason to believe” that its source of information wasn’t anyone who was keen to trick the newspaper or wrongly damage Tidal.

‘Biggest streaming scandal yet’
Several Norwegian professors and music industry officials are now demanding an explanation, and possible compensation, from Tidal. “If this is true, it’s over and out for Tidal,” Bendik Hofseth, a professor at the University of Agder and an artist himself, told DN. “Such behaviour is simply shameful. First they (Tidal) profile themselves as artist-friendly, and then in practice take from other artist colleagues. I can’t see any alternative but full transparency and an examination (of Tidal’s operations), eventually followed by compensation.”

Arnt Maasø, an assistant professor in the Institute for Media and Communication at the University of Oslo, claimed DN‘s documentary has revealed “the biggest scandal in the streaming branch so far. At the same time, it’s terribly sad to see how Tidal has manipulated data, but this is something I have suspected for a long time.” He suggested, after having had access to the streaming platform’s data when it was still known as Wimp, that it “would be easy to see patterns of repetition and that several songs were being played at the same time.”

Elin Aamodt, manager of the artists’ organization Gramart, told DN she was “shocked” after reading about the alleged manipulation cited by the team at NTNU. Gramart has around 3,000 members, many of whom earn money from Tidal.

“We will follow this up as an organization,” Aamodt said. “We must determine whether Tidal owes money to Norwegian artists. We must demand full openness and independent audits of all numbers and lists. If there’s manipulation that affects our members, we will demand full payment for what we should have have.

“Can recording companies live with having given Tidal rights to their artists after this?” Aamodt queried. “Now the most important thing is for the record companies to clean up here and take responsibility.” David Eriksen, a music producer and manager for artists in Norway, expects Universal, which serves as Eriksen’s digital distributor, to do just that on behalf of his artists.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund