Water Isn't Free And Neither Is Music. They're Just Both Cheap

Jay-Z's plan to get us to pay more for music on Tidal is built on some incredibly porous math. 
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Jay-Z's plan to get us to pay more for music on Tidal is built on some incredibly porous math. 
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Jay Z is fighting streaming with streaming. Many artists complain that the likes of Spotify don’t pay them enough for their music. Now Jay Z has purchased the streaming service Tidal, which, unlike Spotify, will offer no free version. Why? He explains his logic to the New York Times:

“The challenge is to get everyone to respect music again, to recognize its value,” said Jay Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter. “Water is free. Music is $6 but no one wants to pay for music. You should drink free water from the tap - it’s a beautiful thing. And if you want to hear the most beautiful song, then support the artist.”

Whoever pays Jay Z’s bills should probably inform him that water is not actually free. Water costs money, too. It is a public utility. In New York City, where Jay Z lives, tap water costs $3.70 for every 748 gallons. That’s a good deal! But it’s not free. And music is...six dollars? It’s unclear what music he’s referencing, but we now have a point of comparison: Music equals 1,212 gallons of water.

A full bathtub is about 36 gallons. Music equals 34 baths.

Find something that uses 12.3 gallons of water. Do it 99 times. Call each of them a problem. That’s music.

But I digress. What point is Jay Z trying to make here? I think it’s this: We take water for granted - so much so, in fact, that Jay Z isn’t even aware that he’s paying for it. And that is currently happening on Spotify: Unless we pay for the upgraded service - and 75% of its 60 million users do not do that - we are passively paying for it by listening to ads. We don’t consider this payment either.

Jay Z wants his music to be Perrier, though when it’s sold on Tidal, it is just as easily Poland Spring: It is functionally the same exact water that comes out of our faucet, but sold in a form that’s more expensive. And because we spend more money on it, the logic goes, we’re inclined to value it a little more.

That makes sense. And I think we all want artists to be respected, and for their work to be valued. But here’s the problem with Jay Z’s appeal: Nobody pays for Poland Spring because that payment will make them appreciate water more. We do it because sometimes we need water right now, a bottle is the only thing available, and that convenience is worth the cost. So until we actually find our thirst for pop stars (who we could also listen to on the radio) to be truly dire, we probably won't shell out more cash simply for the privilege of making them happy.

Then again, Poland Springs does sell a lot of bottles.

Photos by Jamie McCarthy/Getty