Despite hitting a significant milestone of more than one million subscribers in October, Jay Z’s music streaming service Tidal has yet to shake off descriptors like “troubled” or “fledgling.” The sticker shock at Tidal’s subscription fee ($19.99 for its keystone hi-fi option) and rotating cast of CEOs (former SoundCloud exec Jeff Toig has recently become Tidal’s third CEO in less than a year) has made users wary and critics prophesy the company’s doom.
But Tidal may have an ace up its sleeve.
The company has been quietly dipping its toes in both licensing and developing video content beyond music videos and live-streaming concerts. Season two of the hit web series Money & Violence will debut in January and the original comedy series No Small Talk premiered in early November.
“There’s always been a vision of being a complete content company,” Tim Riley, senior vice-president of artist and label relations at Tidal, tells CoCreate. “The conversation has always been around developing content.”
It’s true that Tidal has billed itself as more than just a music streaming service–part of its selling point has always been giving its users access to exclusive editorial and behind-the-scenes content. So shows like Money & Violence and No Small Talk seem like natural, if not crucial, extensions to the company’s portfolio. However, Tidal is by no means expecting to cross over into Netflix’s lane. Riley’s focus isn’t even to build a bigger subscriber base at this point, necessarily–he’s more concerned about retention.
“We don’t have a whole lot of conversations about competitive landscapes or what company X is doing–it’s really what we feel is best for us,” Riley says. “What we’re trying to do is make sure the subscribers we do have are having the most enjoyable experience they can. It’s about building the better experience for the subscribers we have in hopes that translates to future subscribers.”
That steady-as-she-goes mentality may be prudent from a financial standpoint, but if Tidal is hoping to claim more territory in the ever-raging streaming wars, doubling down on TV shows could be the answer. Riley says more shows are in the pipeline but couldn’t disclose any details. So for now, take a closer look at Tidal’s confirmed lineup of Money & Violence and No Small Talk with the shows’ creators Moise Verneau and DJ Cipha Sounds.
In August 2014, YouTube was introduced to the Brooklyn-based urban drama Money & Violence. The production quality was scrappy at best. It starred no trained actors. And it was a massive success. More than 26 million views later, Money & Violence returns in January, premiering exclusively on Tidal for a week and then streaming on YouTube. Writer, creator, and star Moise Verneau has also inked a deal with Lionsgate Films to get Money & Violence to a premium cable network by season three, but it’s the partnership with Tidal that Verneau calls “a perfect marriage.”
How did you link up with Tidal?
The Tidal partnership came about because my managers C. Styles and Teddy Altifois–they’ve had a relationship with Jay and Roc Nation and everyone over there for quite some time, so that situation cultivated from that relationship. Jay also loves the show. I’m not impressed by celebrity but I’m so impressed by those who were a universe away from me years ago being at arm’s reach now. To have Jay accessible like that, that is so impressive. I’m from Brooklyn. Who from Brooklyn hasn’t looked up to Jay Z? He is the Brooklyn success story.
With Tidal being up-and-coming, who better to partner with to help them while they help us? It’s a beautiful thing. I do believe they can expose us to more viewers. We’ve had quite a good run as far as viewership–we’re at 26 million views but I believe Tidal can open us up to a totally different set of viewers. So I thought it was the perfect marriage.
You created Money & Violence with zero TV experience–what was your thinking behind the project?
I looked out there into the world and I saw there was a void and that void was when I grew up, we always had older guys on the block that would give us advice and kick little bits of wisdom to us. And I felt that was missing nowadays. The younger generation, to me, is so envious of the generation that came before them. I just felt that voice of reasoning was missing, so I figured I’d put a project together that would trick these kids into learning being that they’re so enamored with this gangster lifestyle.
Your show has been compared to HBO’s The Wire and even movies like Belly, but you’ve made it a point to separate Money & Violence from those conversations–why?
I just wanted this to be one of the first times you saw what really happens on-screen. To me, this is a depiction of life. Those that live in this world will be able to relate to it. But I also wanted those that don’t live in this world to have a candid peek at this group of people that under normal circumstances you would cross the street to avoid. To me Money & Violence, it’s a crime drama with a heart. You have a whole bunch of villains with superhero hearts. These guys are just trying to survive. We get all these comparisons to The Wire, and I tell people Money & Violence is so different from The Wire. In The Wire, they were fighting for power–they were proud to be evil. In Money & Violence, these guys don’t want to do this–it’s like if I had another choice, I would not be doing this shit. But I have to survive–my kids gotta eat.
You call the atmosphere of Money & Violence “old Brooklyn”–what’s the difference the Brooklyn you grew up in and today’s neighborhood?
The respect is gone, both self-respect and respect for others. So when I say “old Brooklyn” I mean a time and an era where there were a certain set of principles and codes that were in place that are no longer in place now. Martin Luther King said a long time ago that in order to move forward, we have to revisit these old principles and values.
What do you think happened to those principles within the black community?
I honestly think it was the shift in pop culture once music no longer was an art form and became a business and became a formula. A long time ago, street culture dictated music and it’s gotten to a point where music dictates street culture. And now we’re just so money motivated–everything is money. They say M.O.E., money over everything. But with money over everything comes money over family, comes money over principles, comes money over substance, over anything and everything. I feel that we’re losing our humanity.
You got your start with such a grassroots movement and now you have deals with Tidal and Lionsgate–do you worry that you’re alienating your fans?
If I’m standing on a soapbox and I’m preaching to one person, then that means my message is more about me than anyone else. I want to reach as many people as possible, so there will be a time when the show will no longer be on YouTube, hopefully. I’m not worried at all because my true supporters want to see us progress. This is just an underdog story. For something that started on YouTube that was made with absolutely no experience and to end up on network television–that’s major.
DJ Cipha Sounds has one of those multi-hyphenated résumés that would be easier to stamp with the general category of “ENTERTAINMENT.” The TV host/radio personality/artists and repertoire (A&R) executive/DJ has built successful careers–past and present–with one very evident throughline: comedy. Whether performing stand-up or just always being the funny guy in the room, Cipha’s passion is connecting with an audience through humor, and he’s channeled the experience gained from his stacked résumé into the Tidal original series No Small Talk, an unscripted comedy show filmed at New York City’s historic Comedy Cellar that features comics selected by Cipha who serves as the show’s creator, executive producer, and emcee.
People know you best from your seven-year stint as a radio co-host on Hot 97, but you have some serious roots in comedy. When did you start to embrace your funnier side?
I was always funny on the radio, doing pranks and stuff and making people laugh. But when I [was a DJ on] Chappelle’s Show, [Dave] always used to ask me why don’t I do stand up? And I was so into music at the time, I’m like, nah I’m just funny on the radio–I don’t think I could be a comedian. And he was like, nah man you gotta do stand-up, which is like the Jedi master telling you you have The Force. When I was on MTV, a couple of other people said I was funny, so I was like you know what, let me just try to go into this world because it’s obviously a sign from the higher powers above. And I just got into producing comedy shows and then doing stand-up and it led me down this path to here.
You have some history with Jay Z, working in the past as senior vice president of his Roc-La-Familia label, so how did No Small Talk come about?
It came about from years and years of me talking to Jay and everyone at Roc Nation about me doing comedy. And they’re like, whatever. It’s not their forté. They like music–they like sports. And I’m like, every athlete you have that’s a superstar, I have the equivalent as a comedian. And I told Jay Z the first movie Kevin Hart was ever in was a Roc-A-Fella Films [production]. It was this movie Paper Soldiers so I’m like, you had the LeBron [James] of comedy right under your nose! I can make sure that doesn’t happen again. Not to say it’s a fuck up but I’m just saying it wasn’t their thing. And Kevin Hart, who knew he was going to be who he is now? But it’s the same thing with young rappers–like who thought Drake was going to be who he is? That’s my whole goal: trying to show them that I know all the talent of comedy and we can get the next superstars.
So how did you finally convince Jay Z?
When they got Tidal, they had a comedy section and my name pops into their heads. And they were like, just stream some comedy and I’m like nah, let’s do it bigger. You have the capabilities to do video–let’s do a show. They’re were like, ‘ight, put it together: here’s your budget, how would you want to do it? And it came out, to me, spectacular.
There are a lot of comedy shows in rotation on network and streaming platforms–how are you shaping No Small Talk to fit in or break the mold of what’s out there already?
The show is not re-inventing the wheel–it’s just a dope comedy show. But there are two things I’m trying to convey in the show: one is there’s a lot of comedic talent that don’t get the shine that I think they deserve. It takes very long to blow up as a comedian unless you catch a break. I’m trying to speed up that process any way I can. I know so many funny comedians that just have no outlet. And then also I want the show to feel like you’re in a comedy club. So a lot of comedy shows, when they do a TV version, it’s very polished, the audience is casted–it’s too perfect for me. The thing I like about doing a comedy show is anything could happen on the fly, and that’s how I want No Small Talk to feel.
How do you select which comedians will perform?
I always try to make my shows very diverse, which I fucking hate saying “diverse” but there is this weird segregation in comedy–there’s black comedy clubs and mainstream comedy clubs, which is another word for “white” comedy clubs, and there’s like Latin comedy shows and I’m like, yo these people would do well in this club and these guys could do well in this club–how come they never mix? So my goal is to mix them all up. As long as you’re funny you can get on.
Are there any benefits to working on TV show within a streaming service like Tidal vs. network?
Streaming and the Internet is like the Wild West right now. I feel sometimes a lot of content is kinda loose and not as structured as it should be. The other side of it is [there’s] a lot more freedom and we probably couldn’t have the aspect of a live comedy club on network television ‘cause they’re like, why the fuck is this waitress walking [around] or why is this guy eating French fries on television? But the Tidal show is basically showing what I can do and I’d like to do it on a bigger scale.