Beyoncé's Lemonade and Kanye West's The Life of Pablo were always bound to be overwhelmingly successful albums — returns after relatively long absences from two of the world's most well-known artists. But Tidal, the streaming service purchased by Jay-Z in January 2015 and introduced to the public just two months later in a celebrity-stacked event, has been accused of artificially inflating the play counts of both, according to a lengthy investigation by the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Nærengsliv. Both artists are "artist-owners" of the company.
In its piece, Dagens Nærengsliv says it was surreptitiously given a hard drive containing internal company play data, billions of lines of it, spread across dozens of files, ostensibly covering 65 days of streaming on the platform. The data is said to have covered streams between two periods: Jan. 21 through Mar. 3, 2016, and Apr. 18 through May 9, 2018.
The paper found evidence of certain users having streamed the two albums a surprising amount — 15 plays of Lemonade, in full, in one one day, by one person. The paper interviewed that person, a 34-year-old Washington, D.C., law student, to ask if she could verify that the plays were hers. "I love Beyoncé — but 11 hours? No," she told Dagens Nærengsliv.
An announcement by Tidal last year claimed The Life of Pablo was streamed 250 million times in the first 10 days it was available. It also claimed last year to have 3 million subscribers, meaning each user played the record 83 times. Before those numbers were released, West was said to have requested his streaming numbers from the platform be withheld. A different investigative piece published by the paper last year also accused Tidal of inflating its subscriber numbers in public statements.
In total, it accuses Tidal of fabricating 320 million "false" streams. Because of the way streaming revenues are distributed, the effect of drastically inflating two albums' listen counts is to apportion more revenue toward those albums and away from others, in what's called a "pro rata" (in proportion) distribution system. This means smaller artists are, in a way, pitted against the most successful artists in the world for pieces of a finite pie — and the large artists, for the most part, receive a disproportionate cut of the revenue. (For a more detailed explanation, several Finnish music organizations conducted a study of the model used.)