On Sunday night, some of music’s biggest names changed their social media profile pictures to a solid blue hue. Beyoncé, Rhianna, Kanye, Madonna and others went teal, and tweeted messages like this.
Together, we can turn the tide and make music history. Start by turning your profile picture blue. #TIDALforALL— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) March 30, 2015
And even Coldplay’s suitably lame attempt at excitement.
What the hell was going on? What was this Tidal they spoke so excitedly about? You may’ve thought it was a charity concert or a clean water campaign. Or a musical crusade against oceanic waste. Or even a full fledged lyrical assault on climate change denial. You wanted to know more.
You went to Google and searched something ambiguous like “blue profile picture,” only to have Google’s algorithms feed you this.
But then you found some articles about Tidal, Jay Z’s new music streaming service. You were confused. You read a bit about the service and then some more about the viral effort to make profile pictures blue in support of the venture. You realized Tidal was as much about water as Apple is about fruit. Your preconception of a social campaign mutated into an act of corporate marketing as you fell prey to your own naivety. You duped yourself. Or were you duped?
Tidal is essentially a high quality alternative to services like Spotify. It's owned by 16 stakeholder musicians and aims to give power back to artists. Jay Z claims he, “wants everyone to respect music again,” and gave the New York Times an analogy as off-the-wall as anything Jack Nicholson has ever said:
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.
Wait so this is about water? No. It’s just an absurd analogy.
For what it’s worth, the service seems like a positive development for the music industry, engaging artists and empowering them to detach from supermassive, profiteering labels. Plus the convenience of compressed music has saturated our ears with poor quality audio from parties to coffee shops. Tidal isn't the first lossless audio service but it's helped publicize the high fidelity alternative.
Well and good, but what about Tidal’s social media marketing campaign? Well that was careless and inconsiderate.
The apparently trivial act of changing a social media profile picture is actually quite significant for a public figure with millions of impressionable followers. It’s that much more significant when the picture is changed to depict and promote something other than the public figure herself. And it’s exponentially more significant when that figure then calls for others to join her in support of this or that whatever-it-may-be.
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The tradition of profile picture promotion has long been associated with charitable causes and social campaigns. In 2010, many people changed their picture to their favorite childhood cartoon to increase awareness of child abuse. In 2012, we saw the “blackout” for Trayvon Martin and the well-intentioned (though ethically questionable) Kony 2012 stickers. In 2013, profile pictures became a pink-on-red marriage equality sign. We’ve seen the occasional whimsical trend, like the celebrity doppelänger thing, but these were silly, unassociated with any particular cause, and never presented themselves as anything more than in good fun.
By infiltrating social media with this form of viral marketing, Tidal and its stakeholders toe an ethical line. Their emotionally charged tweets, the collective profile picture change and the calls for support and solidarity from followers had characteristics of a social campaign and a facade of social activism. Tidal exploited a technique typically used for social change, all in an effort to fill its stakeholders' pockets with waves of cash. It was a deceptive, irresponsible, yet highly effective business maneuver.
Induced by the seismic event of Sunday night's social media exploits, Tidal crashed ashore Monday in a tsunami of press and public interest. It was this week’s big business news and it'll remain relevant news for weeks or months to come. It may also create new precedence for influential public figures to use similar tactics purely for financial gain.
Actor and activist Harry Belafonte once criticized Jay Z for his lack of social responsibility. Jay infamously replied, “My presence is charity.” This attitude is rampant, particularly within the music industry, which was once rife with social activists from Sam Cooke to Public Enemy. Today's pop artists are far more concerned with self-promotion than social change. Their egos may not be a product of social media, but they've certainly found an outlet there.