How Square’s deal with Tidal could help musicians make a lot more money

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Shares in payments startup Square have been rising like a hit song on the Billboard charts for the past year, tripling in price and giving the company a market value of over $100 billion.

On Thursday, the Jack Dorsey–led company brought that song metaphor to life, agreeing to buy a majority stake in niche streaming-music service Tidal for almost $300 million.

At first glance, the deal is a blip for Square, which had $3.2 billion of cash on hand at the end of 2020. And Square said Tidal’s revenue, which it didn’t disclose, is so small that it would have no material impact on its financial results in 2021.

But it’s a big payday for Jay-Z, the star rapper, and the group of artists, including Beyoncé and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who paid $56 million in 2015 for Tidal, then called Aspiro. They’ll retain a minority stake in the new venture.

Still, the deal could be significant for Square if it kicks off an expansion beyond its core payments business. Amazon, before it became the everything store, sold only books. Could Square follow that strategy by moving beyond consumer payments to retailers into handling all sorts of consumer online transactions?

Already, Square has branched out from its core business into helping people transfer money to each other via its Cash app, most recently adding Bitcoin transfers and trading.

Tidal could be just the first example of another avenue for expansion. Square developed a lot of technical know-how and software tools to help merchants not just take payments from consumers but also stay connected with them and encourage them to shop more. That could be a template for helping musicians on Tidal better connect with—and make money from—their fans.

Square “set a high standard for building elegant, accessible, and fair tools for sellers and individuals,” said Jesse Dorogusker, Square’s head of hardware, who will oversee Tidal, in a statement. The next move will be to “explore new artist tools, listener experiences, and access to financial systems that help artists be successful.”

To start with, Square could help musical artists pitch their merchandise to 36 million Cash app users.

CEO Jack Dorsey, who also partnered with Jay-Z on a Bitcoin investment fund, further elaborated on Twitter that the Square-Tidal mashup is focused on “finding new ways for artists to support their work” with “entirely new listening experiences to bring fans closer together, simple integrations for merch sales, modern collaboration tools, and new complementary revenue streams.”

Dorsey didn’t mention the elephant in the room, NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Those are the unique digital trackers created using blockchain technology that a broad range of artists have started attaching to their work and selling at auction. While a digital work can be easily copied, the NFT cannot, giving buyers a stronger sense of ownership. In just the past few months, the value of NFT transactions has grown to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Musicians are starting to look at NFTs too, with Kings of Leon planning on Friday to become the first band to release digital tokens tied to a new album. People who buy the tokens will get additional album art, bonus downloads, and other perks.

Helping Tidal musicians sell NFTs would also bring into play Square’s success with adding Bitcoin to its Cash app service. People using the app to buy and sell Bitcoin generated $217 million of revenue for Square in the fourth quarter of 2019. Given how Bitcoin’s price has increased since, it’s little surprising that revenue from that business rose nearly ninefold in the fourth quarter of this year to $1.8 billion. That amounts to 56% of Square’s total quarterly sales, more than its older retail payments and non-crypto Cash app businesses combined.

There remain many challenges. Though Tidal is popular with artists, it has far fewer subscribers than rivals such as Spotify and Apple Music. (Square declined to disclose how many subscribers Tidal has, but analysts say it’s likely less than 1% of the global market.) Then again, Square could create tools for Tidal artists that wouldn’t require a Tidal subscription to sell T-shirts, downloads, or even NFTs.

And larger competitors may have more money than Square and Tidal to spend on building new ways to help musicians make more money by promoting sales of merchandise and other items. Nothing is stopping Apple or Spotify from paying big money to pop stars to convince them to release NFTs via their services.

“We’re going to start small and focus on the most critical needs of artists and growing their fan bases,” Dorsey said on Thursday.

That may be a mistake given the size of the competition.

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