Square buys majority of Tidal, adds Jay Z to its board in bid to shake up the artist economy

This morning Square, a fintech company that serves both individuals and companies, announced that it has purchased a majority stake in Tidal, a music streaming service. The deal, worth some $297 million, will Tidal allow artist-partners to keep their ownership in the music company.

Square CEO Jack Dorsey used his other company, Twitter, this morning to explain the deal. Dorsey seemed to expect the transaction to generate skepticism – which it definitely has. In his opening message, he asked a rhetorical question: “Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces?!”

Why indeed. Dorsey’s expectation is that his company can replicate the success of Cash App and other Square products in the world of music. Noting that “new ideas are found at the intersection,” Dorsey argued that the confluence of “music and the economy” is one such point of convergence.

The deal also installs musician and businessperson Jay Z on Square’s board.

Some early reaction to the deal has proved negative. It’s not hard to riff on the seeming-strangeness of Square and Tidal as a pair. And Square has made acquisitions in the past that appeared adjacent and failed to stick. The company bought food-delivery service Caviar in 2014 before selling it to DoorDash in 2019, for example; that Square appears to have made a venture-level return on the transaction is immaterial to the focus argument.

But the bull-case for the Square-Tidal tie-up is easy to make as well. The American fintech just spent a minute fraction of a single percent of its market capitalization on the smaller company, and through its choice to let artists keep their stake, has effectively onboarded a host of ambassadors for its brand.

And Dorsey is not wrong that Square did shake up the commerce game for many offline businesses with its original card reader. Why not take a swing at a part of the economy — music — that has migrated from the physical world to the digital in the past few years, much like small businesses in recent quarters?

Square’s business users, it’s “seller ecosystem,” as it likes to call it, are increasingly digital. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, “in-person only” usage is falling as a percentage of seller gross payment volume (GPV), while “online only” and “omnichannel” GPV are taking up the slack.

Square has a known win in its consumer-focused Cash App service, which reached 36 million monthly actives in December of 2020, up from 24 million in the same period one year prior. You can imagine tie-ups between the music company and the youth-skewing Cash App audience. And having Jay Z at the Square boardroom table will hardly make the company less innovative; he may bring fresh perspective.

And then there’s the question of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, a new form of digital asset that have recently become the cause célèbre of the cryptocurrency community. Given that Square has a growing cryptocurrency business via Cash App, and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into bitcoin itself. If there is space in the market for Square to bring music-based NFTs to its larger consumer user base is an interesting question. If the answer is yes, Square could now be in a leading position to create that market.

Perhaps the Square-Tidal deal won’t generate the future growth that Square imagines. But the deal is cheap, snagging Jay Z as a leader is a win, and it’s hard to win by only playing corporate defense.

Leave a Comment