Jay-Z is getting into the streaming-music business. The star, whose real name is Shawn Carter, made a $56 million acquisition through his company Project Panther for Aspiro, a Swedish company that owns two music services, Tidal and WiMP.

Some may assume Jay-Z is merely expanding his media empire, which includes Roc Nation, a six-year-old company that spans recordings, music publishing, and artist management. But to say that implies he's only padding his coffers, when Aspiro represents a much bigger business opportunity.  

If any Americans are familiar with Aspiro, they probably know it only as the parent of Tidal, a newer streaming-music service aimed at the U.S. and U.K. markets. But the corporate entity, which was founded in 1998 as a telecom business steeped in mobile ringtones and games, has been public for more than a decade. After scaling back and killing dead-end subsidiaries, Aspiro found its footing in 2010 with WiMP, a streaming service with high-quality sound available in a handful of European countries.

To Tidal chief exec Andy Chen, Aspiro's pivot in the 2000s--from ringtones to downloads to streaming--was logical for the veteran mobile entertainment company. "The knowledge of operating a music subscription, plus the technology behind such music streaming, had been in development for many years," he told Inc. by phone.

 The company launched Tidal in 2013, featuring the same high-quality sound as WiMP, with a $20 per month subscription fee--twice the going rate of most streaming outlets. Slowly, the service has gained traction, arriving in Britain and the U.S. last September.

High fidelity and a reputable Nordic brand alone aren't enough to explain why Jay-Z, a media powerhouse in his own right, would want anything to do with Aspiro. What's a smart guy like Carter doing with a Swedish company like this? Though Chen declined to comment and Project Panther did not return requests for comment, some analysts were willing to speculate on what Jay-Z may have in the works. 

Putting Artists Front and Center  

As an artist with full control of his master recordings and publishing rights, Jay-Z will likely push for artists under his label Roc Nation to receive bigger payouts on the streaming platform than they would from other streaming sites. That strategy could push bigger artists to pull a Taylor Swift and ditch Spotify to work with Jay. It would be lucrative, too. "Having artists that control and own their sound recording rights means Jay-Z could stand to make a lot of money," says Vickie Nauman, a consultant and former Sonos and 7Digital executive. 

Also of note are the artists on Roc Nation itself. From indie acts like HAIM and Santigold to pop singers like Rihanna and Shakira, Jay has quietly built up an impressive--and highly visible--stable of talent that has the power to sway listeners' tastes. "Artists are far more influential than anyone has acknowledged in digital," says Nauman, before adding "fans don't care about service names or brands, since they become a commodity. What fans really care about is the music that they love, which is difficult because my 1,000 favorite songs are different than yours." The fact is, people gravitate toward artists and want to know more about them, be it what they're recording, whom they're listening to, or what's inspiring them. In terms of Roc Nation, Jay-Z could build up a platform that helps those artists connect with their fans in a meaningful way.   

Smarter Recommendations 

When asked what sets Aspiro's services apart from other offerings like Spotify, Chen rattled off three features: their sound quality, which is akin to that of a CD or so-called lossless audio formats; video integration--"we very much believe music is and should be multimedia"; and a focus on "human-expert curation." Rather than rely on algorithms, "which focuses on what's hot," says Chen, Aspiro's services take a decidedly different tack, recruiting actual journalists to churn out stories on singles, albums, and artists that show up with the music. "For people who like our services," says Chen, "we're known as a music magazine that comes with the product." Though Beats, which last year was acquired by Apple for $3 billion, tried to do the same thing, Chen insists Aspiro's approach is more robust, as its curation extends beyond playlists. As far as Jay-Z is concerned, this presents an opportunity to integrate his culture site Life Times, or perhaps cross-pollinate platforms. 

A Piece of the Pie

There is always the chance Jay-Z is just trying to cash in on a hot industry. As Matt Pincus, founder and chief executive of Songs Publishing, a music publishing firm, tells Inc., "there are people who want to capture a piece of the value." But to unlock actual returns on a big valuation takes a very steep climb, something Spotify faces now, as it reportedly seeks yet another round of capital ($500 million) in order to scale.

"The streaming business is the heroes and zeroes business," says Pincus. "You either have scale or you have no scale." With WiMP's paltry 512,000 paying users (Tidal's are unknown), competing outright with Spotify, which boasts more than 15 million paying subscribers, would be an uphill battle indeed. 

Published on: Jan 30, 2015