You may have seen the news that in a recent Serato DJ update – the ability for Serato Stems to work with tracks streamed from TIDAL was removed. The music streaming service has also pulled access to Stems for DJs in new updates to Rekordbox DJ, Virtual DJ, djay Pro, and so on.
Many DJs have reported that continuing to use older versions of the DJ software and simply not updating (something almost second nature to DJs who’ve been burned by this kind of thing before) maintains the functionality – for now.
“We have communicated to our partners that access to the TIDAL catalog is subject to approval by the authorized rights holders at this time. In partnership with our DJ Partners and label partners, we continue exploring solutions that will allow TIDAL subscribers more creative access to the TIDAL catalog.” – TIDAL support
Why would TIDAL (or any service) pull Stems access?
While there’s no truly satisfying answer as to why TIDAL has forced this policy change, we expect there to be two significantly clear explanations: copyright and cash.
- Copyright: Modifying a work and using it differently often requires a different type of rights license than simply playing it back. Major labels are probably upset about this thinking that Stems are the source of all types of problems. Could DJs be using Stems with TIDAL’s FLAC files to make new works? Sure, but it’s pretty easy to argue that DJs could also do that with clever mixing, EQing, FX, tempo and pitch adjustment. We’ve been making new musical works out of fully-finished tracks since the dawn of the art form.
- Cash: TIDAL could have easily seen the popularity on their backend of their streaming library with DJs post-Stems introduction and assumed there’s an opportunity to squeeze more money out of DJs. While we would have expected it to happen concurrent with the removal, it’s pretty easy (and sad) to imagine a new tier of Stems-compatible streaming plan that charges, oh, $15 more a month?
Since I drafted this article last week, guess what appeared:
In either case, it still feels like labels and TIDAL alike simply don’t value DJs appropriately here or truly understand the use case. If any producer wanted to make a derivative bootleg or edit from a finished track, there are many tools out there that will allow them to split tracks themselves. Here’s a few worth noting:
- Ultimate Vocal Remover – makes instrumentals / acapellas from finished tracks, and it’s free
- NUO Stems – splits finished tracks into Traktor stems files
- RipX – splits tracks out into 6+ stems, also it’s a DAW now…
- Gaudio Studio – browser based tool to split tracks up
Owning your own music continues to be – as it has been since the introduction of streaming integrations in DJ platforms – my recommendation for every DJ. Streaming services change, evolve, and ultimately are subject to legal and business pressures. A purchased track that lives on your computer, backed up to the cloud, and on a hard drive in your closet? Those are yours forever.
The future of Stems and DJ equipment
In much of the coverage and discussion about this story, there’s been one angle that has been missing: the future of audio stem separation.
Back in 2018, long before in-software stem separation of finished tracks was close to being reality in DJ software, I wrote an article describing what the future of DJing could look like: “Future DJ Software Could “Demix” Finished Tracks Into Playable Stems”.
Fast forward five years to 2023, and that’s exactly what (almost) every DJ software is capable of doing. Algoriddim djay, Serato DJ, Virtual DJ, Rekordbox DJ, and Denon DJ’s Engine OS all have some form of stem separation in it. It’s a battleground of algorithms, all attempting to be the best at quickly analyzing a new track and splitting out the resulting separated “stems” – with varying results.
Right now, all of this analysis and splitting is happening on DJ laptops/smartphones/tablets – but it won’t stay that way forever.
Here’s two ways in which I envision the next few years of DJ stem separation tech playing out:
#1: Stems replaces EQ, processed in real-time on mixers/media players
Right now, splitting a track out into stems requires some (relatively quick) analysis on your computer. But there’s no reason that couldn’t be happening on a media player – or even in a future mixer, with the EQs simply replaced with stems-controlling knobs. Yes, much of the analysis required to build stems out of a finished track is intensive and requires the full track – but it’s easy to imagine that future DJ mixers will have a solid onboard chipset that would support such processes and have linking abilities with media players that allows forward-looking analysis of a full track.
I expect real-time audio processing to absolutely become a common tool in the arsenal of a DJ in five-to-ten years from now, viewed similarly to how we currently view EQing and FX. As usual, copyright law will struggle to keep up – and DJs will create inventive new ways to perform music.
#2: Stems lives on as a library-connected server for incredibly high-quality analysis and results
This one is more likely in the very short term. I suspect most stem separation analysis is currently done in a way that balances the time taken/resources used for that analysis with quality. But consider this scenario instead: every track in a streaming library is processed once, when uploaded, and then those results are available as metadata to DJs. Think of it the same way you may view getting a track with pre-analyzed beatgrids and cue points.
Now imagine that becomes a selling point to a streaming service. A company like Beatport could introduce a new streaming tier to Beatport Link / Beatsource that has incredibly high quality, pre-processed stems mapped out in every track you load into your DJ hardware. They could even enable labels to upload pre-separated tracks.
Licensing continues to be an issue with this situation and makes it unlikely that many of the major labels will play along without additional revenue sent their way.
In any case, it feels like TIDAL removing stem separation abilities is a pretty regressive tactic – and it’s definitely one that ignores the bell weathers that many DJs have known for a long time. We have the tools and abilities to creatively alter works (and, by the way, promote them to our audiences for free). We’ll continue to do so, and new tools will outpace policies, restrictions, and legal teams at major corporations.