Music Business

Apple Music: Millions of Songs, But We’re Only Gonna Play 150

Zane-loweAt Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, the company unveiled its long-rumored reboot of Beats Music. In some respects, this day was one that many who have followed streaming music since its inception have anticipated and dreaded.


Guest Post by Jon Maples on

Many have waited for the day Apple, with its juggernaut marketing muscle and insatiable appetite to create a market out of thin air, got behind subscription music. That day–many posited–streaming music would finally come of age because for the first time everyday people would be aware of the product.
In the 13 years since Rhapsody introduced the first licensed subscription service, the product has been on the fringes of the mainstream. Even today, less than 20 million people around the world pay for an on-demand music service.
Internet_radioAnd why the dread? Many in the business who have been here since the beginning felt that the day Apple came into the market it would be game over for all the existing companies.  Based on its power, many believe that Apple will take all the oxygen out of the market and there would be no room for other players in the field.
Based on the WWDC’s presentation, current streaming players don’t have much to worry about. At least not for now. The product was somewhat all over the place. It featured:
  • A reboot of Beats Music’s streaming service feature Apple Music branding;
  • Apple Music Connect, the way that artists can directly communicate with fans–if artists choose to opt in and talk to fans in the Apple ecosystem (good  luck with that one);
  • Beats 1, a 24-hour radio station, featuring former BBC 1 DJ Zane Lowe.
While there are problems with all three elements, Beats 1 is the most intriguing and confounding. In some respects, a worldwide radio station based on BBC 1 is a bold move. Apple is smart in that it has a captive audience on the phone, and it potentially could gain a sizable audience. But on the other hand, it seems at odds with the value proposition of streaming music. It’s like Apple is saying: hey music lovers, we have millions of songs that you can listen to wherever you are, but we’ll just feature these 150 a day in our service. Enjoy!
Look, streaming services are closely controlled by restrictive licenses from the major labels. There’s very little innovation that a company can create in term of features, offerings or pricing. Because of this, services must utilize content programming strategies to differentiate. In essence, the content programming approach serves as the soul of the company. By focusing on Beats 1, Apple is stating that its soul is about the tightly controlled experience. Sure, Apple will continue the Beats Music blueprint of having music experts create playlists for genre and mood, but that experience was extremely thin and needed improvements to function correctly. And now Apple is adding a broadcast style product.
So why is this approach a mistake?
1) It can’t cover the range of tastes
Sure, a flagship radio station from the largest retailer of music in the world makes sense, but for how many people? Ten percent? Twenty percent? When I was part of the team that managed content programming at Rhapsody we operated with this ethos:  program to the taste spectrum of our listeners. In other words, we looked at the data and created radio stations and playlists for whatever people were listening to. More indie rock? No problem. More easy listening? Sure we could do that. More Beyoncé (always with the Beyoncé)? We would deliver more of that. A single worldwide station seems like a crappy way to service that model. And let’s just say that Apple is super successful and replicates Beats 1 and creates a shitload of stations. That’d be great. But at best it ends up matching exactly what Sirius XM does pretty well. In other words, it just refines broadcast radio.
2) It won’t cover the catalog
At best, Beats 1 will be able to play about 150 songs a day. With a catalog of music over 30 million, even the most adventurous programming in the world will lead to exposing a laughingly small amount of music to its customers. While the idea that a music fan wants 30 million songs is an absurd notion, it would seem that Apple can do better than exposing .0001 percent of the catalog it has licensed.
3) It’s an artifact of the past
Many of us of a certain age grew up with great radio and understand its power and allure. And to my mind, that’s what the geniuses at Apple Music are focusing on: their own experiences. But the world has truly changed. Music fans have access to more music than ever. Because of this, the behavior of listeners–in particular the next generation–has irrevocably changed. Despite the conclusions from Nielsen’s questionable survey about radio discovery from last year, I contend that the next generation isn’t listening to radio. Oh sure, maybe they flip through the five channels programmed in the car to hear the same crap. But then they’ll plug in the phone and listen the way they want on Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, Songza, Beats, Soundcloud or the 35 or so other options at their disposal.
4) There are many more important things it should be doing
Building streaming services is hard work. There will still be many problems that Apple will need to address. The Beats service itself needs significant improvements. Just like Ping, Apple Music Connect will be dead on arrival unless the company puts significant resources towards its development. Apple Music has much work to do to create real value for customers. Throwing resources towards a single radio station seems kinda stupid considering the way the world has changed.
Jimmy Iovine said in his off-kilter presentation that internet radio isn’t truly radio, but rather just playlists masquerading as radio. The implied point was that Apple was gonna reinvent radio by putting all the trust in a few tastemakers. But does that make sense in a world of infinite choice and unlimited possibilities?
In a word: no.

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  1. Hello Jon, I unfortunately have to disagree with you.
    Apple’s successfulness on this endeavour is not related to real value given to customers. Apple thrives in creating a product or service, usually on a somewhat limited market, that people want. This is accomplished with brilliant marketing on an unique(proprietary) product/service that is good enough and has mass appeal.
    I strongly believe Apple is capable of creating a social media platform that will be seen as cool for most of its now gigantic user base. Teenagers will flock to Apple Music for the same reason they did with Instagram and Twitter, that is the social factor to it.
    They can mess this up though. Apple is also known for certain misdirections on some of their strategies. But I would certainly bet that by the end of next year or sooner still, Apple Music will be a prosperous and lucrative endeavour.

  2. Just to comment this ‘But then they’ll plug in the phone and listen the way they want on Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, Songza, Beats, Soundcloud or the 35 or so other options at their disposal.’
    Why ? why radio should only be with crap music? Crap music is everywhere and mainly on stream services because of no ‘quality’ filters.
    You mentioned the fact people are free to listen to anything anytime. Why only stream music ? Why not an found old record and put on mobile ? or a Radio ? People takes most of the times more strange decisions in their taste than all marketers couldn’t imagine even with the strongest Big Data analysis.
    You have a straight vision of people taste. Maybe to over centralized around your actual job or previous one.
    The world isn’t only Europe & America. Open your eyes, your ears and your mind because if you may want success in other part of the worlds, prepare a dedicated BB stream or a very low band width service.
    Last question : about all stream services : Who manages the algos & music predictions ? The way Major music companies are entering Stream services company capital, I don’t think the algos will be really ‘free’ to offer a really various range of music anymore. Apple more than the others who want to make money first, then maybe thinking to artists and people, and wants hardly a ROI on their Stream service launch.
    The 2 mains & BIGGEST differences between stream services & Radio : where is the discover in the Stream Services ?
    I mean a REAL BRAND NEW discover ?
    Not songs from artists in the same vein the one people are listening.
    Could you believe a fan of Trance & Bhangra will fall in love with a french indie band’s track and in french talk. Stream services don’t offer that. Radios do.
    I could mention thousand of example of people who weren’t suppose to like a kind of music or a track, and they fall in love with it instantaneously. That could not happened with algos.
    When you are listening to Radio you are sharing the same musical moment in the same time than other people. You share a worldwide vibe in the same time. You aren’t locked up to your screen in your room, or isolated in your sub transportation. You are together with other people.
    Last comments : the market is starting with maybe 10k and more streaming services all around the world. After the starts, in general there is as next step the concentration. Once concentrated, you can say goodbye to diversity.
    What happened actually is the will of Major company to have once again a brand new full of dollars pandora’s box, after the one they got in 90s with CD. Nothing Else. The victims will be listeners AND indie artists as usual.

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