Apple Music: let the streaming battle commence
Back when iTunes launched in 2003, it felt like Apple was set to revolutionise the digital music industry. The software was beautifully simple to use, fairly priced and better integrated with personal devices than any of its competitors. Fast forward 10 years and the world of digital streaming has exploded, cannibalising download sales and leaving Apple lost in its wake. Yet with the announcement of Apple Music, Apple is hoping to once more transform the industry. Tim Cook has set expectations high, promising the service will ‘change the way you experience music forever’. Unfortunately for Apple, this time around it is entering into a highly competitive market, and has plenty of catching up to do.
The reviews so far point to a decent but by no means revolutionary offering. Spotify, Apple’s biggest rival, appears to have an equally extensive catalogue, similar pricing and, to some degree, comparable feature sets. Where Apple is hoping to differentiate is through the addition of more ‘human’, less algorithmic-based curation – although the details of this were somewhat vague. The app will also include unique features such as a 24/7 radio station, ‘Beats One’ (founded by former BBC DJ Zane Lowe), and integration into Siri.
Apple is also attempting to up the ante in terms of its social integration. Apple Music will feature ‘Connect’ – a social aggregator that collects song uploads and social feeds from various musicians and allows listeners to comment and share on other networks. I can’t help but think that ‘Connect’ is gratuitously and rather clumsily replicating what artists are likely already doing on more established social platforms. To my mind, the catalogues and artist access will be the polarising factor. Unless Apple Music can deliver access to more underground, undiscovered artists (which Spotify does so well), it will only ever win over the hearts of casual, mainstream listeners.
Apple does at least have a head start with its 800 million iTunes account holders. However, when you consider that this figure includes anyone who has ever synced an iPhone or bought a single song from Apple in the last 12 years, it’s slightly less impressive. Saying that, convenience will play heavily in Apple’s favour; anyone who upgrades to iOS 8.4 will automatically receive a free three-month trial of Apple Music. On the other hand, I question whether loyal subscribers to Spotify’s paid model who have built up their playlist and artist library’s will even bother switching, unless the user experience is so compelling that they are hooked after their free trial.
Furthermore, converting existing paying downloaders into streamers is only half the battle for Apple. With paid subscription services still only representing 23 percent of the digital music market, the likes of Spotify’s free ad-funded tier, which attracts 45 million users worldwide, is likely to remain the preferred model for musical misers. Unlike Spotify, the opportunity Apple Music presents for advertisers is unclear. There was much hype and speculation around iTunes radio – a platform Apple intended to monetise through paid advertising – but this platform seems to have been eclipsed by Apple’s latest venture. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether Apple introduces an ad-funded element to any of Apple Music’s suite of features.
Ultimately, for the world’s most valuable brand at present, Apple Music represents just a small drop in Apple’s expansive ocean. Meanwhile, for Spotify, Rdio and other pure streaming providers, there is a lot more at risk. While Apple Music is by no means revolutionary, given the tech giant’s prowess at sleek user experience and the powerful lure of the Apple brand, it does have a shot – even if that’s only mainstream streaming success.