Apple Music Offers More of the Same, for Now

Twelve years after the launch of iTunes comes Apple Music.


Twelve years after the launch of iTunes, Apple’s plans for a new music service, a.k.a Apple Music, are finally out in the open. And it’s not the mind-blowing improvement to an existing category that most have come to expect from the company. Where the iPod, iPhone and iCloud were game-changers, here Apple is playing by their competition’s rules. At least for now.

Like Spotify, Google Play Music and a few other services out there, Apple Music is priced at $9.99 a month for unlimited streaming access to a catalog of 30 million songs. Early looks at the app show that it offers the same basic functionality you’d expect in a dedicated music app these days. There’s space for your library and playlists, a promotional area for new content and what’s trending in the wide world of music, and a tab that recommends tracks based on your preferences.

But there are a few features that distinguish the service, which you’re sure to learn about in the coming months now that Cupertino’s marketing machine is humming. Though for the moment they seem to offer more spark than substance.

For the moment Apple Music seems to offer more spark than substance.

The launch of Beats 1 radio is certainly interesting on paper: a live, classic-style radio station broadcast around the clock to 100 different countries by three respected DJs out of New York City, L.A. and London. That we can get a read on music from around the world is part and parcel of the utopian dream of the Internet. According to Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Beats by Dre, it also represents the service’s focus on new music suggestions curated by humans rather than algorithms — the same marketing angle used to promote the now dead Beats Music service, which Apple acquired as part of its $3 billion purchase of Beats Electronics last August. But with the music industry fracturing into smaller and smaller niches over the past decade or so, the idea of one station being everything for every Apple product owner (and Android and Windows user) is daunting, to say the least.

Artist Connect — a mini social network of sorts that lets artists share videos, pictures, and audio clips from finished and unfinished releases with fans — isn’t particularly promising, as much as Drake may want to convince you otherwise. Especially when you consider Apple already tried the artist profile game with Apple Ping back in 2010, which was a total flop. With social media (very) slowly settling into a groove — Facebook as a publishing platform, Twitter as the largest ongoing water cooler conversation on earth, Instagram and Tumblr as content creation playgrounds, and Snapchat encompassing all of the above — it’s hard to imagine the feature being anything more than a shinier “about” page, since yet another voice would hardly fit.

If you’re committed to the Apple ecosystem, more advances like this could promise the smoothest listening experience in the industry.

Still, for Apple power users, a couple key factors may make the service worthy of hype, provided the right dominos line up in time. Siri can now control music playback more effectively, recognizing such commands as “Play the song from Selma” — which prompts the service to queue up John Legend’s “Glory”. If you’re committed to the Apple ecosystem, more advances like this could promise the smoothest listening experience in the industry, particularly when considered in context with other projects like a revised AppleTV, Apple CarPlay, or HomeKit.

Then there’s the competitively priced $14.99 family subscription plan for groups up to six people. Spotify, by comparison, charges the same amount in the US for just two users to share an account, though they apparently intend to match Apple at some point. Squabbling over a few bucks can seem trivial in the context of consumers. How such a deal was negotiated with the music industry at large is another story.

Even with 60 million users and 15 million paying subscribers, Spotify is still having trouble making money. Presuming Spotify’s reach in the streaming music business comes with an equivalent amount of negotiating power with labels, one has to wonder how Apple could undercut their offering right out the gate without flexing the full might of its music sales empire, or potentially opening its almost-limitless coffers to help subsidize the option for consumers. Regardless of how it worked out, the move may force competitors already walking a financial tightrope to cut even deeper into hairline-thin margins to keep pace, creating a war of financial attrition Apple is ideally equipped to win. And with Apple Music coming to Android devices, Spotify has no more safe bets.

Finally, like Tidal, there’s also the possibility of leveraging deal-making power to land exclusive content. Drake’s appearance midway through the announcement, wherein the rapper touted that the service “comes at a perfect time for me”, has led many to assume that his next album will be exclusive to the service. You could assume the same from the upcoming Pharrell single that played over a promotional video towards the end of the conference. But if these competing music services all become gated communities of artists, it’ll ultimately be bad for consumers. Apple seems to be gunning for ubiquity such that Apple Music eventually becomes synonymous with radio, internet or otherwise.

And maybe that could happen. But between then and now, the ensuing musical turf wars and consolidations would be a massive headache for anyone who simply likes keep up with what’s popular week by week. (Save for pirates, who always find a way.) Jimmy Iovine wants to consolidate all of music into one clean interface, but he may well do the opposite — at least in the short term.

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