The One More Thing coming out of Apple’s WWDC this year was a doozy, and not perhaps in a good way. Prolonging the already interminable keynote by over an hour, we were treated to the long predicted reveal of Apple Music, the company’s broad response to no longer being the dominant name in the online music space.
Apple rightfully earned that title back in 2001 with the advent of iTunes, a simplified listening and purchasing system for music both local and online. But then they pretty much lost that it somewhere in the mid to late 2000s when it bloated into some mess of mixed downloads and faded glory against competitors.
This, seemingly, is where Apple has seen fit to attack the world anew with Apple Music. The recently announced subscription-based streaming/social network/radio/recommendation service is supposed to unify the world of fans and artists into a single ecosystem while sitting the Cupertino-based company back at the top.
Unfortunately, this is also perhaps the worst move Apple could make. It feels just so scattershot and unfocused like a mess just waiting to happen and, worst of all, like a decision based on hubris rather than value.
Do you remember the last time Apple tried to make a social network? Yeah, it was Ping and it lasted just under two years after accruing and promptly losing about a million users. (A great deal of that probably had to do with Facebook being in its heyday.) And what about the streaming part of Apple Music? That comes across as more of a “me too!” than a “we can do this better,” a defining quality to Apple products and services.
Sure a lot of detractors and fanboys would love to pin this on the lack of Steve Jobs’ oversight, but even Tim Cook or Eddy Cue could have said no to the pressures of Jimmy Iovine and crew. By saddling up with him and Trent Reznor and Dr. Dre (and, strangely, Drake?), Apple has locked itself into a process that has found unwarranted success in leveraging names and marketing and not objective quality.
The Beats brand is precisely that: just a brand. They throw around 14 dollars at a time to get a pair of good-looking headphones, mark them up to a few hundred bucks, and watch the company value skyrocket to $3.2 billion. They’re so bad at being headphones there’s even a whole website dedicated to getting you to not buy them.
That is what they specialize in, despite being formerly known for individually making great music. They see a space, see their names, and think they can get a foothold there. All right, truth be told, that may or may not be the actual origin of Beats by Dre, but after the announcement of Apple Music, it’s hard not to see it that way (especially with the revelation that the service would top out at 256kbps, a notch down from the 320kbps of Spotify, Google, and Tidal).
What horde, exactly, was clamoring for a globally synced and available radio station? Basically no one. There’s local radio; there’s satellite radio, which SiriusXM has undoubtedly dominated; and there’s Internet radio, which a simple Google search reveals dozens of solutions. It’s strange that Apple views this as a win.
Who was poking around YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and thinking, “Wow, I really wish there was one place for all of this”? Once again, no one. Instagram is a great space for sharing visually while YouTube is great for sharing and exploring videos. Twitter is fantastic for quick dissemination of information while Facebook, well, is kind of a mess nowadays. A consolidation doesn’t strengthen each of these attributes but rather weakens them.
Iovine, though, also focused on the concept of humans over machines, where people curating playlists and recommendations is vastly more powerful than a machine learning algorithm that produces guesses at related artists and songs. But there’s a whole tab for computer-based offerings in Apple Music, not to mention Spotify has been curating playlists since its inception (and more recently by paid employees).
Speaking of Spotify, what Iovine decided to highlight and ignore was strangely…non-competitive. There was a big splash late last year when Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify. But do you know who has that catalog? Apple. Do you know how many times they bragged about her and the rest of their library during the Apple Music segment? Five. No wait, the other one. Zero.
And while Apple boasts 800 million iTunes accounts, that actually includes every person who ever synced an iDevice or bought a single song. Spotify, on the other hand, just announced 20 million actively paying users for their service, a figure double that from a year ago.
It might have been just that, though, that persuaded Cue and Cook that expanding their music industry connections (read: purchase) with the Beats by Dre founders into a music service was a good idea. There’s a lot of money sitting around waiting to be taken away from Spotify and Pandora and Google and everyone else.
That, unfortunately, was not what earned Apple its modern recognition, nor what tore it out of 90s decline into near-obscurity and matching lack of profits. And while there’s nothing with refinement, this video lays out quite neatly the theory that the company has gone from innovator to imitator. It’s too early to tell where on the spectrum Apple Music lies, but it’s easy to say what it feels like.