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Apple Music’s Problem: It’s All About Them

Apple Music's Problem
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

As a lover of radio — of the actual life-affirming power of human-curated listening, and the art of good DJing — I suppose I should be excited that Apple is investing serious resources in making live radio a part of the digital music landscape. Especially radio that, as Beats 1 mastermind Trent Reznor says, ignores the conventions of the mainstream in favor of the instincts of proven tastemakers like Zane Lowe.

And when Beats 1 launched this morning, it was genuinely exciting to hear the station kick off with a small indie band I’ve never heard of — Spring King, of Manchester, U.K. — followed by Beck and Jamie xx. Objectively good music, all of it, free from stifling radio formats that dictate our limiting perceptions of genre. It was different, but also seamless enough that one could imagine the adventurous programming on this station could lead to innovations across the radio industry.

But when it comes down to it, Beats 1, Apple’s new radio station, is an illustration of the main problem with Apple Music.

"Apple Music’s problem is that it’s more about Apple than it is about consumers."

Apple Music’s problem is that it’s more about Apple than it is about consumers.

There’s one reason for Apple’s foray into streaming music: other companies were starting to dominate the streaming market and they weren’t. The reason isn’t, in fact, that Apple has an idea  innovative enough to change the nature of streaming music; that they’ve come up with something that will change the listening experience or make it engaging in a new way for voracious listeners like me. They haven’t. Almost everything they’re offering, from human-curated listening experiences to 30 million songs available to stream on demand, is available in some way already.

Now that Apple Music is live, we can check out how it stacks up — its curated playlists, its shareability; the potential of Connect, its outlet for artists to share directly with fans. But its essence is the same as what’s already around: On-demand streaming with access to about 30 million songs. Apple Music was able to score 1989 and The Chronic and a few other big records that haven’t streamed on Spotify yet, but otherwise: same.

Of course they’ve also got Beats 1, Apple Music’s most distinctive feature and a play for the hearts of passionate music fans like me. The goal of Beats 1 for Apple is to create a “monoculture,” in Reznor’s words, in which everyone is listening to the same song at the same time. First, I think that listeners will choose choice over monoculture. As exciting as the idea of a freer, genre-less but impeccably programmed radio station is, the utopia it hints at — more choices, more diversity — is the place of its own demise. Most listeners would rather just go one step forward and choose from 30 million songs on demand, not be ruled by the tastes of just one music programmer. As industry commentator Bob Lefsetz wrote last week, “[Apple Music] will not rule, because it’s based on a failed paradigm, that we want to wait to be served the same thing.”

But I think the idea is a bad thing from a personal and cultural perspective. Music is an expression of identity, a way for us to go on our own journeys of discovery and self-definition. I listen to Elliott Smith when I’m sad and A Love Supreme when I’m ecstatic and rarely are those shared experiences. A monocultural experience doesn’t make my life more colorful. It threatens to melt my experiences into someone else’s.

This whole “monoculture” idea is a sign of Apple’s shortsightedness. The only reason I can think of that a company would want to create a monoculture is so they can be at the center of it. The value of monoculture for the listening public is neutral to negative, but a company like Apple, who is already the tastemaker of the world when it comes to electronics, can situate itself at the top of the entire music industry if it can become top tastemaker and top retailer.

That’s the core of the problem with Apple Music: Apple’s perspective is askew. They’re thinking not about the value for consumers, but about the value for them. Zane Lowe, when asked what success would look like for Beats 1, said: “When an artist goes on to have a brilliant career, and five years later we can look back and be proud of whatever role we had in that.” That’s pretty indicative of Apple’s mindset. Your end goal isn’t to reach more listeners and engage them more deeply? With a vision of success more focused on dominating the industry than changing the listening experience, it will surely be hard for the company to craft something with staying power.

This is, of course, not the first time a huge company has ventured into a crowded field with a product that didn’t significantly provide advances for consumers. Google Plus is the most infamous example, but there’s Amazon’s forays into publishing their own books to consider, the results of which were mixed at best. Did either of these companies have something special to offer the world? No — they were motivated by the desire to expand their monopoly over their respective industries.

"As exciting as the idea of a freer, genre-less but impeccably programmed radio station is, the utopia it hints at — more choices, more diversity — is the place of its own demise."

I do think Apple could make a go at contributing something meaningful to the streaming landscape and, ironically, they don’t have to look much further than Spotify for inspiration. Spotify has invested in creating original content, and not just commissioning pieces of music or video they can distribute exclusively, but creating integrations of their technology with original music to create an innovative listening experience.

What Apple has created is something that is exciting on its face, but that has little value for its consumers. If the company truly wants to find its way to the top, it should come up with an idea that revolutionizes music listening, the way they did for cell phones, or personal computing. Instead, they seem destined to find themselves with a radio station full of great songs no one is listening to.

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