“This amazing little device holds a thousand songs, and it goes right in my pocket.” So said Steve Jobs in introducing the iPod, in October, 2001. And while it wasn’t the first portable digital-music device—there were plenty of MP3 players on the market already—the iPod was so much more elegantly designed than the others (that rotary scroll wheel, and those delightful little clicks it made, the screen slowing down as though from inertia after you’d spun it) that it seemed truly revolutionary. It was the product that put Apple on the path to becoming the richest and most powerful company in the world. One thousand songs in your pocket! Few marketing tags have been better.
Jobs’s remarkable presentation came to mind yesterday, as Jimmy Iovine and Eddy Cue unveiled Apple’s “revolutionary music service” at its Worldwide Developers’ Conference, in San Francisco. It was the biggest moment in the company’s musical history since the iTunes Store opened in 2003. Starting on June 30th, iTunes users in a hundred countries will have the opportunity to stream any of the songs in the store’s thirty-million-song catalogue—which, unlike Spotify’s catalogue, includes the Beatles and Taylor Swift.
Based on the announcement, Apple Music is evolutionary, at best. At worst, it is cluttered and overly complex. It would be one thing had Iovine said, “Yes, we know these features already exist in other streaming services, but we think ours is better.” Instead, he mostly shouted about how revolutionary it all was. Both he and Cue emphasized that Apple Music lets you “do everything in one place.” But Apple’s own history suggests that the bells and whistles in the service’s interface won’t trump the radical simplicity of Spotify’s design.
Much has changed for Apple since the iPod appeared. Music, once the company’s stepping stone to dominance, is now hardly more than a rounding error on its balance sheets. On streaming, it is playing catch-up with Spotify, which has eighty-six per cent of the on-demand market in the U.S. In the short term, absent a magic, ecosystem-realigning product hiding beneath Eddy Cue’s untucked shirttails, Apple can only gain market share by cannibalizing its existing download business—the classic innovator’s dilemma. The announcement, which featured the phrase “One complete thought around music,” suggested that it’s about marketing at this point. And though “One complete thought” is no “One thousand songs,” Apple has other strengths that might allow it to win the long game.
The company also unveiled a Pandora-buster, Beats 1, which Iovine called “the first live 24-7 global radio station,” broadcasting out of London, New York, and L.A. In contrast to Pandora, which relies on algorithms to decide what you should listen to next, Apple will also have humans, such as Zane Lowe of the BBC, ferreting out tracks. If Apple wanted to convince us that its primary aim is to bring listeners great music, though, it raised some questions by bringing Drake onstage to offer his endorsement. Was it because he honestly thinks Apple Music is great, or can we expect his next album to be exclusive to Apple Music? The bigger and more influential Beats 1 gets, the harder it will be to believe that it’s only about the music. Radio promotion isn’t going away.
Finally, because Apple Music wouldn’t be “one complete thought” without a social network, we got a demonstration of the app’s “Connect” feature, which will allow artists to share tidbits with fans about their processes and upcoming releases, and will allow fans to like and comment on the artists’ offerings. As an example, Cue showed us a page of Chris Cornell’s lyrics to a song not yet recorded. “It’s great to get behind the scenes and see the process an artist used to create a song,” Cue said. Unless it isn’t.
Creaky stagecraft notwithstanding, Apple has clear advantages over its competitors. Prime among these is its market muscle. Spotify’s revenues have been growing, but it lost a hundred and ninety-seven million dollars in 2014. Apple, meanwhile, posted a profit of eighteen billion dollars earlier this year, the highest quarterly figure reported by any company, ever. It also possesses the credit-card numbers of eight hundred million of its customers, and has placed more than a billion iOS devices in people’s hands around the world. The company is offering all of those folks a three-month free trial of Apple Music, no doubt betting that a very large number of potential streaming listeners have been waiting to jump in, and that this may well seem to them like the moment. When the trial expires, the price of a monthly subscription will be ten dollars, the same as it is on Spotify, but Apple is also offering a family plan that would allow up to six people to have their own accounts for a total of $14.95. (Spotify charges thirty dollars for its family plan, although it has announced that it may phase in cheaper pricing in the future.) The family feature, which Cue closed with, received the most applause of any of the Apple Music news, which tells you that the numbers mattered more to the pitch than the innovation or design.
It’s also worth pointing out that Apple Music will not offer the free, ad-supported tier that is built into Spotify’s service. The music industry seems to have decided that Spotify’s strategy of weaning people off of piracy by offering them free music and then giving them an incentive to pony up for a subscription isn’t really working—or at least it’s not working fast enough to get the music business to the one-hundred-billion-dollar-a-year tier that industry executives dream about (it’s a fourteen-billion-dollar-a-year business now). But Spotify has had some success in converting pirates to paying customers; the risk is that if Apple Music crushes it, some users may go back in the other direction.
“Oh, ok,” Spotify’s founder, Daniel Ek, tweeted at the end of the Apple Music presentation, before quickly deleting his comment. Did he mean, “Oh, it’s going to be O.K.,” or “Oh, O.K., it’s all over and we’d better get started on that I.P.O. before it’s too late?” On its own, it was as good a comment as any on yesterday’s long-awaited unveiling. Oh: just O.K.