When it launched in 2003 Apple’s iTunes Music Store started a radical transformation of the music industry, or rather it started to funnel back into the legitimate fold some of the radical transformation started by Napster. Close to a decade on and the scale of iTunes’ impact on the music industry is clear to see. 20 billion songs have been downloaded from the iTunes store which is now available in 63 countries worldwide, with a staggering 435m iTunes accounts. Which puts Spotify’s 22 million active users numbers into a certain perspective.
But Apple’s success in the download market hasn’t had the ripple effect into the wider market that many hoped for. Apple still accounts for 75% of digital sales in key territories including the US and globally accounts for over half of global digital music revenues. The harsh reality for the music industry is that the paid download just doesn’t translate well outside of the iTunes ecosystem. Music downloads are in effect monetized CRM for iOS devices.
So as the dominant digital music incumbent Apple has faced growing demand to drive another market transformation, which in many circles manifests as calls to launch a streaming music service. The thinking goes that if Apple were to get into the music subscription game that it could drive it to the mainstream. To date Apple has shown little interest in rising to the challenge. It’s key innovation has been iCloud which fell short of record label hopes but has already clocked up tens of millions of users.
So when midway through Apple’s iPhone centred media event today, the word ‘Music’ flashed up on stage as the next big announcement, for one brief moment it looked like maybe finally Apple was making its move. But what it announced instead was a series of evolutionary improvements to its existing music assets: the iTunes store and the iTunes player. Why? Because Apple’s core responsibility is ensuring that the music experience of its iOS device owners is as good as it can be, not to break into new market segments for the sake of it.
So Apple’s music announcements focused on new music hardware (a new range of iPods and a new headphone model) and evolutionary improvements to iTunes, including a graphics focused UI that finally starts to do away with the ‘music collection as excel spreadsheet’ paradigm; new intuitive artist centric navigation; a simple intuitive playlist creator; an ‘up next’ button and a new mini player; and concert dates integrated into artist profile pages on the store.
All of these collectively bring a much needed return to elegant simplicity for iTunes just as it was needed, which means that iOS device owners now have a better music experience that embraces just enough of the digital music zeitgeist (tour dates, playlisting, artist photo streams) without diluting or confusing the core of what the iTunes music experience is all about.
Apple could do a huge amount to change the digital music market, particularly with regards to app-like album experiences, but they also have a huge degree of responsibility. If Apple experiment and get it wrong then the music industry will hurt more than Apple will.
So it is probably time to stop waiting for Apple to drive another new digital music paradigm and instead bank on it continuing to innovate prudently.