Apple, Beats and Streaming’s Mutual Fear Factor

Although the Apple-Beats deal is about far more than just streaming music, it is nonetheless an important part of the puzzle.  Apple has been going slow with streaming, introducing cloud experiences (iCloud, iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Video rentals) slowly so as not to alienate its less tech-adventurous mainstream user base.  That strategy remains valid and will continue, but it has failed to protect the defection of its core, high value, early adopters.  This is why Apple has to get serious about streaming fast: it is scared of losing its best customers.  It is also why all other streaming companies, whatever they may admit publically, are getting ready to run scared.  This is streaming music’s mutual fear factor:

  • Velvet handcuffs: Music downloads are monetized CRM for Apple, a means of enhancing the device experience.  Purchased tracks and an iTunes managed library act as velvet handcuffs for Apple device owners.  But for those consumers that use a streaming subscription app, the playlists and music collection can exist on any device.  Suddenly the handcuffs slip off.  This is why Apple has to get streaming right in short order.  It simply cannot afford to lose swathes of its most valuable device customers at the next handset replacement cycle.
  • Chinks in the iTunes armour: Until the launch of the App Store, 3rd party music services had no way of breaking into the iTunes ecosystem and were, in the main, doomed to the role of also rans.  The App Store was the chink in the otherwise impregnable iTunes armour that allowed those 3rd parties to not just launch punitive raids but to set up camp in Apple’s heartlands. It was the price Apple had to pay to enter the next phase of its business, but now it is ready to shore up its defences once more.
  • Eating from Apple’s table: The vast majority of streaming music subscribers were already digital download buyers first, and of those the majority were either current or past iTunes Store customers when they became subscribers.  On a global scale, subscriptions have first and foremost been about transitioning existing spending rather than creating new digital customers. The picture is very different in Nordics, the Netherlands and South Korea but those markets contribute far less to global scale than the markets (US, UK, Australia etc.) where this trend dominates.  Apple has provided the core addressable market for streaming services for the last five years.  Now those companies worry over where will they be able to get new subscribers if Apple start taking subscriptions seriously.
  • Apple will not have to play fair: Although Apple knows it is under the watchful eye of various regulatory authorities following the eBook price fixing episode, there is still plenty it can do to make life hard for 3rd party streaming services.  Just take a look at what Amazon is reportedly getting away with in its book pricing dispute with Hachette: delaying shipments of the publisher’s books to customers, removing buy buttons from pre-ordered books, even pointing Amazon customers to competitive titles when searching for Hachette books.  Fair play or foul, the power of the retailer is huge.  Whether Apple simply ensures Spotify et al don’t appear in search results, or that they are never quite able to integrate seamlessly with iOS anymore for no specific reason that anyone can quite put their finger on….But even without resorting to such behavior, simply by deeply integrating an Apple (or Beats) branded subscription service natively into its devices and ecosystem, Apple will have the upper hand and 3rd parties will find it a whole lot harder to fish in Apple’s waters.

None of this is necessarily bad for the market either.  In fact it could be just what the subscriptions business needs.  To finally focus on green field opportunity beyond the confines of the Apple elite.  Nor should Apple even limit its subscription focus to streaming or to music.  The rise of the Content Connectors points to Apple, Amazon and Google pursuing digital content strategies in the round, that do not get bogged down with super serving any individual content type at the expense of the rest.  Apple’s best mid-term subscription play may yet simply prove to be a monthly allowance of iTunes credit across all content types, bundled into the cost of the device.  Put that on top of iCloud, iTunes Radio, Beats Music and suddenly you have a very compelling multi-content offering.  Something far out of the reaches of the current product roadmaps of any of the stand alone music services.

Can Apple afford to loss lead with music subscriptions to pursue such a strategy?  Well, remember Apple’s entire digital music business has been built on loss leading.  Whatever the final outcome, the mutual fear factor balance looks set to tip in Apple’s favour for a while.

Apple’s iCloud and What It Means to the Digital Music Market

Today Apple formally launched iCloud.  Back in June when Apple first announced iCloud I said I considered it a great start but just that.  After today’s announcement I’ll add that there is more meat on the bones but that Apple has still fallen short of its potential here.  Don’t get me wrong, iCloud and iTunes Match are great, elegantly implemented services.  But I still think Apple could have done more, much more.

A few months ago I wrote that Apple, Amazon and Android comprised Digital Music’s Triple A and that they all shared SPACE, that is Scale, Product, Ambition, Cash and Ecosystem.  This framework provides a useful lens with which to view Apple’s music related announcements today:

  • Scale.  Apple is a truly global company with global reach.  Any service it launches needs to share as much of that reach as possible to deliver the benefit to device sales it exists for.  So it was a disappointment that Apple didn’t announce an international rollout for iCloud at launch (international markets will come later).  Launching in the UK will be crucial for Apple and will be where they can steal a march over the rest of the Tripple A. It is the most advanced digital market in Europe and Apple’s biggest market too.  Android and Amazon won’t find it so easy brining their locker services to the UK as Apple will though.  The UK does not yet have fair use legislation so the other 2 A’s (unlicensed) locker services that depend upon DMCA provisioned fair-use would not be legal in the UK.
  • Product. Most of the attention is around the iPhone 4S and new iPods.  They are of course what Apple is all about. The seamless integration of iCloud significantly enhances the value proposition of these products.  We are in an age where consumer devices are defined by their surrounding ecosystem as much as by the hardware itself (see my Socially Integrated Web post for more on this). iCloud takes the Apple ecosystem to the next level. I’d still like to have seen better productizing of it though, such as pre-installed device bundles with a year of iCloud included as a standard pricing option alongside harddrive capacity.
  • Ambition.  Here is where Apple fell a little short from a music perspective.  I’ve sensed a steady weakening of Apple’s music strategy ambition over the last few years and today’s announcements fit the trend.  It makes absolute sense of course.  When Apple first launched the iPod, music was the killer app for the small memory monochrome screen device.  In the days of the iPad, music just doesn’t show off the capabilities of the device like video, books and games do (regardless of whether that is the main activity people conduct on iPads or not).  iTunes has been hugely successful (16 billion downloads to date and 70%+ market share).  But Apple’s music strategy and consumer offering hasn’t changed dramatically since launching in 2003.  There have been some great evolutions (more catalogue – 20 million tracks, DRM-free, better editorial and programming etc) and some half hearted innovations (Ping, Genius) but it remains fundamentally the same product it was 8 years ago. Compare that to the evolution of the iPod.
  • Cash.  Apples’ great advantage in digital music is that it can afford to loss lead if it so wishes as music is all about selling i-devices not direct revenue for them.  Yet Apple is ideologically a margin company and this is why they don’t ‘do a Kindle Fire’ and build a killer music subscription offering because they calculate they can get better ROI from more modest music innovation.
  • Ecosystem.  Apple have just put clear blue water between their music ecosystem and those of the other 2 A’s of Digital Music.  The elephant in the room though is the new ecosystem in town: Facebook.  Apple was glaringly absent from the F8 announcements and there is no space for Facebook here.  Apple’s ecosystem is defined by devices, Facebook’s by user data and user convenuience.  Apple and Facebook will start banging into each other (see figure) and sooner or later the pair will start needing to build co-existence strategies.  In the meantime expect Android Music to start building strong links with Facebook.

So in conclusion,  I walked away from the Apple event with the familiar feeling that I wish there had been more.  But like I say, it is a familiar feeling.  I suspect that the music industry has missed its window of opportunity with Apple to drive truly transformational music industry innovation.  Maybe now they’ll start to regret having played hard ball with Apple in days gone by and start looking for someone else to pick up the baton.  They may be looking for some time.

iTunes in the Cloud: A Great Start, But Just That

So Apple finally launched their much anticipated cloud music service, and they didn’t disappoint. At least by cloud-locker standards they didn’t. But I wanted more, a lot more.

Here’s my quick take on what Apple launched and where I think they should go next:

Automatic Downloads

What is it? Enables iTunes buyers to transfer music purchases to any iTunes supported device of songs that you have bought from iTunes.

How much of a big deal is it? This is a welcome move, but one that really should have happened long ago, and it’s entirely not Apple’s fault it took so long. The music industry still thinks of digital music on a per-device basis. But restricting the devices people can take their purchased music on only weakens legal services when compared to illegal ones, which of course have no such qualms. Thinking of music consumption on a device basis rather than a person basis is simply the wrong worldview and it needs to change, fast. Automatic Downloads are nice move towards a new way of thinking, but of course within the tightly controlled confines of the iTunes ecosystem.

iTunes Match

What is it? Matches your music collection against Apple’s cloud catalogue and upgrades your music to 256 kbps AAC, all for $24.99 a year.

How much of a big deal is it? This is the sort of locker service Amazon and Google *should* have launched. Instead of having to painfully upload your entire music collection you simply need to scan and match, a process which should take a matter of minutes. It makes a cloud collection a seamless extension of your local collection.

Mulligan’s Take: With these simple but elegantly executed features Apple has created a best-of-breed cloud / music store combination that makes much of the competition pale by comparison. Apple has done what Apple does best: it has let the competition move first, learned from their mistakes and launched a better product. And yet it is it enough? Apple have done more than enough in terms of the current cloud-storage debate, and this is a clear shot across the bows of Google and Amazon’s burgeoning digital music ambitions. Also, make no mistake, Apple will have worked hard to get what they have from the rights holders to get this service to market. But it doesn’t do half as much as it could do, to move the digital music conversation on beyond the ‘distraction’ of locker services.

Locker services – in iTunes Match form – should be part of every digital music service, just like there should be a play button on every MP3 player. But they are just that: a feature not a service. If the music industry is going to take big strides forward over the coming years it needs more than locker services, much more. It needs rich, interactive and social music services that make people fall in love with the power of digital music again. In the context of iCloud that would mean:

• On-demand streaming of music you *don’t* own
• Monthly iTunes purchase credits which (unless you specify otherwise) automatically convert into purchased downloads of the songs you played most last month but didn’t own
• Subscription costs bundled into the cost of Apple devices at point of purchase
• Ping!, Genius, Twitter and Facebook deeply integrated to create a truly social music consumption and discovery experience
• Limited Garageband and iMovie functionality integrated to enable mash-ups

That is of course a lengthy wish-list and one that won’t be fulfilled anytime soon. But nonetheless that is the sort of thing the record labels need to encourage Apple, Google and Amazon to build over the next few years if they are going to get digital music out of its current impasse.