Apple Music: A Platform Play With Hidden Nuance

Today Apple finally announced its long, long anticipated entry into the streaming music space with Apple Music. Apple has spent the last few years as the sleeping giant of streaming music watching Spotify et al seize the innovation mantle and dominate both consumer behaviour and the industry narrative. With all the anticipation expectations were understandably high, too high perhaps. Thus in many respects Apple Music underwhelmed (a 9.99 on demand service;  a 24/7 live broadcast radio offering Beats1; a fan / artist engagement platform Artist Connect). But there is also more than first meets the eye, there is a nuanced strategy at play.

Radio Takes Centre Stage

Placing radio centre stage is smart, as that’s how Apple will engage the early follower consumer, who will be Apple’s core target (other than winning back some existing Spotify users). Remember, Apple’s core priority is delivering the best possible music experience to as many of its device owners as possible. A 9.99 subscription service that works for 10% of them is much less interesting than a free radio service that works for 500 million of them.

There’s no little irony that Apple triggered an industry knee jerk reaction against free music only to go and put free music at the core of its streaming play. Of course the crucial difference here is that the free music is not on demand. Apple is using radio, real time broadcast and high profile DJs as a way of bringing context and meaning to internet radio for the Apple mainstream (which of course is slightly different from the broader mainstream). Whether Beats1 is enough on its own for that purpose is another question.  Beats2 and 3 to follow shortly?

Taking The First Step Towards A Platform Play?

Apple continues to be ridiculed for its failed Ping! music social network. While it was no killer app it nonetheless represented an attempt to turn iTunes into a music platform. Now that same strategy has been rekindled with the launch of Artist Connect. This is Apple’s attempt to turn itself into an artist-fan engagement platform. Artist-fan engagement is the gold dust of the digital era music business. It’s the scarce, invaluable commodity that music fans crave in a post-scarcity music world. The non-music content is also interesting. Artists can push photos, videos and works in progress to their fans. This combines elements of the D.I.S.C. music format I wrote about here and also the Agile Music concept I wrote about in 2011. There is no reason why music should be a creative full stop in the digital era nor why the static audio file should be the be all and end all. Music fans want more than just the song.

There’s no shortage of competition in this space but while DIY sites of various guises are niche, Apple presents the opportunity to reach more than a hundred million of the world’s most valuable (i.e. highest spending) music fans. Sure some of them now pay for Spotify but they’re still iTunes users also.  If Apple’s featureset for artist is strong enough, expect strong uptake, especially from the bigger labels and artists.

Apple Is Making A Play For A Bigger Role Than Ever In Music

The long term implications are intriguing. If Apple establishes itself as one of the key engagement platforms it will change some of the core dynamics of music marketing. All the while strengthening its hand and establishing an indispensable role for itself if it doesn’t make meaningful inroads into the subscription market. Consider it a back up plan. But even more interestingly, if it succeeds at both subscriptions and marketing then it suddenly has more power than it ever did in the hey day of the iTunes Store. Apple could emerge with the power to break and then make an artist. Once it gets there record labels will rightly start casting nervous glances over their shoulders.

Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.

Fixing the Tryanny Of Choice

The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.

The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine

Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.

However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.

Filter Bubbles

As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.

People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do

There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.

Earned Trust

During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.

If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.

30% Not 80%

An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time.   Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.