Apple Music: in tune or a bit of a racket?

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For a company usually strong on details, the Apple Music reveal was oddly fuzzy. Apple executives spoke in vague terms, although with the kind of fervour that momentarily made you wonder if the company had just invented the concept of music itself and was excitedly unveiling it to the masses.

In the end, Apple Music appears akin to Tidal smashed into iTunes — a paid-only streaming service, merged with your existing music collection, with added curation smarts. And there’s a radio station, too, for those people who didn’t already realise a colossal number of great online radio stations already exist.

This is, of course, typical Apple. User expectations and hype build into the stratosphere. The product is pitched as revolutionary. And then reality hits: it’s a new Apple take on something that already exists. The question is whether that’s enough. Does Apple Music have what it takes to bend your ear — and to keep hold of it?

Mix it up

There was a coffee-spitting moment during the Apple Music reveal, when the audience was told it was about building a music system with the elegance that only Apple can do. Given iTunes, that’s a disconnect of serious magnitude. However, Apple has been smart in attempting to provide a single container for all your music needs.

Apple Music combines what you already have (your purchases/downloads inside iTunes — from the iTunes Store, imported from other sources, or ripped from CDs) and streaming from the entire rest of the catalogue — wherever you happen to be. (An exception is if you’re mobile and iTunes lacks certain tracks in its catalogue, but that won’t affect most official releases from anything but the most indie indies. Plus on iTunes, you get The Beatles, if that’s your sort of thing.) On desktop, Spotify can match this by optionally merging your local files and its online catalogue, but otherwise Apple’s approach moves things on a touch.

And the Beats go on

Clearly the result of Apple’s acquisition of Beats, curation is at the heart of the Apple Music experience. At WWDC 2015, we were told the service would help with “the most difficult question in music,” which is: when you’re listening to something, what comes next? Apple’s thinking isn’t revolutionary, however — seemingly a combination of playlists from experts, and algorithms that will sense your current conditions and supply music accordingly.

Beats has also leant its name to a new radio station, Beats 1. Led by Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga, it will broadcast live in over 100 countries, 24/7, from New York, LA and London. Apple promises “exclusive interviews, guest hosts, and the best of what’s going on in the world of music”. This appeared to be Apple’s response to internet radio, which was dismissed as just a playlist of songs; this apparently ignored the fact radio stations are generally playlist-oriented, and there are plenty of great stations already that showcase new talent, such as 6 Music.

Again, then, there’s nothing wrong with what Apple’s doing, but to call any of this fresh or innovative is a stretch.

Get yourself connected

Apple’s first attempt at a social network was the forgettable Ping, which lived inside iTunes and barely got any traction. Connect seems somewhat similar, only it lives inside Music.

At WWDC, Apple was, though, bullish about Connect, arguing it provided an unfiltered and unedited connection between bands and fans. You’d be able to get candid backstage photos, in-progress lyrics, and rough-cuts of videos; fans would be able to comment and perhaps end up in a conversation with artists. Which would be very exciting if it was fifteen years ago and Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. As it is, Apple’s merely added another channel for artists to deal with, and one that seems very several years ago, rather than understanding current trends in social networking, such as Periscope’s live video over tired pre-recorded content. One plus: Connect content can be saved, if you’re an Apple Music subscriber.

That said, in this area Apple’s rivals are hardly blazing a trail. Spotify’s strong on social when it comes to openly sharing playlists (something Apple Music aims to ape), but there’s little interaction with bands. Perhaps that’s how some people like it — fragmentation and building different audiences on different services. It certainly would have been interesting had Apple’s approach been ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’, centralising content from other social firehoses, rather than creating one of its own. As it is, we foresee an initial flurry of excitement, a lot of republishing from other sources, and an uncertain long-term future for Connect.

In a rich man’s world

Apple has argued that the music industry remains a fragmented mess; Apple Music is its attempt to make sense of it, and, presumably, also to keep people nestled within Apple’s profitable ecosystem. Everything is built to fit together — and for devices already in the hands of hundreds of millions of people.

The Beats acquisition lends credibility and smarts, and Apple’s very obviously appealing to people who have an emotional connection with music, along with trying to convince artists that Apple’s on their side. But these sentiments are as fuzzy as the Apple Music announcement, and there’s still much we don’t know.

Apple said “anything can happen” when you upload content to Apple Music, but will you become just another statistic for Tim Cook to read out at the next keynote, or will Apple Music actually be a platform on which new talent can thrive? From a technology standpoint, what bit-rates will we get? (Anything less than 320 kbps AAC puts Apple at a competitive disadvantage, and yet the iTunes Store only sells 256 kbps AAC downloads. It would be odd if sold audio was of a worse quality than streaming music.) And will anyone care about Connect, Beats 1, and myriad ‘expert’ playlists?

In all likelihood, all of this may not matter. Even if the announced $9.99 per month subscription translates to £9.99 in the UK, Apple will price-match its rivals for a broadly comparable experience, available in over 100 countries, and with a three-month free trial to try and hook people in. An Android version of Music and the Windows release of iTunes means those running mixed devices won’t have to stray to Spotify or Tidal to get at their music collections.

Apple Music won’t succeed or squeeze out rivals because it’s the next big thing, but because it’s good enough and convenient enough to a wide range of people. That might not be exciting and sexy, but it’ll probably ensure Apple’s offering’s still standing when the dust settles from the music industry upheaval we’re currently in the midst of.

Liked this? Why not read iOS 9: everything you need to know about Apple’s latest iPhone and iPad OS

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