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Apple Music: The Song Sort of Remains the Same

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice)

Apple is launching a new digital music service, and its competitors had better watch out.

I mean, again. 

That’s a lede I could have written in 2010. And in 2011. And again in 2013. Monday’s introduction of Apple Music is at least the company’s fourth big attempt to expand its music business beyond the 99-cent download. But if it takes root, it could end up being Apple’s first successful try.

Downloads on the down low

Over the years Apple has accomplished something few other digital content companies have managed: convince millions of customers to pay money to download music.

But downloads are down; streaming music services like Pandora and Spotify are what the kids listen to these days.

In 2014, streaming revenue grew by 29 percent to about $1.9 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s surprisingly cheery report. Download revenues remained larger at roughly $2.6 billion, but fell by almost 9 percent. In April, an international music-business group, IFPI, reported that streaming revenues had passed download sales in 37 markets worldwide.

Apple’s response to this has been surprisingly confusing, given how good it was early on at convincing music industry executives to stop acting like spoiled children and invite their customers to buy music online.

In 2010, Apple tried to mix music with social networking in the form of iTunes Ping, which allowed fans to follow their favorite artists and see what tunes their friends were buying. That went over only slightly better than last year’s U2 force-feeding on iTunes, and Apple silenced Ping two years later.

Not long after, Apple killed a different social feature, shared “iMix” playlists, that some users did like. The concept of impressing strangers with your good taste in music remains popular on Spotify.

Apple VP Eddy Cue introduces Apple Music at the Worldwide Developers Conference (Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice).

In 2011, Apple’s iTunes in the Cloud feature let customers download fresh copies of old purchases–a previously-forbidden feature. The optional $25 a year iTunes Match service added downloads of high-quality versions of any songs you had in your library, even ones grabbed from sketchy file-sharing sites. (I have no problem endorsing iTunes Match as a one-time expense to upgrade your library and atone for your downloading sins.)

Two years ago, Apple decided to launch a full-fledged streaming service called iTunes Radio. But the service’s machine-generated playlists didn’t seem as creative as those computed by Pandora’s Music Genome Project; it was no “Pandora killer.” 

Today, more than half of all Internet music lovers listen to Pandora, 11 percent heart iHeartRadio and 10 percent prefer Spotify, according to Edison Research. iTunes Radio is in fourth place at 8 percent. 

With today’s news, iTunes Radio lands in the cut-out bin, but iTunes in the Cloud and iTunes Match stick around. The latter gets you no discount on the usual $9.99/month Apple Music rate.

iTuning Out

Apple’s bigger problem? The only successful music service the company has launched has been built on iTunes, and a lot of people don’t like it. 

The same complaints have persisted since at least 2008: It’s slow. The Windows version is a pain to install or update. Things that should be doable, like syncing music from device to computer, can be infuriating.

Most of all, iTunes has gotten too complicated. The app that began life as a third-party MP3 app called SoundJam has been assigned a dismaying number of unrelated jobs, especially since the iPhone’s 2007 debut. iTunes is now a music app in the sense that Microsoft Outlook is an e-mail client.

“Microsoft Outlook, but for music” is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

There’s an even larger issue here: The mobile market has changed immensely over the past 8 years. But Apple has insisted on only supporting the platforms it anointed in 2007 —OS X, Windows and iOS —further limiting its music store’s appeal.

And Now, Apple Music for Android

Which brings us to this week’s debut of Apple Music.

The news that Apple Music’s combination of interactive playlists, the Beats 1 Web-radio station, and access to “Connect” pages from favorite artists will be available on Android is a huge change – big enough to file under “Things that never would have happened while Steve Jobs was alive.”

Apple isn’t welcoming Android folks on the same terms as iPhone or iPad owners—the Apple Music membership page fine print reveals Android listeners must pay the $10/month fee, while others can tune into basic features for free even after a three-month free trial.

(Yahoo Tech’s Alyssa Bereznak asked if that free tier would include ads like iTunes Radio; Apple wouldn’t say.)

Drake on stage at the Apple WWDC (Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice).

But as amazing as it will be to see Apple ship any Android app, that still won’t get Apple Music close to the reach of Pandora and Spotify. Each of those streaming services shows up not only on mobile platforms but also the Web and various living-room gadgets. (One notable exception: the Apple TV. Probably just a coincidence, right?)

At Monday’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, Apple executives leaned heavily on the star power that’s supposed to inform Apple Music, with appearances by Drake and The Weekndr. But an A-list lineup didn’t get Ping anywhere – nor has it done much for Jay-Z’s Tidal music service.

Apple Music does have one thing going for it: an even larger audience than iTunes Radio had two years ago, when Apple was nearing its 400 millionth iPhone sold. It’s now past 700 million. The longer-than-usual free trial period can’t hurt either. 

“Apple Music will be on a large majority of active iPhones out there, and with a three-month trial, many users will at least give it a try,” analyst Jan Dawson wrote after watching the keynote. “If it’s any good at all, three months is plenty of time for those users to get hooked.”

But if Apple Music isn’t any good at all, you can bet Apple will introduce a 2.0 version and talk about how it’s really nailed streaming music–no later than WWDC 2017. The company can’t afford to sit out this particular karaoke contest for any longer.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.