Thanks to a combination of vision, savvy deal-making and the dawn of music piracy, Apple changed the music industry with iPod and the iTunes Store. Can it follow its own footsteps with a new service that, with a few exceptions, looks a lot like many that already exist?
Apple Music launched today, alongside iOS 8.4, on iOS devices. The service includes unlimited on-demand streaming (Spotify style), along with a social element between artists and fans, and Apple's own 24/7 radio station: Beats 1.
Apple would like for its service to be to subscription-based streaming services what iTunes has been for digital purchases, but the circumstances are very different this time. Here Apple is playing less of an innovator role, and more of a follower role – with rivals like Spotify, Rdio and Google Music having been in this game for years.
It's leaning, however, on human curation as the key to differentiate its late-to-the-party service. Apple Music not only offers suggestions and playlists made by real people, but Beats 1 is also helmed by humans: DJ Zane Lowe (formerly of BBC Radio 1) leads the charge, with help from artists like Pharrell, Drake and Sir Elton John.
Beats 1 is a bit like a one-station version of Sirius/XM, minus the whole satellite bit.
While more of a human touch could be just what the modern music industry needs, algorithms do have one big advantage. Unless Apple employs thousands upon thousands of music concierges to make truly individual recommendations (they aren't), then it can't possibly laser-focus on the individual the way computers can. Human curation relies more on broad recommendations within a genre – more like traditional radio or a tip from someone you just met.
So, in a way, Apple is trying to fast-forward and rewind at the same time.
Though it's hard to see Apple Music being the innovation that iTunes was, today's service does have one huge advantage that its predecessor didn't. While early 2000s-era Apple was still a niche high-end PC-maker on the rebound, today's Apple is the most powerful brand in the world, with millions upon millions of its devices in loyal users' pockets and homes. Innovation or not, it's easy to see a scenario where Apple Music steals more than a few Spotify subscribers and takes the commercial lead, tardiness and all. Perhaps it could even give streaming that extra nudge to become the unquestionable mainstream norm. Similar to what iTunes did with digital purchases, but piggybacking on the early success of other companies in ways that iTunes never did.
iOS device owners can try Apple Music now by updating their firmware through the device's settings menu. Apple offers an initial three-month free trial, after which listeners will pay US$10/month for an individual or $15/month for a family plan (supporting up to six users).
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