apple music

The End of Digital Downloads?

That’ll teach me for writing this too quickly. I based this on a Digital Music News report which was published Wednesday evening UK time. A few hours later, and ReCode was reporting that Apple is planning no such thing. Of course plans change all the time, and record labels can get angry. So who knows what the truth of it was. But I think the piece stands either way.

On Sunday, after a week or so teasing the internet by turning their website to pure white and closing various accounts, Radiohead released their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool. I was able to head off to their website and buy a download instantly.

I’d given Radiohead some money – cutting out middlemen retailers as it happens – and they’d given me some files that, as long as I’m careful, will be playable for years to come.

This is essentially the same kind of transaction I’ve been conducting when I buy music, since I was a child.

But we are in the early 21st century, and it’s all about streaming. So if I hadn’t chosen to spend £9, how else could I have listened? Well, there’s Apple Music or Tidal. The new album is available to stream on both platforms.

Notably though, it’s not on Spotify.

No skin off my nose, as I don’t pay for a premium Spotify subscription, and only every rarely listen to the free service.

But if I was a different – probably younger – listener, I might be a bit miffed. Because if I have a Spotify subscription, I’m unlikely to have either an Apple Music or Tidal subscription as well. Why would you pay twice for access to the same music?

And therein lies my problem with streaming services – they don’t always deliver. Indeed, Radiohead has reportedly been removing some of their other music from Spotify as rights return from their old label to the band itself.

So in that context it was interesting to read a report that suggests that Apple will phase out digital download sales from iTunes within the next two years. The US and UK are likely to be first!

[Update: Apple has quickly denied that it is planning to stop selling downloads according to ReCode.]

The thinking is this:

  • Download sales peaked a couple of years ago and are now falling.
  • In their place is rapdily growing subscription revenue, so why maintain a dual economy?

The article also mentions some Apple specific issues around matching music incorrectly, and “orphan tracks.” Those are a bit of a red herring though since they’re software issues that Apple could quite easily solve if it really wanted to.

iTunes Song Downloads

If download sales are in decline, then why should Apple bother continuing to support them?

But look at this larger picture chart of music industry revenues:

Infographic: Rise of Digital Music Stops the Industry's Decline | Statista

While digital overtakes physical, it doesn’t show a healthy overall picture, and that’s because streaming revenues don’t make up for losses from physical and downloads. Growth is actually coming from other revenue areas.

Special offers aside, the cost to a consumer of a streaming subscription is $120/£120 pa. Yet the average amount spent by British consumers on music currently is less than £40 a year.

By removing the option to buy, Apple is banking on a good number of current downloaders stepping up to become subscribers, yet for the “average” person, that involves a 200% increase in their music spending!

Well, good luck with that.

But my main issue is the one that I started with. Music rental removes my control over my music.

  • If EMI goes out of business tomorrow, my EMI CDs are still safe.
  • If Radiohead decides it doesn’t want to be on Spotify, my Radiohead CDs and downloads remain available to me.
  • If Spotify goes bust, I still have access to my music library.
  • If Apple Music puts its subscription rates up tomorrow, and I can’t afford the new price, I can still listen to all the music I own today.

It’ll be interesting to see how the music industry reacts to this story.

Apple Music

So now we finally know the details of Apple Music.

I won’t go through all the details because every site on the planet has already done so, breathlessly live-blogging the full announcement. So go elsewhere for those.

To be honest, as The Verge reports there are probably some sighs of relief around the rest of the streaming music world, because Apple hasn’t actually announced a service that’s leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the pack.

They’ve got a streaming service, a radio service, and some kind of social media bolt on (nobody mention Ping, OK!).

And what they do have is scale. They’re launching in 100 countries all at once. I imagine, because they have gargantuan teams of lawyers who have been working those deals. Other services like Spotify have had to launch market by market. Even Netflix is still going country by country.

The price point for Apple Music in the US is the same as for all the competitive products – $9.99. I can’t find details of a UK price, but I imagine we can see a magic exchange rate in action and as for Spotify, expect to pay £9.99. There’s also a family plan which is innovative, although I suspect many families currently just share the same streaming subscription. And Apple is actually deigning to make an Android app, although not until the autumn.

The big play Apple has is that it will send an upgrade to all iOS devices with a no-doubt unremovable icon (or set of icons) promoting the service. Spotify et al need you to download and install their app. Apple does that bit for you.

[An aside: isn’t this sort of thing what the EU accused Microsoft of doing when it was rolling out Internet Explorer with Windows updates in an attempt to kill Netscape? They got very angry about that. I know the EU has been looking at suggestions that Apple wanted labels to limit Spotify’s free plan, but that’s somewhat different.]

To be honest, the most interesting part of the whole announcement seems to be Beats 1 which sounds very much like a regular radio station. Zane Lowe is the key person behind this and he will be broadcasting daily from LA with other shows coming from New York and London, live around the world (We’ll get Zane Lowe for drivetime). From what I can tell this will be an advertising-free experience.

In some respects then, another free online radio station. There are many of those already; licenced or not. But I wouldn’t underestimate the power of this station. Apple can throw more money at this project than any radio broadcaster in the world.

And it’ll be free to listen to. You won’t need to be paying for Apple Music to hear it. With big music acts doing exclusive things on the station, I imagine that this will be the free-entry point into the service. Something to persuade you to subscribe.

Of course it probably won’t be directly competing with your station because I suspect that the music mix will be quite eclectic. But it’ll have massive credibility. And I expect that the station will allow its presenters to have their own voices. Stations that do this seem to do well (cf. Radio 2 and 6 Music).

But then it sounds very much like Beats 1 is just the first of a set of Apple branded radio stations. They certainly use the plural in their promotional material.

Here’s an interesting thing though. A big part of Apple Music is curated listening. So rather than simply rely on algorithms, an actual programmer will build playlists (Spotify and others do this too of course). Apple is spreading their net far and wide to create those playlists.

I note from Apple’s website that various music magazines and sites are building playlists. These include Q and Mojo – owned by Bauer Media. That would seem to mean that Bauer on Apple will be competing with Bauer’s own radio services for listening! I suspect that Bauer thinks being inside rather than outside is the better bet.

Earlier I wondered on Twitter whether radio stations that in the past had been massive Apple fans, had been talking about Beats 1? 6 Music did, but I’m not certain about others.

Let’s face it, stations have previously been in a rush to align themselves with Apple and announce the cool new iPhones or iPads that they’ve launched. There’s been basically little need for Apple to run radio advertising (has Apple run any radio advertising in the UK?), because stations plug the products for them free of charge. Indeed ask any promotions team and they’ll tell you that Apple products are what prize winners want to win in competitions.

So will stations be quite as keen to hand over free publicity to a device that now has a button – front and centre – that will compete with your brand? Apple is now a well-funded competitor.

[Update: I thought this piece from The Guardian was well worth linking to, with some really interesting numbers. In particular the fact that the average consumer is not going to be spending £120 a year on music when they currently pay just £40. Sure, some people will. But most people just aren’t into music to that extent.]