When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003, it was a pioneer: it provided the first download service that actually worked, and it went on to dominate the digital music industry. But when it comes to music streaming, Apple is a laggard. Does its new Apple Music service, launched yesterday, have what it takes to dethrone Spotify, the market leader?
At its core, Apple Music offers a Spotify-like “all you can eat” celestial jukebox of 30m tracks, with streaming, playlisting, offline caching, the ability to follow artists, and so on. I found it slicker and easier to use than Spotify, which has always had a rather confusing interface, even though it’s improved recently. That said, Apple’s recommendation system, called “For You”, required me to specify my musical tastes from scratch. Surely Apple has years of data on my listening habits?
Alongside the streaming, Apple Music adds two new elements. The first is a 24-hour, live online radio station called Beats 1, helmed by Zane Lowe, formerly of BBC Radio 1. It’s a daring move by Apple to assert itself as a global tastemaker. The second is Connect, a social-sharing service that lets musicians share updates with fans who follow them. Apple tried something similar before with Ping, an ill-fated social appendage to iTunes that went nowhere. This time around the aim seems to be, in part, to provide a platform on which unsigned artists can be discovered and build a social following. It’s the new MySpace!
These somewhat risky new features aside, Apple Music also differs from Spotify in another way: its business model. It’s free for three months, but after that it will cost $9.99 a month, and unlike Spotify it will not offer an ad-supported free service. Apple has the huge advantage over Spotify (which has 75m users, around 20m of them paying subscribers) that it can push the Apple Music app onto hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads automatically, as part of a software update. But once the three-month trial is over, Apple won’t have a free service with which to woo potential subscribers; cheapskates will stick with Spotify. The real test for Apple Music, then, will come in October, when listeners will be required to pay up. In the meantime, let the music play.