Taylor Swift may now be on board but will millions of listeners flock to join Apple Music this week? The evolution of digital tunes suggests a less than enthusiastic reception is ahead.
Apple Music launches June 30 for Apple iOS users with a three-month free trial. After that, the on-demand service will cost $9.99 per month, in line with most of the competition. It won't be available to Android owners until the fall, and there will be a free, ad-supported streaming option; again, like much of the competition.
Offering free and subscription options has become the norm, from Pandora to Spotify. Indeed, just ahead of Apple's relaunch, Google launched a free option on top of its $9.99 per month Google Play Music All Access option. If Google weren't so terrible at promoting its services, Apple might consider it a threat. That said, the streaming music of Google Play Music is reasonably sound, even if it has a jumbled up, shook up interface.
Clearly, streaming music has become dominant. iTunes sales are on the decline and even in cars, CD players are starting to disappear. But Apple's attempts to join the streaming masses have foundered. iTunes Radio, for example, suffered from two ailments: its initial streaming sound quality was terrible, and it was so uncool. The tracks and choices were worse than a classic rock station that plays “Smoke on the Water” five times a day. Buying Beats was a $3 billion bid to make Apple cool again (remember those 2010 iPod ads with the Cake soundtrack?). This week, we'll find out if it was worth it.
The other question mark for Apple's streaming service revolves around a feature that is supposed to be its biggest draw but could prove to be its Achilles heel: superstar DJs. Disc jockeys occupy a peculiar place in music fans' imaginations, playing tunes that speak to a particular sensibility, a particular audience. The idea of mass appeal is anathema to listeners looking for a voice that speaks just to them (there are a handful of exceptions to prove the rule -- Cousin Brucie, Wolfman Jack). Independent radio stations and their announcers even act as shorthand for character judgments (you listen to WFMU too!).
Hoping a DJ will appeal to millions of listeners and satisfy disparate musical tastes and cultural proclivities is probably overly optimistic. Apple is placing a lot on Zane Lowe, formerly of the BBC, who will be the main jock at the free Apple Beats 1 online station. Personalities can make a station, to be sure, but they're more likely to help in the talk radio space than in the music world.
There's already a model for this, of course: satellite radio. SiriusXM certainly got a boost with Howard Stern, but the music side is more mixed. What I like about it, I also hate. I love listening to a show hosted by a member of the B52's, for example, and not having it interrupted for an entire 200-mile road trip. On the other hand, it's generic and lacks the local radio charm of traveling through different jocks and musical styles.
It should also be noted that you can listen to your favorite local station online for free -- everybody's streaming -- which brings us to all the competition facing Apple: Rhapsody, Deezer, Soundcloud, rdio, Milk, Tidal, Slacker, just to name a few. Some of these are handicapped by their limited reach (Milk) or from their lack of direction (Tidal, once a funky audiophile service is now a showcase for top 40 stars). Rhapsody is the most mature for-pay service having been online for over a decade (with $4.99 and $9.99 plans), but its subscriber base is small --2.5 million.
The giant app lurking in the room -- at least in the U.S. -- is Pandora. It has an interesting status since it's available on nearly every platform from smartphones to home stereos to smart TVs to cars. Although notably, it's missing from Apple's new CarPlay app for automobiles.
Pandora has survived several near-death experiences for one reason: people love it. Yes, they may use another service as well, such as Spotify or iHeartRadio or TuneIn, but listeners seem to always come back to Pandora. It pays performers directly through SoundExchange (as do some others, like Google), so it can play nearly anything, just like an old-fashioned radio station.
No matter what you decide to listen to, though, musicians still face the same problem. Yes, Taylor Swift used her popularity to publicize the fact that working for free for Silicon Valley isn't working. But the deeper issue is even if Apple Music succeeds, it's not likely to save artists.
Remember how iTunes was going to save them all from illegal downloads and rescue the music business? But 99 cents a track turned out to be just another way to dig the disruption deeper. It commodified music, even when we all know that “Good Vibrations” or “Yesterday” is worth more than 10 other songs put together.
The freemium model -- offering services for free in the hopes you'll pay for more/better service -- has all but killed the recording industry (just as it has the news business). Back when AM and FM were the only games in town, radio play meant "promotion" and exposure for artists who could hope to prosper from boosted record sales (and songwriters got paid). The problem for artists today is that there's nothing to promote now -- no LPs, no 45's (remember singles?), no CD's. True, you can still purchase these items, assuming you can find a record store, but the kind of sales that once supported certain musicians in hotel-trashing lifestyles are no more.
The way for musicians to make a living nowadays is to sell tickets to live performances. Paying fractions of a cent to labels per 1,000 streams isn't likely to change that equation anytime soon.
John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.