Erin Sidney wrote a polite indictment of Apple about their self-acclaimed DNA full of music. It is a must read if you’re interested in the consequences of cultural de-contextualisation from the perspective of creators. His article from 2015 touches several pain points which are worth exploring in detail.
His final pledge to expand iTunes LP into Apples artist network Connect is comprehensible even today:
But I like to imagine a world with deep-linked album credits — not just who engineered, produced and played on the record, but going much further. Allowing the artist to thank people and bands for their help, to call out charities that they find meaningful, and for the user to experience all of it beautifully.
These “living liner notes” could be supplemented by a time capsule of the period spent working on the album you’re listening to as documented by the artist themselves on Connect!
I can imagine artists adding information as it becomes relevant later.
You could build a whole user experience around liner notes deeply integrated into Apple Music and spur a whole new level of self-motivated music discovery. Human discovery by humans about humans.
A whole new generation of kids like us, opening up records, scouring them for details, seeking out connections only they could make, building a world that inspires them and all of us.
Apple has confirmed that as of March 2018 new iTunes LP submissions will no longer be accepted. If that means Apple will revamp context information for a mobile world or they finally gave up to care is up for speculation to this date.
Lest you think they couldn’t do this, please remember, Apple is the company that decided working with Google wasn’t in line with their core philosophy and so built a team to map the entire planet. They MAPPED THE FUCKING PLANET when they woke up one morning and decided to.
So there’s no way they can’t tackle this. But they need to want to.
I have no idea what’s stopping them or whether they plan to address this in a future update of Apple Music.
Do they need to want though? That is my main concern: if Apple had visionary leadership they knew why and how to address this lack of commitment for responsible music discovery – for the benefit of creators and listeners equally.
I think the chances of a return to the meaning of “music in our DNA” as a fruitful connection between humans are slim to none as the importance of integration of algorithm experts inside Apple grows and grows.
Mr. Schusser takes over as Apple Music is poised to surpass music-streaming rival Spotify Technology SA in the U.S. in paid subscribers. The music unit has become a key piece of Apple’s strategy to boost its services revenue to more than $40 billion by 2020, a critical part of the company’s future as people hold on to iPhones longer and device sales slow, analysts say.
This thrilling article on MBW reviewed Spotify’s Investor Day in March 2018. It became apparent that in demonizing labels as gatekeepers, Daniel Ek tries to camouflage his goal to become the last gatekeeper standing in the music business. Read what he said and compare to what it means:
The article says that Daniel Ek “doesn’t believe in gatekeepers – before laying down a thrilling, scene-stealing proclamation: ‘Our mission is to enable one million artists to live off their work.'” On the other hand Ek noted “that over 30% of consumption on Spotify is now a direct result of recommendations made by the platform’s own algorithms and curation teams – something he said ‘puts Spotify in control of the demand curve’.”
As Spotify excels at artist discovery for users, Daniel Ek feels “the need to nurture great talent is larger than ever before” as a platform. He continues to explain how this could be achieved: “We believe that great music and artists in the future will come from specialised talent incubators like the labels of the past – [which] brings opportunities for the next Berry Gordy, Rick Rubin or Ahmet Ertegun.” Yet it was also clear that Ek believes labels are gradually being forced to relinquish their ‘gatekeeper’ responsibilities.
I’ll come back to how Ek likes to see nurturing great talent when he speaks of “specialised talent incubators”.
Ek’s vision of a profitable business model
It is important to note, that his current business model differs a lot from his vision: “On Spotify, there will be more creators – and the number of creators that matter will also increase.”
To make the growing “material success of the top tier creators” happen – like Daniel Ek is telling his investors – at the same time as finally becoming profitbale, he has to pave a way for cutting costs.
Ben Thompson explained that for Spotify to become profitable it has to lower their marginal costs significantly and one way to achieve that would be to get rid of the labels.
Spotify could one day cut out the labels altogether — the idea certainly makes sense on a conceptual level. Spotify is in one sense an aggregator, in that it increasingly controls access to music listeners, and to the company’s credit, it has demonstrated the ability to exercise power via its control of music discovery and popular playlists.
The cited MBW article is ironically accompanied by banner ads for AWAL (artists without a label) that wants to allure independent artists. This is one of the “specialised talent incubators” Ek is talking about. “For too long, artists have had to go through the traditional gatekeepers to make a living from music. But now, a revolution for independence has begun. Join the movement.” So they say. But there is more: “We don’t accept everyone, so here’s what we look for in an AWAL member.” The digital distribution service elaborates in 5 paragraphs (this is no joke):
1. Strong Creative Quality
“Our seasoned A&R team searches for originality and the potential in an applicant’s music.”
2. Positive Engagements from Fans
“The ideal AWAL candidate should already have somewhat of an engaged fan base.”
3. Positive Engagement from the Media
“Our A&R team looks to evaluate candidates based on their reception in the media. Are you able to capture the attention of press and music blogs?”
4. Other Members on the Team
“Manager, Live Agent, PR/Publicist, Radio or club promotions company, Music Publisher, Lawyer. It’s not required for artists to have all these relationships to get accepted. However, in some instances we use the existence of these partnerships to gauge the potential an artist has to take their career to the highest point possible.”
5. Commitment to Your Brand
“We look to align ourselves with artists who are imbued with a certain level of professionalism. We specifically look for clear evidence of a well thought out marketing plan.”
This sounds awefully like AWAL wants to be a label without any chore or responsibility. When music labels are investors of artists they believe in, then “specialised talent incubators” like AWAL are merely selectors of already well known artists. A service like AWAL does not invest much in artists, so they can afford a lesser share from streaming platforms like Spotify, thus helping Spotify to lower their marginal costs. AWAL is not in any way a part of any music culture. Culture – a term that is not to be found in a meaningful way or simply as a word on their website.
It is not exactly groundbreaking analysis to note that Spotify has significant marginal costs — specifically, the royalties it pays the music industry (not just record labels but also songwriters and publishers). Spotify’s margins are completely at the mercy of the record labels, and even after the rate change, the company is not just unprofitable, its losses are growing.
The culture clash
Spotify’s freemium strategy completely changed the way of how people expect to be granted access to music: Everything got to be free at first and just to avoid inconvenient experiences like ads between songs people eventually change their behaviour to a paid flat rate account.
With artificial intelligence powered desire fulfilment Spotify raised the bar of the user experience even further: their playlist game seems to go very well with peoples’ needs as users continiously feed the machine what songs they like and when they skip. Spotify is about to become the ultimative gatekeeper of everyone’s listening demand for music.
At the same time Spotify succesfully de-contextualised the traditional way artists and labels previously connected to their fans: Formats like EPs and albums are losing their importance in favor to tactical placed playlists on the platform.
Now Spotify and the non-label “talent incubators” are outsourcing significant economic and cultural investment back to artists and even have the audacity to claim of “nurturing artists” – simply to make their own business work.
This neoliberal approach has serious consequences though. To become profitable Spotify requires an infrastructure of digital artist gatekeepers like AWAL just because they demand a lower cut from Spotify. These services however rely on artists who already became well known, are already well received by the media, are proven self marketers and ideally have a team of professionals in different trades to their support.
Who will these artists be? Who can afford to have a “team” of professionals around them to have the slightest chance of making it as a “top tier” earner on Spotify or elsewhere? What kind of music will pass through these gatekeepers? Will anyone make music that is new and innovative when gatekeepers looking for the popular formula?
Spotify and digital gatekeepers are basically supporting irresponsible artist self-exploitation to reach the acceptance level of being meaningful distributed at all. Or they are systematically nurturing rich kids’ music, simply because they have the headstart and can afford it.
Jimmy Iovine’s role at Apple Music became seemingly redundant because he held onto his vision to present and curate music from humans for humans in an age of rising capabilities of artificial intelligence and thus effective algorithms. In my opinion the final nail in the coffin was the aquisition of Shazam by Apple at the end of 2017. Apple may be felt left behind in the area of AI and Shazam can make articial intelligence products and services like HomePod in combination with Apple Music much smarter than before. It also means that human expert music curation is visible on Beats 1 Radio only.
Let’s look at Eddy Cue (Apple Senior Vice President who oversees Apple Music) in 2014 when he explained the Beats deal:
Eddy Cue cited three major reasons for the aquisition of Beats back then:
people: incredible talent of Jimmy Iovine, Dr Dre & team
product: incredible headphones
service: beats music – first subscripition service done right due expert curation
Mr. Iovine is one of the last of a team of prominent music executives Apple gained when it bought Beats Electronics LLC in 2014 for $3 billion. Former Chief Executive Ian Rogers, Beats co-founder Dr. Dre and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, another top Beats executive, have all left or distanced themselves from the company since the Apple deal, people familiar with the business said. Beats President Luke Wood, who oversees the headphones business, remains.
The headline of the article is subtle as a sledgehammer: “Jimmy Iovine’s Planned Exit From Apple Music Raises Leadership Questions”.
Dylan Byers: Let’s talk what was formerly the core product of Apple which is music. Spotify is going public. Do you wish that you had sort of nip Spotify in the bud several years ago? I mean they do have a crazy subscriber base I think it’s double what you guys have at Apple music?
Eddy Cue: Look we have 38 million subscribers and we don’t talk about our trials and these are people that given us their payment method, estimated we have 8 million trials I don’t know how quite what the numbers were, that is really not that important.
Dylan Byers: What is important?
Eddy Cue: When you look of the numbers of subscribers that Spotify and us have together and you look at the number of people that are listening to music around the world or even something as simple as the number of people that come to visit our App store every week, we have half a billion people that are visiting the App store every week and now you are talking about just north of 100 million music subs – we’re like THIS big in the scheme of things. So the real opportunity for music and it’s not about Spotify or us or the labels it’s about artists, is how they get their music to everyone around the world and how they get compensated for that. That is what we’re trying to do. We both have to grow by significant amounts in order to get the numbers in which it should.
Eddy Cue didn’t even blink at “formerly the core product” of Apple, says numbers aren’t important but then again are, didn’t explain how Apple is supporting artists in any way better than Spotify let alone how to grow subscriber numbers.
The number one reason why Apple Music is adopted well in the United States is not because of a subscription service done right (formerly known as Beats) but rather it comes pre-installed (WSJ):
Apple’s music business has been gaining momentum and is poised to overtake rival Spotify Technology SA this year in U.S. paid subscribers. That is mostly because of Apple Music’s reach across many of Apple’s 1.3 billion devices world-wide—on which its app is included by default—rather than the exclusive content agreements delivered through Mr. Iovine’s close relationships with artists, according to music-industry executives.
So if it is not the superior user experience of Apple Music that will win people over, what is it? And who at Apple has the vision “to grow by significant numbers”? Jimmy Iovine’s job at Apple Music is vacant (WSJ):
Mr. Cue now will have to determine whether to continue dividing responsibilities between Messrs. Kondrk and Robbin, elevate one to a more public role, or look externally for someone with music-industry ties to assist with artist relationships.
It is really worth watching how many hopes Eddy Cue had in 2014 at the Recode Conference about the aquisition of Beats. He lost the team, he still has the headphones (which are overshadowed by Apple’s HomePod and AirPods), he has a music subscription service that turned from human curation to integrating Shazam’s AI capabilities. There is simply no place anymore for the Defiant Ones at Apple (produced by HBO and not Apple’s video division).
It is also worth reading what Trent Reznor said, one of the championed cultural gatekeepers that Jimmy Iovine tried to introduce to Apple in line with the Beats deal:
For a couple of years, it’s been full time at Apple immersing myself in this extremely interesting stuff, and doing that has helped me realize how much I appreciate being an artist and how valuable time is.
Bob Lefsetz had an eureka moment: we’re at The End Of Virality. To do something the hard way to get it right means a commitment for the long run. You can’t fake cultural impact.
In music, what appears like virality, is oftentimes an after the fact clean-up victory lap. What this means is your ascension will be slower than ever before. Instant success is nearly impossible. And if it happens too fast, for whatever reason, you’ll fall back to earth almost quite as fast.
So there was a monoculture. That was what MTV in the last part of this century was all about. You get on the service and everybody knows your name.
Then the internet killed that and the key was to get everybody on the internet talking about something. And that worked for a while.
But now, just like we no longer send jokes to each other in e-mail, we don’t forward cute videos or any of that crap, and if we do post them on our Facebook page most people ignore them, because they’re being dunned to pay attention all day long and they just ain’t got that much time.
You’ve got to do the hard work and appeal to a core which sustains you. The rest is nearly unachievable and is gravy at best.
Spotify is in one sense an aggregator, in that it increasingly controls access to music listeners, and to the company’s credit, it has demonstrated the ability to exercise power via its control of music discovery and popular playlists.
Being a true aggregator, though, means gaining power over supply; Spotify doesn’t have that — the company doesn’t even have control over its marginal costs — and it’s hard to see where the profits come from.
There is one more possibility: Spotify could one day cut out the labels altogether — the idea certainly makes sense on a conceptual level.
The marginal costs Thompson is referring to are the royalties it pays the music industry (not just record labels but also songwriters and publishers).
For Thompson, the promising inevitability to make “Everything as a service” is based on the idea of a new service-based economy that deprioritizes ownership in favor of renting what you need when you need it. He cites sharing services in industries like software, cars, homes and music as examples. As long as consumers frictionless discover these services, access them in a low-threshold way and start using them as ubiquitous commodities it should all be fine and dandy. Spotify as a music streaming service does meet all these consumer friendly criteria on the surface. Below that it is a bloody mess of fake charts, major labels as stakeholders infight, black market for playlists and lawsuits for not paying fair royalties.
Let’s recap: Lower marginal costs can only be achieved by cutting out the labels. Cultural decontextualisation of music is not a problem but a requirement for Spotify to overcome the missing profit potential. Cutting out labels means getting rid of a huge part of marginal costs but also of the cultural bottle neck so everybody can upload music. This inevitably creates a bubble where music and music making gets devaluated even more.
Bandcamp has a vision and a strategy about a fair, sustainable music economy and music makers and listeners are appreciating it with undamped force. With Bandcamp it is very possible to be a responsible fan in the age of streaming. Pairing an “pay upfront, stream forever” business with relevant cultural context in a mobile world and to be profitable since 2012 seems not only possible but rather interdependent.
The annually Bandcamp review is a manifest of self-confidence to do the right thing with the right attitude against the backdrop of mainstream-algorithm-dispair.
The recent 2017 Review is very worth reading and comes in three parts:
Bandcamp factors of success
2017 was another stellar year for Bandcamp, with double digit growth in every aspect of the business. Digital album sales were up 16%, tracks 33%, and merch 36%. Growth in physical sales was led by vinyl (up 54%), CDs (up 18%), and cassettes (up 41%). Revenue from the 3,500 independent labels on Bandcamp grew 73%, and more than 600,000 artists have now sold something through the site. Our publication, Bandcamp Daily, grew its audience by 84%, and all-time payments to artists through Bandcamp reached $270 million. We launched a new app for artists and labels, added gift cards, improved fan collections, held successful fundraisers for the ACLU and TLC, and we’ll soon mark six straight years as a profitable company that only makes money when artists make a lot more money.
Flak for the mainstream streaming companies
As we said last year, allowing the distribution of an entire art form to be controlled by so few has troubling implications, and those continued to play out in 2017. The streaming giants exert tremendous influence over what music gets heard, and must primarily serve their most important supplier, the major labels. The result is that independent labels, and especially independent artists, are far less likely to be discovered on those platforms. 99% of all streaming is of the top 10% most-streamed tracks, and given the majors’ control over the music that is promoted on streaming services (documented in the must-read piece “The Secret Lives of Playlists”), listening hours are likely to become even more concentrated at the top.
Commitment to stay the course
We want a music platform to exist where the playing field is level, where artists are compensated fairly and transparently, and where fans can both stream and own their music collections. The fact that this simple concept continues to resonate with so many talented artists and hard core fans inspires us every single day, and in 2018 we’ll be working hard to bring it to an even bigger audience.
Apple’s Homepod can’t play stereo but John Gruber pointed to an audiophile review nevertheless. The importance of stereo field seems nowadays a matter of hairsplitting. Forbes writes:
It does pay attention to the distinct left and right channels of a stereo track and uses them as part of the sound it creates. I suspect Apple doesn’t refer to it as stereo partly because audiophiles have strong opinions about what qualifies as stereo in terms of separation of speakers, whether they’re two independent speakers and so on. And perhaps because it feels that it’s irrelevant to most listeners, that when they hear HomePod they’ll feel such distinctions are academic.
The last laugh on the matter comes from Mac indie software developer Rogue Amoeba:
You also may have heard about the new AirPlay 2 protocol Apple announced last June. It’s currently delayed, and we’re awaiting more details from Apple. It is worth noting that one of AirPlay 2’s announced features, the ability to play audio to multiple devices in sync, is already possible today using Airfoil.
That is right, you need 3rd party software to listen to your favourite music in stereo on the Homepod on product introduction. Hashtag #applelovesmusic.