Apple has finally jumped into the music streaming race, unveiling Apple Music at WWDC this afternoon. The company revolutionized digital music with the iPod and iTunes, but is now playing catch up, trying to align itself with the current era of subscription offerings. "We’ve had a long relationship with music," said Apple CEO Tim Cook. "And music has had a rich history of change, some of which we’ve played a part in."
Apple Music will bring combine music downloads, streaming radio, and a streaming music service into a single app. Like most digital services, it promises to learn your tastes and recommend great new songs accordingly.
The service will cost $9.99 a month, or $14.99 for a family plan of up to six individuals, with a three-month free trial. By contrast, Spotify offers a two-person subscription package for $14.99. Apple says its new music service will be available June 30th, with Android coming in the fall. Apple had hoped to shake things up by offering a tier priced between $5 and $8, but unfortunately couldn’t get the music industry on board. The end result is a product that has little to differentiate it from what is already in the market in terms of price and selection. The 30 million tracks on Apple Music are also going to be found on Spotify or Rdio. Apple is hoping features and exclusive content will be enough.
Apple has rebuilt iTunes Radio and reportedly staffed it with big-name artists like Dr. Dre, will.i.am, Pharrell, and Drake acting as DJs. It is also bringing on experienced talent like BBC’s Zane Lowe to help curate stations. Jimmy Iovine, who has been heading up Apple’s renewed push into music, reportedly tried to sign other big names like Kanye West and Beyoncé to exclusive deals, but lost out to Tidal, a rival service recently launched by Jay Z and a consortium of high-profile musicians.
The first station is called BeatsOne and will be available in 100 countries. It's going to be playing tunes around the clock and will be anchored by three DJs: Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden, and Julie Adenuga. Subscribers can skip as many tracks as they like. Apple's Eddie Cue says that the music it recommends to you "isn't just algorithms, it's recommendations made by our team of experts." This is pretty much the same pitch that Beats made when it launched.
Apple also showed off a feature called Connect that lets artists upload music, photos, and messages which are shared with their fans. It's basically a blog fans can subscribe to, then comment and like individual posts. This is similar to the exclusive behind-the-scenes material that Tidal has been sharing from its cadre of artists.
Drake came onstage to show off Connect. He said as a child he wondered if he or anyone from Canada could make it big in the world of rap. Luckily technology was there to help. "The dream of being a new artist like myself five years ago and connecting directly with an audience has never been more close or reachable." He will be releasing his next album, obviously, on Connect.
There is some cool Siri integration. You can ask it to play a particular artist or track. You can also give it a more general query, like "play the top track from the summer of 1982," or whatever year you happened to have graduated from high school.
The big question is whether Apple needs to differentiate to succeed. It is entering a market dominated by Spotify, which has racked up over 60 million users, with 15 million paid subscribers. Spotify has had the run of the land since it came to the US from Europe in 2011, but with over 800 million credit cards on file, Apple has a chance to quickly assemble a large user base and give Spotify its first true challenger. If it can get people who purchase a new Apple device to sign up for a free trial, it may end up bringing a large number of new users into the streaming music market that up until this point were not convinced to give a paid service a try.
"Apple is arriving late to the music streaming business, due in part to Steve Jobs' refusal to believe that music subscription services would ever work," says Forrester analyst James McQuivey. "But the writing is on the wall: digital downloads don't make sense for consumers that are connected wherever they go."
The pitch repeated during the event was about simplicity and unity. "Apple Music is really going to move the needle for fans and artists," said Jimmy Iovine, the record executive and founder of Beats who is now helping to lead Apple's charge into music. "Online music has become a complicated mess of apps, services, and websites. Apple Music brings the best features together for an experience every music lover will appreciate."