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Apple Music launched on June 30. Apple is the latest — and by far the biggest, with a $700 billion valuation — competitor to step into the streaming music arena.

It’s also the loudest; even Tidal’s bizarre, star-studded launch failed to attract anything like the press Apple Music has received over the past month.

At its most essential, Apple Music is a blend of iTunes and Beats Music. Beats is the hardware and streaming music company, founded by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, that Apple acquired for $3 billion last year. So what makes Apple Music different from Spotify?

Not much. One glance at the graphic below, provided by The Verge, shows that the streaming services have nearly everything in common:

Image Source: The Verge

Apple is making three big bets.

  • Building a paid-only service, not allowing a free tier
  • Building music discovery around human curation, not algorithms
  • Building the social network around artists, not friends

Each bet is designed to win over consumers or to win over artists. And that’s what’s most interesting about Apple Music — Apple is playing very nicely with artists. In the long run, this may come to define Apple Music, but for now, it’s a dream that’s so far unfulfilled.

The first bet is a nod to artists like Taylor Swift, who vehemently oppose free tiers like Spotify’s. In broad strokes, artists hate Spotify’s free tier because it treats music as if it should be free (it devalues music) and because artists are paid as a percentage of revenue, not per-stream. Paid subscribers earn a lot more revenue for the business than free subscribers, and that translates to a lot more revenue for artists, too.

The economics of streaming is a complicated topic, and I’ll be writing all about it in an upcoming article on CareersInMusic. For this article, I’ll focus on Apple Music’s two other big bets.

The second bet has so far been trumpeted as Apple’s biggest feature for consumers. At the behest of Jimmy Iovine, Apple Music has marketed itself as focused on human curation above all else. It’s a direct contrast to Spotify, who relies heavily on algorithmic curation.

The third bet is more subtle, but is the most important and interesting part of Apple Music’s service. It’s their new social network, Connect, which is billed as a one-stop solution for artists to connect with fans and build their audience right on top of the streaming service.

Apple Music dwarfs Spotify in size and clout, but Spotify has nearly a decade’s lead in the streaming space. Which company has the advantage — and how does this affect artists?

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Big Bet 1: Music Discovery

The biggest companies in the world struggle each day to surface content you want to see from the vast reservoirs of existing information. Google has invested billions of dollars in its search algorithm, designed to bring you the best 10 results for anything you care to search. Facebook has invested a similar amount in their News Feed algorithm to surface the posts from your friends and connections that you’re most likely to engage with.

Any industry with millions of pieces of content and a single person at the other end of the search box will struggle with the problem of surfacing the right content to the right person at the right time. Music is no different: each streaming service (with the exception of Prime Music) has 30 million or more songs.

No one could possibly listen to this much music in their lifetime, and the number of available songs only continues to grow. How can streaming services possibly help you find music that you want to hear?

Apple and Spotify have tackled this problem from opposite ends. Spotify placed its bet on algorithmic curation when it acquired the Echo Nest at a valuation of $100m. But Apple is betting on human curation.

In fact, judging by the amount of times Jimmy Iovine has declared the superiority of human curation, and their investment of $3 billion into Beats — a service dedicated to human curation as its value proposition — and that Apple Music employs hundreds of music editors to build music playlists, Apple is betting big.

Apple focuses so hard on curation because music discovery is uniquely suited to a human touch. There aren’t so many new songs published each day that a team of human editors will find it impossible to listen to a meaningful portion of them. On the other end of the stream, music listeners care about taste, have a finite number of songs they’ll take a chance on, and good music is so widely appreciated that personalization plays only a minimal role. Music fans are willing to listen to someone with taste who says “You’re gonna like this.”

Music discovery can be served with an algorithm, but algorithms have limitations. One reason Apple focuses so hard on human curation is a limitation called the filter bubble. When algorithms use information about what you already like to surface similar information or songs, you get homogenized results. That’s why a 90’s Pandora station will nearly never play a surprising song.

When Facebook tested their News Feed algorithm for the filter bubble effect, they found that people, due to choice of friends and choice of what to click on, see more posts from their own political affiliation and a reduction in posts from the opposite political affiliation.

In music, the filter bubble means you lose the chance for serendipity, for a wonderful song to take you by surprise. Human curation surfaces and suggests music that an algorithm won’t.

Apple Music is clearly better, right? Not so fast.

The problem is that Spotify isn’t totally algorithmic. They use human curation, too. They use an Echo Nest invention called Truffle Pig to help surface tracks that their human editors can then curate into playlists.

Earlier this year they rolled out new features like matching songs to your running pace, and heavier human curation. As early as 2013, Spotify offered human-curated playlists and has only continued to expand it. Even Spotify’s primary method of algorithmic curation is decidedly human — Spotify uses collaborative filtering, which finds other users who listen to music like you, then suggest music they listen to but you don’t.

Finally, one of the best parts of Spotify is the social network built around friends, experts, and artists. Spotify already has some of the best user playlists out there, and it also features playlists curated by music experts like Filter Magazine and Pitchfork.

Jimmy Iovine is openly contemptuous of algorithms…
“The only song that matters as much as the song you’re listening to right now is the one that follows this. Picture this: you’re in a special moment…and the next song comes on…BZZZZZ Buzzkill! It probably happened because it was programmed by an algorithm alone. Algorithms alone can’t do that emotional task. You need a human touch. And that’s why at Apple Music we’re going to give you the right song [and] the right playlist at the right moment all on demand

 . . . which is why it’s even more surprising is how heavily reliant Apple Music is on algorithmic curation. The For You tab appears almost entirely surfaced by algorithms, and most of the radio stations are reminiscent of Spotify’s identical radio feature. In fact, outside of some human-curated playlists, most of the Apple Music service is driven by algorithms.”

Apple has focused on human curation as a primary selling point, but unfortunately for Apple, Spotify is far ahead. In the future, look for both services to focus on a blend of human and algorithmic curation.

For now, curation is a big selling point for Apple, but it doesn’t mean much for the artist.

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Big Bet 2: The Social Network

In 2010, I joined a new social network called Ping. It was built to connect fans with each other and with their favorite artists — like the old Myspace days, before Facebook ate them. But only a few artists ever participated, and since you had to manually find friends, most people never joined.

The artists who did participate would just send out non-exclusive, sterile, boring content that must have been triple-checked by their PR team. It didn’t take long for me, and everyone else, to abandon it. By 2012, the service had been shut down entirely.

Ping was Apple’s first attempt at a music social network within iTunes, and Connect is their second shot. This time, it might actually work.

Connect doesn’t care about your friends anymore. Instead, it’s only about fans and artists. Fans can follow your updates, listen to your curated playlists, comment on your songs and uploads, and stay engaged right in the same place where they stream your music. And Apple has billed Connect as the next generation of artist platforms: a place where you can manage your artistic career from a single dashboard, where raving fans come together every day to interact with you and listen to your music.

I’m excited about Connect. If it can deliver on most of its promises, then it’s possible that artists can begin their day working on a rough demo in Logic (made by Apple), upload it to Apple Music, engage with fans for an hour, look through audience analytics, sell some merchandise and tour tickets, and then have breakfast. Unfortunately, Connect has definitively failed on its promises so far.

Turns out we actually want our social networks to be as, well, social as possible. Facebook has the network effect. More than a billion people are there, including most of any given artist’s fans. Twitter is important for visibility and immediacy; Instagram for its visual impact. Maybe you’re an artist with the resources to hire a social media staff and maintain a presence outside those three services, but it’s strictly optional.

What exactly does Apple Music’s social element, Connect, bring to the party? By way of explanation, Cue showed us a video of the band Bastille recording a new song. Great! Now tell us why they won’t just post that on YouTube and cut out the middleman. Source: Mashable

“I don’t think it’s even fair to judge Connect based on the sweeping, hyperbolic rhetoric Apple used to describe it in its rollout. It simply isn’t what Apple described it as. This isn’t a way for artists to connect with fans, unless those fans somehow don’t know how to use Facebook, Instagram, SoundCloud, or a Web browser.

And Connect can’t even be compared to tools that do take advantage of the Web and social media. It’s simply technically a different animal.” Source: Create Digital Music

But the worst offense of all is this: I can see no way to invite people to follow us on Connect. I can share the link. I can even tweet about it. Yet there’s no way to know how many followers we have, encourage people to follow us, or directly engage with anyone who hasn’t already purchased a song from us on iTunes. That feels broken. Somehow people were able to comment, which is great, but it makes me sad that I feel no sense of . . . well, connection. And I really, really want that connection.Source: Better Elevation

For fans and for artists, Connect is off to a rocky start. But the main benefit of Connect isn’t to supplant Facebook and Instagram and YouTube. It’s much less like the Ping of old, and much more like Spotify for Artists. What is less clear is how Apple Music will provide a better service.

Spotify for Artists already lets your followers see what you’re listening to and follow your playlists. You can’t update them with photos and rough cuts, but that’s what Instagram and YouTube are for. Spotify is trying to fit in with the rest of your social networks, not compete with them.

But Spotify for Artists (and in the future, Connect) is about more than just engaging with fans. I’ve written in the past that streaming serves more as a promotion for touring and merchandise than as a revenue generator on its own. That’s why it’s so useful that Spotify integrates SongKick so people can see when you’ll be in their city and buy your tickets, and lets you list your merch so fans can buy your products directly from your Spotify page.

I expect these two features to come to Apple Music fairly quickly.

Until that happens, Apple Music is just another minor social network. It’s still early, but so far the reception to Connect has been lukewarm. As an artist, the truly interesting possibilities of Connect still lay far in the future.

Big Bet 3: War

Apple may not be able to win on quality of product, but can it squeeze Spotify with its raw influence in the music industry? Apple has already been trying.

It’s attempted to pressure the labels to undercut Spotify and YouTube. This caused the Department of Justice to investigate the company. But the labels already have favorable terms by putting pressure on Spotify. The labels lose when there is only one buyer in the market (like Apple in the old iTunes days). When there are multiple competitors, then the labels get to dictate terms, not Apple. So the labels aren’t giving in to Apple.

Then, Spotify went and raised a $500m war chest. And their premium subscriptions doubled from 10m to 20m in the last year and only continues to accelerate. Apple won’t be able to out-spend or put pressure on the labels to oust Spotify.

The only thing that can give Apple an unfair advantage would be getting exclusives from artists like Taylor Swift. Dozens of artists have denounced Spotify for their free tier, and many of them would likely love to jump ship from Spotify. But most of these artists are under label agreements, so the labels decide where the music goes — not them.

Even Tidal doesn’t get much in the way of exclusives; its own stars and stakeholders have their music on Spotify. Since the power is in the hands of the labels, not the artists, it’s unlikely Apple will get many exclusives.

So it’s a straight fight on who is the better service. My money, at least, is on Spotify.

What Does This Mean for Artists?

Apple Music will make waves in the streaming industry. It’s the biggest company in the world, and music is in its DNA. But for artists, Apple Music is nothing new — not yet.

Apple Music has real ambition. With Connect, Apple wants to be more than a streaming service. With Logic Pro, Apple wants to be for more than just amateurs. It’s completely possible that Apple’s ultimate ambition is to rival the labels — to make it the norm for an artist to write music in Logic, publish it on Apple Music, interact with fans through Connect, and perhaps eventually sell merchandise and make touring revenues through the service as well.

Hopefully, they’ll provide artist analytics so you can better understand your listeners. Apple Music may become a platform you build your entire music business on top of.

But not yet.

For now, Apple Music is just another streaming service. If you make a decent living as a niche artist and you’re staying away from streaming services, stay away from this one, too. If your music is already up on Spotify, put it up on Apple Music, too. So far, nothing has changed.

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