Apple Music, Spotify Killer?

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There are two important takeaways from today’s keynote address at WWDC 2015: Apple’s massive, $3 billion acquisition of Beats finally makes sense, and Spotify is in trouble.

Most of the announcements that Apple made at the software developer’s conference in San Francisco were iterative improvements to existing Apple products. Operating systems were refreshed, and the Apple Watch got some new features. It was the usual customer retention stuff, what most companies announce via press release. But Apple has somehow turned it into a global media event.

The real news from WWDC, however, is Apple Music, a music streaming service that could put Apple back on top of the digital music food chain. It’s easy to forget the extent to which iTunes transformed music — not just the recording industry, but how we buy and listen to music. When the iTunes Music Store launched in 2003, the world of digital music was still a wild west frontier town, filled with illegal peer-to-peer services. But within a few years, legitimate digital downloads were outnumbering CD sales, and by 2010, Apple had sold 10 billion songs.

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Then came Spotify, in 2011, and immediately the music streaming market shifted. Apple joined the party in 2013, with iTunes Radio. But because the service wouldn’t allow you to stream specific songs, it was hardly a competitor. Spotify continued to own the current streaming era of music consumption.

But despite its dominance, Spotify has plenty of room for improvement. The service’s user interface is a mess, with too many panes to swipe through, and no intelligence applied to search results. For example, an artist’s list of “Singles” aren’t a shortcut to the musician or band’s most well-known hits, but an inscrutable selection of single releases that happen to be on Spotify. So U2’s singles section doesn’t include “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” or “Angel of Harlem,” but it does feature “Window In The Skies.” Deep cuts are an important part of any music service, but should they take up so much valuable real estate, and be filed under such a misleading label?

Spotify is also lacking in its recommendations. Apart from displaying new releases and popular user-generated playlists, the only music discovery that the service offers is the Radio function. Similar to Pandora and iTunes Radio, you pick a song or artist, and Spotify tries to stream similar music. It’s hard to pin down why the resulting “stations” are so scattershot, but they don’t seem to take into account the other artists and songs you’ve shown interest in, and lesser-known services like Rdio are consistently better at analyzing your preferences and predicting which songs you might like. Most of the holes in Spotify’s armor are related to its interface, and its recommendations.

The bad news for Spotify: Interface and recommendations are what Apple Music does best.

Based on Apple’s detailed presentation at WWDC, the new service looks clean and uncluttered, with a more thoughtful approach to how you search for music. While Spotify’s active music discovery is limited to its radio stations, Apple Music has a For You section that gathers suggested songs, playlists, albums, and artists into one place. Some of these recommendations come from what appears to be the same preference-collecting interface featured in Beats Music. That makes sense, given that Apple has owned Beats since 2014, and music discovery was the best thing about Beats Music. But those recommendations are also apparently generated or at least approved by Apple employees. “It isn’t just algorithms. It’s recommendations based on real people, who like music,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of internet software and services, during the presentation. “It’s all human-curated.”

What, exactly, does that mean? It’s too early to tell who these curators are, or how much control they have over the content that shows up in the service. But Apple is doing something almost unprecedented within Silicon Valley — it’s stepping away from pure automation, and presenting direct, human input as a selling point.

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It’s also too early to tell if the For You content actually “gets” you, though the fact that it seems to incorporate the Beats Music approach to discovery and recommendations is promising. That service was already ahead of Spotify in that regard. Couple that with Apple’s brand recognition and user interface expertise, and Apple Music’s $10-per-month subscription fee, the real question is: Why would anyone keep using Spotify?

Initially, that question only applies to iOS users. When Apple Music launches on June 30, it won’t be available for Android devices. But once Apple Music for Android shows up in the fall, Spotify might have trouble holding on. In addition to a sleeker interface and the same wide selection of on-demand music (you can stream anything on iTunes, meaning just about everything), Apple Music has a section called Connect, where you can watch or listen to free songs or videos from a given artist, such as live performances or behind-the-scenes footage. Some of this material is bound to be awful, and just as easily accessed via YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr. But it could be appealing to superfans. And while Apple might wind up being just as reviled by musicians as Spotify — streaming still doesn’t pay as well as paid downloads — Apple could generate some good will within the music industry, by giving artists another channel to promote themselves.

Finally, Apple Music has its own live, round-the-clock global internet radio station, called Beats 1. Apple was very excited about this, and put Drake on stage to expound on its virtues. Because the station’s music will be based entirely on whatever DJ is on at the moment, only time will tell if this is a marketing stunt, a tangible benefit, or a little of both. It’s unique among streaming services, though, and another sign that Apple is banking on humans to recover what Spotify’s algorithms took away.

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