Apple Music and the leveraging of music by technology
Technology knows the value of music when it comes to selling their wares, but what it will take for music-makers to regain the same leverage?
Have we reached peak Apple Music coverage yet, readers? I think I got there by Thursday night. Every day of the week, a whole host of superb email newsletters stack up in my in-box including the Daily Digest, the Daily Chord, Record of the Day, Music Business Worldwide, MusicREDEF, MediaREDEF, NextDraft and a few others containing links to news stories, features, reports and analysis. There’s usually a fair amount of overlap between all of them – someday when I’m not spending time clicking on all those links, I’ll probably whittle the list down a little – so certain pieces get a lot of link love and you can quickly see what themes and topics are winning the news cycle.
Last week, then, was a slam-dunk for Apple Music, the launch of the service was covered absolutely everywhere. It was probably a good week to bury any bad entertainment news because everyone was concentrating on what Apple Music looked like, how it worked, the handful of acts you couldn’t find on the service, the music featured on Beats 1 and all the others bells and whistles. It was probably the same overkill when the CD player was launched, though changes in the media and technology landscape in the interim means that the overkill is much more pronounced now.
And yep, I’ve checked it out because I was curious like everyone else. It’s grand – the interface is clunky because I’ve become used to Spotify over the last while, most of the albums I wanted to hear were there and Beats 1 is a fascinating innovation, though one which will only really find its feet in a few months once the novelty factor ends (and we’ll be returning to Beats 1, I think, quite a lot in the coming months). It’s probably not the end of Apple Music’s plans and schemes as all such tech plays are constantly in a state of fluidity – indeed, live concert features may well be on the way – so there’ll be more news from these quarters to fill those newsletters.
Of course, we’ll also get feedback from musicians to be filed alongside those reviews and wows about what Cupertino are doing with their latest foray into music. Given that Spotify have taken the brunt of the digs and slaps over the last 18 months about royalties and dramatic drops in income and the death of the recording industry as it applies to artist’s income, will Apple Music also face the same level of wrath and anger over those issues? Or will a lot of the misinformation which held sway regarding streaming and who was paying what be finally put to bed? The great thing about technology, after all, is that you get clear, detailed, data-heavy spreadsheets which allow you to see who gets what and you can see how the system operates. The only question marks with those figures are the splits between publisher and record label with the artist and best of luck finding transparent clarity on those figures.
Once again, the huge interest around Apple Music demonstrates the massive power of music when it comes to leverage for technology companies. The late Steve Jobs realised this most famously when he originally wanted to flog iPods and introduced the iTunes store. He wasn’t alone, as many other tech players also saw how music could be used to push their tech products to varying degrees of success. The music industry took a while to cop on to what was happening and realise that this was more than just about getting a song on an advert. The fact that the labels played hard-to-get when Apple Music came calling is in marked contrast to how they rolled when Jobs came around with the iPod. The discovery of that muscle and the flexing of same is to be welcomed.
Yet for all that, there will be still be criticism about price and value. Many musicians will argue that the farm has been under-priced, especially given the long-line fall in physical sales and the inevitable decline in paid-for downloads as streaming takes centrestage. There will always be inevitable quibbles about royalties, but that’s more a question for the musicians to take up with the labels and legal advisors about the contracts they signed (contracts they signed with record labels and not streaming services, remember).
There is a much bigger question, though, and that’s to do with leverage and value. When others can see the benefits of using music to pimp and flog their products, there are some who will wonder if the music industry itself asleep at the wheel in this regard. On the one hand, all the signs are there that they know how to exert value. Big acts know how much to charge festivals and promoters for their services and increasingly, we’re seeing labels employing forensic accountants to uncover every scintilla of possible revenue from all sources.
But those are known values using existing assets and attributes – what about the unknowns? Is there a different way of putting a value on what music can do which the music industry is missing? Just as certain record labels own a share of Spotify, is there a case to be made for similar leverage to form part of any future deals? Obviously, this won’t apply to every music tech play – the vast majority of music tech plays are doomed to failure – but it could be worth considering for the more high-profile operations. Given the state of Apple’s balance sheet, there would probably be a decent upside to that ploy.
However, it’s also the case that it’s impossible to put a true value on the feel-good factor which occurs when you listen to and connect with an album or artist. That’s music’s secret sauce, the reason why we return time and time again to our music player or a live show. Tech has found a way of tapping that for its own ends. Musicians used to be able to do that too, but changes in the music-industrial complex landscape and infrastructure have scuppered that one in many ways. Time for the man or woman who knows a way to leverage that secret sauce for the good of the music-making classes to step up.