Can Apple's new streaming service become music's Netflix?

If the madness of "free" doesn't kill Apple's new streaming plan, it could be good news for musicians

By Scott Timberg

Published June 8, 2015 9:55PM (EDT)

  (AP/Richard Drew)
(AP/Richard Drew)

After a lot of anticipation, Apple has announced some details of its new music-streaming service. It’s a sort of hybrid of the algorithm-driven plans we’ve seen in the past with the ghost of the old world. That is, actual human beings are involved:  Instead of having a record store clerk or weekly’s music critic – both endangered species at best – guide your song selections, the Apple service has celebrity DJs making some choices.

Apple will charge $10 a month for the service, and $15 for a family plan. Details, even after the announcement, are still scarce; Apple may still be negotiating with labels. Or maybe they are just being coy.

Here’s the New York Times:

“It isn’t just algorithms. It’s recommendations made by real people who love music,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of software and Internet services.

The new Apple Music service will be offered alongside an overhauled version of iTunes Radio, the Pandora-like radio service it introduced in 2013. The service will now include live stations that are curated by major names in the music industry, like Zane Lowe, the former BBC producer. Apple also introduced integration of social media elements, allowing users to like and comment on songs and artists.

Unlike a lot of the existing services, it doesn’t have a free tier, though there is a 90-day free trial. The vast majority of Spotify subscribers, for instance, pay nothing; this is part of the reason many musicians (most of whom are not allowed to opt out of the free dissemination of their music) despise Spotify. Despite the opposition of Taylor Swift, streaming in general works best for superstar, mass-market artists.

The lack of a free level is both the right thing to do – and could lead the Beats-inspired Apple service to become well-liked by musicians (and listeners who care about their welfare) despite their longtime frustration with Apple’s smugness and secrecy.

The lack of a free level makes it a better plan for musicians, but it could also make it tougher for Apple’s service to survive.

First, the ethical issue. “Music has value,” says Melvin Gibbs, the jazz and funk bassist who serves as president for Content Creators Coalition. “Letting that value be determined by digital advertisers instead of fans hasn't worked. The move away from the idea of zero value for human creativity is something we all should support.”

Blake Morgan, the New York musician who leads the #irespectmusic campaign, tells Salon, “My hope is that Apple is going to get it right where the others have gotten it wrong. First, they can follow a Netflix model and have no free tier — only a trial tier — for all the music they stream… I truly believe Apple has the power to do what’s right, and to demonstrate that doing right for the people who make music ends up translating to right being done for all.”

You’ll hear this kind of thing from a lot of musicians and those who advocate for them.

Just how corrosive is free? Ask any print journalist. When the Internet came to town, newspapers and magazines made the brilliant decision to give most of their coverage away for nothing. A handful of people – journalist and "Wire" creator David Simon perhaps most eloquently – advocated for paywalls, but it was probably too late, and the corporations that ran print publications concentrated on quarterly profits and golden parachutes for their executives. Tens of thousands of journalists and many shuttered publications paid the price.

“Free” kills just about everything. It destroys the possibility of a market. A story on Digital Music News has already argued that with all the free music on YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, and so on, an Apple service that tries to charge people doesn’t stand a chance.

Apple may be different, but not because its designers are surpassingly brilliant. New Apple phones will have its music service set up, so Apple has an advantage over the others. (In Sweden, Spotify has a deal with the Swedish phone company so people can pay for their music alongside their phone bill; this is one of the reasons for its dominance.) Apple may also offer ease of use and enough bells and whistles – including exclusive music -- to make it work.

Robert Levine, author of one of the key books on the Internet economy, ”Free Ride,” and a new Billboard cover story on Spotify, thinks the new service could be a big deal. He told Salon:

"I think Apple will give Spotify a run for its money because it has good relationships with the labels, a smart leader in Jimmy Iovine, and 800 million iTunes accounts that make it easy to buy music. And although streaming as a business model still has issues, this is great for labels, artists and everyone in the music business because Apple will provide competition and focus on paid subscriptions. A streaming business with one dominant player would be very dangerous for the music industry. This will create more competition -- to create a better product for consumers, to get exclusive content from musicians, to make better deals -- and that will benefit everyone."

There’s also some informed speculation that Apple has negotiated with the labels in a way that gives the record companies more money and will make them side with Apple over Spotify and Pandora. In other words, Apple could crush its competition and we’ll be back to one big player.

At this point, we’re still speculating on what it all means. Over the next few weeks or months we’ll find out whether Apple’s new service of a rare bit of good news for artists and songwriters or another sharp nail in the ability to make a living as a musician.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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