Apple needs to dramatically rethink streaming music. It should start by reinventing the "music library."
Techcrunch reported yesterday that Apple is looking to phase out its streaming service Beats Music, which it acquired along with the rest of the Beats Electronics team last year for $3 billion. And while Apple denied the reports, sources told Re/Code that the company may alter the service, starting with getting rid of the Beats Music brand.
While the total number of Beats Music subscribers is unclear, leaked documents show that as of last March it only had 111,000 users, and many of those were likely free trial users onboarded through a partnership with AT&T. The service was reportedly only paying $0.000126 per play, which is far lower than the estimated $0.006 royalty Spotify pays for each paid subscriber stream. And while it appeared that Apple was ramping up its promotion of Beats Music post-acquisition, giving it prominent placement in the App Store, Techcrunch's Josh Constine noted that the app does not even come pre-loaded on the new iPhones.
And yet, Apple's emphatic denial of any shutdown is a sign that the company is still committed to competing in the streaming music wars against both startups like Spotify and Rdio, and fellow mega-corporations like Google and Amazon. Between Apple's considerable marketing muscle and the fact that streaming music is not yet a sustainable business model on its own, it makes sense for the company, which can afford the category's still-terrible margins, to go big with a subscription on-demand service.
But how can Apple, known for digital downloads – which are declining as quickly as CDs did a decade ago – become a viable competitor in the subscription streaming space?
It may take a drastic rethinking of the nature of these services, and a good place to start is by bringing the focus back to the music library.
As the U2 disaster proved, people still care about the sanctity of their music library. Anyone who came of age during the iPod's glory days, before the iPhone stole its thunder, remembers the joy of checking out a new friend's (or lover's) iPod library. It was a unique window into the soul of the music listener that's been largely lost with the advent of streaming services.
Sure, Spotify users have music libraries containing playlists and full albums that are saved for offline listening. But the feature is hardly prioritized within the app, it's a pain from a UX perspective to create these playlists, and there's no incentive to carefully curate these lists the way listeners did on their iPods, tied as they were to storage limitations. My Spotify "library" is merely a string of random albums I've added and made available offline before hopping on the subway. It's no longer an accurate reflection of my listening priorities in a storage-constrained world.
(As one reader pointed out in the comments, Spotify recently launched a "Your Music" section which does some of what I describe and improves the UX around saving tracks for later. It's still not an ideal user experience however -- For example, users can sort tracks by artist or album but not both.)
But because iTunes has always emphasized music libraries, with users pruning and refining them to best reflect their identity, why shouldn't Apple's streaming service do the same? For example, when browsing or searching, there should be an "Add to Library" button next to every song and album that ports the tracks over to a personalized and centralized depository of music, without requiring that the user leave the page to create a playlist like Spotify does. This library should be featured front-and-center within the app and allow for searching and browsing within it. After all, search is still a nightmare on most streaming services -- browsing within a self-curated library, or the libraries of friends, would make the process much less unwieldy. As for showing off your library, it could be done within the app or on a Facebook profile page. And any one of your friends should be able to view it, not just users of Apple's service.
The fact that music appreciation hasn't effectively translated to the digital space isn't because people don't want to share their tastes anymore -- taking pride in one's music collection has been around since the days of vinyl -- it's because streaming services haven't made it easy for users to do it. And Apple, with its history of emphasizing personal expression through its devices and software, is the perfect company to take on this challenge. Not only would it set Apple's service apart form competitors but, more importantly, it could shift the way fandom is expressed in the Internet age.
With the loss of vinyl collections, CD collections, and now iPod libraries, we've also lost those deeply personal ties with the bands we love, making music little more than a commodity or a vehicle for other experiences. By reminding users of the joys of "collecting," Apple might be able to reignite some of those feelings, and make music more of the personal, social experience it once was.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]