The Audacity of Apple Music

I’ve been thinking about Apple Music, its user experience and its prospects for the future — but before any of that commentary makes sense, it’s necessary to talk about the product’s scope. Whatever else may or may not be true about the service, Apple Music’s ambition is breathtaking.

Apple is laying the groundwork for industry disruption, but they are starting with something closer-to-home: a top-to-bottom renovation of the music discovery and listening experience that builds atop everything the industry has experimented with over the past decade. There’s not much strictly new here, but there are a lot of familiar ideas touched up and (importantly) gathered in one place. 

A brief anecdotal history is in order.

One note: my major concern here is with music distribution/discovery models, not so much with specific products. Feel free to substitute an Rdio for every Spotify, a Slacker for every Pandora, or a Kazaa for every Napster.

Before Napster found its way into my college dorm, I learned about and obtained music in three time-honored ways: listening to the radio, purchasing albums from stores or mail-order clubs, and passing around mixtapes among my friends.

From a user experience perspective, these methods of music distribution and discovery fall neatly along a spectrum, ranging from Convenience (start listening with little friction) to Control (listen to what you want, when you want). Both ends of the spectrum are important to a music consumer; sometimes you want to create something beautiful, but sometimes you just want to be entertained:

  • RADIO — One one hand, radio offered almost no control over exactly what songs I would hear, but the only decision I needed to make was which station to play. Radio made hearing new music easy, and (in the only that mattered to me in high school) free. It also provided value as a connection to the broader culture.
  • ALBUMS – While some of my friends owned hundreds of albums, I owned maybe 50 CDs. It was a small collection, but it was full of music I loved. It offered more control than radio: the song order of each album was set by the artist, but I could listen to any album I wanted at any time. I also felt a great connection to the music: After investing in a purchase, I savored it, listening to each album dozens of times through and reading every word of the liner notes.
  • MIXTAPES — One of my weird high school friends once lent me a tape labeled “Dr. Demento”. In a sneakernet world, discovering oddball sounds and humor that I would never have heard otherwise was subversive and magical. Another tape, given to me by a Girl, introduced me to Sleater-Kinney, who had never showed up in my Columbia House mailings. Mixtapes fragmented the album into individual tracks, which could be combined in unexpected and beautiful ways. They also held a powerful intimacy, precisely because they were rare and inconvenient, borne of passion and crafted over hours by hand.

This brings us to my college dormitory. The Napster era suddenly provided basically infinite access to music, at basically zero cost. Intoxicated with the power of being able to search for anything and immediately add it to my library, my music collection exploded to include thousands of disconnected tracks and partial albums. Discovery in the Napster era was thrilling, and the content was free, but intimacy with the music diminished and the burden of curating the content suddenly because immense. 17 years later, I still have songs in my iTunes library that I don’t particularly care for, but have never taken the time to clean up. Signal was amplified immensely, but along with it came noise.

The cat was out of the bag, never to return. After this dazzling exposure to the infinite, the spectrum now felt something like this:

Napster allowed us to taste the seductive power of the Infinite.

Napster allowed us to taste the seductive power of the Infinite.

It was Apple who sought to restore some order with its introduction of the iTunes Store. iTunes Store purchases didn’t offer the obscene power of the torrents, but they provided incredible convenience, and enough control for enough people that the system eventually became mainstream and relegated torrenting to a niche.

Though music once again cost money, this new digital marketplace aimed to make discovery and acquisition easier, and provided decent tools to manage album artwork and metadata. It became easier than ever to create a Mix CD and pass it around to your friends, and if you owned an iPod, you could even take your music with you. 1,000 songs in your pocket! Mindblowing:

Throughout the 2000s, the iTunes ecosystem held its dominant position, continuing to add features to iTunes, fleshing out a decent range of the Convenience/Control spectrum, but notably leaving untouched the extreme slots occupied by radio on one extreme and torrents on the other — to their eventual detriment:

New business models and ideas did crop up throughout the decade, most significantly Pandora’s algorithmic radio, which offered something akin to the simplicity of traditional radio – also for free! — with just enough control over the content to mollify the rightsholders and still give listeners some flexibility. It was a great balance overall. The scene now looked something like this:

Pandora earned mindshare, but I don’t think it worried Apple too much. Radio is nice, but people still want to be able to play their own music whenever they want, right?

Now we arrive in the present. Remember that gap left by torrenting? I think both the music industry and Apple hoped that the spectre of the Napster era would just fade away, but its promise was still seductive. Over the years, a number of services attempted to resurrect it by allowing customers to ‘rent’ unlimited streaming of music from online libraries. The most significant in my world were Spotify (which was a legitimate service) and Grooveshark (which was not).

Steve Jobs famously spoke against streaming services, saying Apple “think[s] subcriptions are the wrong path”. Part of Apple’s reticence may have been related to to their deep historic roots in music sales, but I suspect they also genuinely disliked something about the listening experience of services like this. Similar to my experience in the dorms, streaming music customers were generally thrown headlong into a boundless sea of choice, without much guidance — which could feel overwhelming and had the net effect of reducing the perception of value. I think Apple truly believed that customers didn’t actually want this experience. (That conclusion turned out to be incorrect, of course. Enter the acquisition of Beats Music, whose focus on human curation of a large streaming library better suited Apple’s philosophy of product design.)

In any case, for the first time in a decade, Apple found itself truly on the defensive, squeezed on both sides as purchases began to wane and streaming services began to take root: Pandora offered just-press-play convenience mixed with the discovery and excitement of hearing music from outside of your own libary, while Spotify offered nearly limitless control and reach for those who were willing to spend the time and energy to manage it:

It is into this market that Apple Music enters. And for better or worse, it folds in every single model of music consumption we’ve seen so far, spread across the entire UX spectrum of Convenience and Control:

  • Beats 1 (cf. terrestrial radio) — Literally zero decisions to make, even farther down the spectrum that traditional radio — zero control, but zero friction. A single live radio station curated by (Apple hopes) trustworthy tastemakers. As strange as it sounds, the concept of a hosted radio show may literally be new to some younger listeners, and many of us who haven’t listened to terrestrial radio in years may find the curation and shared experience a refreshing return to our roots. [link]
  • Curated Genre Radio (cf. that forgotten “Radio” app that lingers on Apple TV) — Genre Radio stations in Apple Music are now curated, which means although they are not DJ’d live, their order was selected by a human expert, ostensibly to make sure one song always leads gracefully to the next. It’s subtle, but Apple hopes this will result in even its most generic stations “feeling” better than genre-based algorithmic stations from competitors.
  • Algorithmic Radio (cf. Pandora) — Select an artist/album/track as a seed, then customize your station over time with further input.
  • Curated Playlists (cf. Beats Music) — Like the Mixtapes from the beginning of this post, content and play order are selected by an expert, but available to play or remix on demand. In Apple Music, this includes thematic playlists, moods, historical deep dives, etc.
  • Albums (cf. iTunes Store/iTunes Match/Spotify) — Can be purchased, ripped from a CD, or streamed…
  • Custom Playlists (cf. iTunes Store/iTunes Match/Spotify) — … and then remixed, infinitely, as desired.
One multicolored gradient ring to rule them all.

One multicolored gradient ring to rule them all.

The implications of Apple Music’s audacity are significant: On one hand, this comprehensive playlist of Every-Approach-to-Music-Discovery-and-Distribution-Since-2001 leads to some weird complexities and frustrations in the interface (more on this soon).

On the other hand, Apple’s solution is total. No matter how you like to search, catalog, order, discover, or play back your music, there’s a good chance Apple Music has you covered.

Why would a company who speaks so often about simplicity and “a thousand no’s for every yes” decide to design such a complex and far-reaching product? Two reasons.

The first is the same reason they’re launching Apple Music this fall on Windows and Android: Apple’s goal is to once again become synonymous with music, and the stakes are too high not to. They don’t want to leave any part of that spectrum (or any platform) out of Apple Music’s reach, where it might be filled by a competing product. Apple’s foray into content creation via Beats 1 is an extension of this, and an analogue to similar moves recently by Netflix and Amazon in the realm of television — original, exclusive content will never be available on a competing service.

The second is that Apple is keenly aware of the power of having all of your music in one place. When I was a Spotify subscriber, I found myself having to make a decision every time I wanted to listen to music: Do I want to hear “my music” (perhaps boring, but comfortable), or do I want “all the music” (perhaps overwhelming, but exciting). That little bit of extra friction was exhausting, and I ended up canceling my subscription. Many others ended up sticking with Spotify and never opening iTunes again. Within the Music app, it is visually impossible to tell which music is “purchased” and which is “rented” — and this is by design. Apple wants to bring the comfortable and the exciting into a single place, and they are betting that this experience will be powerful enough to win some converts away from other services and (more importantly) convince those who are not currently paying for music to begin doing so.

I'll be writing soon about the Interface Design problems and opportunities that arise from Apple Music’s audacity — and what it might tell us about Apple’s upcoming Apple TV announcements.