iTunes

The real threat of Google Music on Apple devices

Monday, November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

Last week’s drop of Google’s All Access music subscription app into Apple’s app store was a milestone moment in both the music-service wars and the larger tech-ecosystem land grab. We had fun with our “Google invades Apple” headline, and every media site covering the convergence of music and Internet hit the same note.

The invasion metaphor is apt, more than just for its imagery of two tech/media giants engaged in business warfare. Google’s Play Music All Access, awkwardly-named thought it might be, offers a more complete music platform than Apple does -- and likewise for Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, and Rdio. The competitive thrust is more feature-specific than merely inserting the Google brand into the music choices of iPhone and iPod users. Its features connect with the three major ways that people connect with Internet-delivered music as a 21st-century type of radio.

Three Types of Listening

There are three types of app listening. By “app listening” we mean listening that happens through a desktop program, a web browser, or a mobile app. There are three cornerstones of app listening:

  • Radio: Broadcasters understandably bristle at the re-definition of “radio,” which used to denote a technology, not a behavior. Now, “radio” commonly means lean-back app listening that simulates the traditional passive radio experience. Pandora is the poster child for “Internet radio,” but Pandora is more interactive than thousands of Internet pureplay stations which don’t offer any customization.
  • Jukebox: The “celestial jukebox” is lean-forward listening in which access to music replaces ownership of music. Spotify, Rhapsody, and Radio are leading examples of app services that provide access to huge song catalogs on demand, with suites of features that personalize the jukebox around the user’s taste.
  • Cloud storage: Even with the rise of Internet radio and the celestial jukebox, people own personal music collections in digital file formats. Amazon, Apple, and others provide apps that allow uploading those files to the cloud, from which they can be accessed from any connected device.

Integrating these three modes of listening is not easy, or common. How do personal collections (the ownership model) fit into subscription services (the access model), and how do those users integrate the existing value of their collections with the new value of music access?

It’s Called “All Access” for a Reason

That is the key issue addressed by Google Play Music All Access, and a key selling point of its subscription service. All Access provides the usual access features -- jukeboxing, playlisting, favoriting, downloading for offline listening. At the same time, All Access (living up to its name) is a cloud storage service which invites users to upload 20,000 tracks. Those collections are integrated into the jukebox service, and intelligence derived from scanning the owned music helps personalize the music Google suggests to the user.

Apple has a cloud service, too, and of course iTunes is the world’s biggest music store, still a champion of the ownership model, widely predicted to be waning. The two-month-old iTunes Radio service provides lean-back radio-style listening, a second rung of the app-listening ladder. But Apple does not have a celestial jukebox function for random access and full listening of songs and albums.

That missing piece is the opening through which Google has driven its All Access platform, and why the invasion is meaningful. Google provides both models -- access to an owned collection on the same platform which accesses the celestial jukebox, and plays radio-style streams.

Google craftily makes it easy to convert an iTunes collection to Google’s cloud. Doing so gives Apple users a full, three-point app-listening experience on iPhones and iPods. Google provides the purchasing dimension too, through Google Play song-buying, which emulates the synergy of Apple’s iTunes Radio and iTunes Store linkage.

It’s not only iTunes that could be hurt by Google. Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody lack cloud integration of personal collections. Google sits in the iOS store as the complete problem-solver -- in that light, the awkward “All Access” name is justified. The extra value it brings signifies why Google invaded Apple. Time will tell how disruptive the invasion will be.

The push-pull relationship of streaming and albums

Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

Can streaming music help album sales?

Last week’s SoundScan charted the lowest number of single-week album sales since 1991, when that measurement started informing Billboard charts, and there was immediate apocalyptic talk that streaming killed the album.

Pessimism might be justified when it comes to the album’s product legitimacy in 2013 and beyond. Bob Lefsetz applies his characteristically blunt futurism to the topic in a reaction to weak sales performance of Katy Perry’s new Prism collection.

Streaming music is not the cause of declining album sales, although it does reflect and support changing consumer demands and expectations. Consumer choice has been evolving for 15 years. Whether that marketplace shift is blindingly sudden or laboriously slow depends on whether your clock is set to Internet time or normal-world time.

The album suffered its first collision with digital reality when the mp3 format was unleashed, along with corresponding computer apps that enabled recording CD tracks. The term “ripping” resonated with illegality (“ripping off”), but copying tracks to mp3 files was just a legal as copying them to cassette tape.

It was the widespread sharing of mp3 tracks that was legally problematic. Sharing mix tapes on cassette was illegal, too, but so cumbersome and one-to-one that nobody much cared. When the original Napster hit the net in 1999, a one-to-many file-sharing revolution occurred. Horrified record labels complained that they couldn’t compete with free music, an obvious though arguable point, but two other values made Napster popular: a long tail of music unavailable elsewhere, and tracks separated from albums.

The iTunes Music Store rescued labels by wrapping a commerce solution around some Napster attractions. Doing so demystified and sanctioned single-track consumption. Steve Jobs had to talk the labels into breaking apart their albums for sale, and gave them digital rights management (DRM) in exchange, at least temporarily -- mostly solving the copy problem for iTunes-purchased tracks.

Music as e-commerce was off and running, but the album was a seriously broken product by 2003. A CNN Money article in 2010 reported skidding album sales in nine of the decade’s ten years.

Streaming music was operating in various forms before iTunes Music Store launched, including webcasts (AM/FM and pureplay), eMusic (subscription to download) and Rhapsody (subscription to stream). The combination of all these forces -- unauthorized file-sharing, iTunes price-per-download, subscription jukeboxes -- ushered the playlist era, a mix-your-own-album type of music consumption. Music became increasingly granular, smashed from album boulders into playlist gravel.

The mobile computing revolution, which started with laptops and accelerated with smartphones, furthered the trend. As cell phone data speeds increased in rapid technology cycles, the concept of accessing music from anywhere became viable for an enlarging class of well-equipped consumers.

Something else happened: a new streaming business framework based on advertising unlocked the “celestial jukebox” to people unwilling to pay for a music subscription. Spotify, Rdio, and their ilk offered an easy, no-charge on ramp to the so-called access model, where music exists as an always-on cloud of content available anywhere, synchronized across personal technology devices.

More than just granular, music has become atomized. The musicians’ complaint is that atoms of music consumption don’t pay as well as selling the big rocks (albums) or little rocks (price-per-track). The streaming industry’s response is that the liquification of music is still in early days, and when streams become tidal, everyone will prosper.

Recent experiments in iTunes Radio indicate that streaming access can stimulate old-world music purchase habits. iTunes Radio streamed Eminem’s new album for week before its release as a download or disc. The service did something similar with Justin Timberlake’s latest release; we noted then that “album release date” had taken a new, more liquid definition. We also noted that Timberlake’s album was perched atop the iTunes Store album-sales chart, while its individual tracks were far down the singles chart.

Whether streaming is driving album purchases is difficult to determine, but there does appear to be correlation of iTunes Radio pre-release streaming and iTunes Store chart performance. The Eminem experiment seems to be producing the same effect. The album’s pre-sales have propelled it to the #1 chart position. At the same time (either connected to pre-release streaming or not), Billboard reports that the Eminem album will start its Billboard 200 life in the top slot, and notch the second-highest album-sales week of the year.

So, while general music streaming might not support album sales, targeted promotional streaming on a major platform might funnel users who still enjoy outright ownership into traditional music stores. Especially when, as with Apple, the streaming service sits side-by-side with the music store.

Music download sales decrease as streaming music gains

Friday, October 4, 2013 - 10:30am

Digital single-track sales are down over the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period in 2012. The decline has accelerated quarter-over-quarter, with the July-Aug-Sep period showing a 6-percent skid, according to Billboard. Digital album sales have fared better this year, gaining 2.6% over 2012, although the third quarter showed a similar summertime dip as single-track sales.

Download doldrums match the consumer trend toward Internet radio as an important venue for music discovery and the “access model” of ownership. Recent audience metrics reports from Triton and Pandora indicate that webcasting and Internet radio adoption is gradually and steadily climbing upward. As mobile listening crosses multiple devices, environments, and dayparts, access to cloud-based music jukeboxes takes the place of unit purchases and local storage. 

Apple and Google hedge their bets by operating on both sides of the fence, offering digital albums and tracks for sale, as well as customized listening to enormous catalogs of music. As a third leg of the stool, both services also provide cloud storage of owned music files -- a hybrid of the ownership and access models.

Is Amazon inching toward a streaming music service?

Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 11:55am

Amazon caused a media ripple yesterday when it connected its previously independent Amazon Cloud Player with its MP3 Store. The Cloud Player is an online music locker where customers can store their owned tracks (whether purchased from Amazon or not), and play them from any device which can run an Amazon Cloud Player app (pretty much any device). People who prefer outright ownership of music, as opposed to the access model which motivates Spotify and Rhapsody, can get the benefits of mobility by maintaining their collections in the cloud, like celestial jukeboxes.

In mashing up the Cloud Player with the MP3 Store, Amazon joins buying, storing, and mobile playing in an agreeably seamless connection. That’s why Hypebot headlined the news: “Amazon Finally Gets Closer to iTunes” -- Apple’s download store is likewise integrated with its iCloud service.

But of course Apple owns the whole three-legged stool of downloading, cloud storage, and internet radio streaming, designed to cozy the user into an embryo of uninterrupted music monetization, at home and on the go. No less for Google, too, by the way, even though nobody’s talking about it during this period of obsessive Apple scrutiny.

Straddling the competitive fence which divides Apple and Google is one of Amazon’s cutting advantages. It has navigated mobile-OS politics by forking Android into a specialized operating system for Kindle Fire tablets, thereby remaining secular amid the tablet holy wars. Amazon apps are distributed to both iOS and Android phones and tablets. Amazon is everywhere, trading rabid fanboyism for the privilege of being despised by nobody.

From what better position to forge the missing link in the triplet chain of music merchandising? Last May, The Verge reported that Amazon was in talks with labels about a music subscription service. This is the ecosystem roadmap: sell the downloads first; provide universal cloud access second; lock in the user with unlimited listening third. If Amazon were to bundle a streaming platform into what is already a packed-with-value Amazon Prime membership, which now provides streaming movies and television, the media-loving consumer sector might undergo some kind of rapture and rise to the heavens.

If not, yesterday’s cloud/download maneuver will have been just another incremental product update. We’ll see.

Apple Internet radio entry may catch the attention of antitrust regulators, experts tell Washington Post

Wednesday, June 5, 2013 - 12:35pm

Music publishers and labels may not be the only bumps in Apple's road to launching its upcoming Internet radio service.

Some experts, according to The Washington Post, say federal antitrust laws may gum the works for Apple as well.

Apple's share of the music download business with iTunes is above 60%, which reportedly "means regulators are likely to monitor any move into a related business to ensure that the company isn't improperly using its muscle to squeeze out competitors," writes the paper.

The key issue, according to the experts with whom the paper spoke, would be if Apple's licensing deals with labels and publishers took advantage of the company's size and market share to unfairly box-out companies like Pandora or Spotify in the competition for customers.

The company is currently embroiled in antitrust legal proceedings involving e-books.

Read more from The Washington Post here.

Early reviews of new iTunes tout speed, looks, and Spotify-like iCloud integration

Friday, November 30, 2012 - 1:00pm

The latest version of Apple's industry-leading media software iTunes became available yesterday -- about a month later than expected. It may be late, but don't say it's slow.

Computer World calls the new app "a speed demon." After the laboring and trudging of iTunes 10, Gizmodo says: "So fast. We can't believe it's iTunes. When scrolling through the iTunes' new graphics heavy album view, the tiles fly by. Apple must have completely rewritten the app to get these results." Gizmodo really liked the new MiniPlayer too. See the video tour of the new app here.

Information Week has a walk-thru too, here. They seem to be particularly impressed by iTunes 11's looks: the iTunes store, navigation menus, the synching interface, and more.

Maybe the real game-changer here is the app's integration with iCloud (Apple's online storage system that allows users to keep media "in the cloud," as opposed to their own machine, and access files via streaming). TechCrunch (here) calls this its most important improvement, enabling users to much more easily browse and stream content. A user can stream and download songs when purchased, or buy more, without leaving his/her music library.

Apple "is a company pouring billions into this infrastructure with aims to ultimately supplant and marginalize services like Spotify," says Digital Music News (here). With the new iTunes, "Apple is offering enhancements to make localized access (sort of the equivalent to Spotify's cacheing) across devices like the iPad and iPhone."

Another new "Spotify-like" feature TechCrunch points out is called "Up Next," which mimics Spotify's "queue" feature. Very simply, it allows building "on the fly" playlists (just put the track(s) you want to play next into the queue).

"As Spotify users will tell you, it was one of the key features that made the service popular. It is a perfect party tool as well," writes TechCrunch.

Apple's introduction to the software is here.

Syndicate content