Should We Welcome Our New Sonic Overlords?—Print Issue 2016

By William Goldie, Feature Photo by Håkan Dahlström via Flickr Creative Commons

This article originally appeared in demo 12, our 2015/2016 print issue. You can find a PDF of the print issue here.

It has been half a year since Apple launched their highly anticipated eponymous streaming service, and unlike many of the company’s previous attempts to expand iTunes — anyone else remember Ping? No? — Apple Music seems here to stay, with over eleven million paying customers. This puts its share of the streaming market firmly in second place behind Spotify’s approximately thirty million users, and well above other big names like Deezer (3.8m), Rhapsody (3.5m), and the infamous, Jay Z-backed Tidal (over 1.0m). [The statistics here are somewhat ambiguous, as the companies involved, particularly Spotify, rarely disclose exact numbers or the ratio of paid subscribers to trial accounts.]

However, it’s a mistake to look at Apple Music as just another streaming service. It has a broader set of goals, and is in a sense competing not only with streaming platforms, but also traditional radio, music stores (physical and digital), and just about every other form of music media outlet. It’s unclear if Spotify can even hope to compete, longterm, when Apple has a “homefield advantage” on their devices. Apple has the unique ability among music streaming platforms to make changes to full operating systems, iOS and OSX, in order to render their service more integrated and appealing than its competitors. To some degree, this has already happened — Apple Music has a specially tailored user interface, unavailable to other app developers, that extends beyond the app on iOS devices like the iPhone.

Even when Apple Music is on a level playing field with other streaming services — as it’s available on Windows and Android devices — Apple holds considerable influence over the music industry, and can leverage this power for exclusive releases and promotions; Spotify may have three times the number of users that Apple Music has, but the iTunes Store is easily the world’s largest music retailer. That sales volume carries a lot of weight in conversation with record labels.

Apple has already exploited this influence to secure exclusive content from many artists, who have released singles, music videos, and, in some cases, even entire albums on the service well before physical release or distribution to other streaming platforms. The Connect feature, a quasi-social network that provides a platform for artists to distribute unstructured content (beyond the EP or LP format) to fans, has served as the pipeline for much of this exclusive content. Connect seems poised to absorb a lot of artists’ “secondary content” like remixes, mixtapes, and music videos that have found homes on platforms like SoundCloud, DatPiff, and YouTube in recent years.

The internet radio station Beats 1, which is integrated into the Music app, relies on a similar flexing of Apple’s industry muscles. The name’s echoing of BBC’s station nomenclature is deliberate: the service has attracted a list of celebrity DJs — including Ezra Koenig, Jaden Smith, Annie Clark, Pharrell Williams, Q-Tip, Elton John, various members of Drake’s OVO Sound label, and longtime Radio 1 lynchpin Zane Lowe — in order to extend BBC’s combination of big name hosts (like Annie Mac) and artist-driven time slots (like the “Essential Mix”) to its logical conclusion. A star-studded cast, to say the least, and one that would never exist at a traditional radio station in 2016.

At the centre of it all, presumably, are the former Interscope / Aftermath / Beats executives Andre Young (AKA Dr. Dre) and Jimmy Iovine. If Apple Music is successful at replacing other methods of music distribution, Dre, Iovine, and other Apple execs stand to gain massive power as tastemakers and curators. Dre has already indicated his plans to try to control trends in hip-hop: a verse on “Satisfaction,” from his latest album — released exclusively on Apple Music, of course — has Snoop Dogg implying that Dre will pick and choose the artists he wants to succeed with his Beats 1 show “The Pharmacy.” The amount of influence he and other Apple Music personalities actually have remains to be seen, but the possibility nonetheless exists that they may acquire a significant degree of control over popular music.

Is Apple any worse a gatekeeper for music than traditional record labels? They certainly have more of an ulterior motive. There are countless stories of record labels abusing their artists, holding up album releases for financial reasons, forcing single releases, and so on — but at the end of they day, labels are just trying to sell music. Apple has a much larger corporate surface area and many more reasons to block or bury a release. It is hard to imagine, for instance, a protest song about mistreated Foxconn factory workers ever playing on Beats 1.

That is an extreme and perhaps unlikely conflict of interest, but Apple’s history of censorship on the App Store is long and well-documented. And in a particularly absurd turn of events, Beats 1 is broadcast with censored lyrics, destroying one of its greatest advantages over traditional radio (which is regulated by government agencies that ban profanity in most countries).

To be clear, the evidence so far casts a pretty good light on Apple. Sure, when I glance at my personal recommendations tab in the app, I’m presented with playlists full of Radiohead, Blur, and other iPod ad soundalikes, but I’ve also seen DJ Shadow, Husker Dü, and more than a few obscure shoegaze groups waiting to be discovered. And these are human-picked playlists from sources as disparate as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Resident Advisor, not Pandora-style algorithmically generated feeds. As someone who grew up with a weak set of suburban radio stations, it was a pretty strange experience to hear a new song for the first time while listening to Beats 1… and then have that same experience six more times over the course of the next hour.

Apple’s curators appear to be taking steps against the heavily commercial pop music monoculture that has been the norm for so many years by promoting artists and genres that do not pursue universal, or even broad, appeal; but this could change at any moment. Market research and investor pressure could lead to a Beats 1 that feels more inspired by Madison Avenue than genuine culture, and slates of promoted music that only serve to mirror the Billboard charts.

There’s no way to tell if the current depth and breadth of curation will continue over the next few years of Apple Music’s lifetime or not. All we can do is wait. And watch. And listen.

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