Ap­ple Mu­sic sounds sweet, but ...

In the cur­rent era of un­prece­dented ac­cess to mu­sic, is such a ser­vice re­ally needed?

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - RANDALL ROBERTS POP MU­SIC CRITIC

It was a con­vinc­ing pro­posal, one be­fit­ting masters of their domain.

A year af­ter Ap­ple re­vealed the pur­chase of Beats En­ter­tain­ment, the head­phone and on-de­mand mu­sic stream­ing com­pany co­founded by mu­sic ex­ec­u­tive Jimmy Iovine and artist-ex­ec­u­tive Dr. Dre, the com­pany un­veiled its new gen­er­a­tion mu­sic ser­vice, called Ap­ple Mu­sic.

An­nounced Mon­day at the com­pany’s an­nual de­vel­oper’s con­fer­ence in San Fran­cisco, the new por­tal is the most dras­tic over­haul of the iTunes plat­form since it up­ended the mu­sic in­dus­try in the early ’00s. Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook de­scribed the prod­uct with typ­i­cal min­i­mal­ism as “one com­plete thought around mu­sic,” tai­lored to in­te­grate of­fer­ings in­clud­ing a new on-de­mand, “hand-cu­rated” stream­ing ser­vice, a beefed-up ra­dio por­tal an­chored by a global sta­tion called Beats 1 and an

artist-re­la­tions area called Connect.

If Ap­ple Mu­sic is as trans­for­ma­tive as Iovine promised dur­ing his pre­cisely honed pre­sen­ta­tion, it will be a very fancy gar­ment, in­deed. Its be­spoke in­no­va­tions will wrap with new fab­ric the same 30 mil­lion songs of­fered by com­pet­ing ser­vices Spo­tify, Rdio, Ti­dal and YouTube. It will glis­ten with jew­els wor­thy of the most prom­i­nent and dis­rup­tive em­peror of the mu­sic busi­ness.

There will be high-def­i­ni­tion video. Playlists galore, picked by real peo­ple with real tastes. A world­wide ra­dio sta­tion. As with its failed iTunes Ping ini­tia­tive, Ap­ple will of­fer artist pages that al­low for di­rect in­ter­ac­tion with fans.

It’s so re­mark­able that only a dupe wouldn’t be skep­ti­cal. But so far, call me un­con­vinced of this so-called great leap for­ward. Of course, I’ll sign up on Day One and check it out for all its pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Be­sides Ap­ple and its share­hold­ers, who wins here? In a world of mu­si­cal bounty, fans need less help find­ing mu­sic than at any time in his­tory; whether Pitch­fork, NPR Mu­sic, Pas­sion of the Weiss or Aquar­ium Drunk­ard, a bounty of tastemak­ers is at your beck and call. Un­signed artists make more money on Band­camp or at their merch ta­bles than through stream­ing ser­vices. Mu­sic? It’s never needed any­one’s “help” and never will. Fol­low the money

Which isn’t to say that mu­si­cians don’t need our help. It’s hard to gain­say Ap­ple’s move into the sec­tor if it helps fat­ten mu­si­cians’ bank bal­ances. But the move will come at the ex­pense of an­other in­come stream: the now-an­ti­quated model of MP3 down­loads. (Plus, soon af­ter the great re­veal, news came that Ap­ple was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by two states for an­titrust vi­o­la­tions in its ne­go­ti­a­tions with mu­sic com­pa­nies.)

The monthly cost will be iden­ti­cal to the Beats Mu­sic ser­vice it re­placed: $9.99 per month or $14.99 for a fam­ily pack that al­lows for up to six user ac­counts. Un­like Spo­tify and YouTube, which of­fer free, ad-sup­ported tiers, Ap­ple Mu­sic’s stream­ing com­po­nent will re­quire a sub­scrip­tion, a bar­rier to en­try that in­hibits cash-strapped teens and col­le­gians.

Along­side Spo­tify’s rel­a­tively tiny reach — a scant 20 mil­lion users pay for its pre­mium ser­vice world­wide — the fi­nan­cial im­pact of Ap­ple lur­ing even a small per­cent­age of its user base to the ser­vice could be huge. Tens of mil­lions of ac­count hold­ers in 100 coun­tries will be in­formed of the new stream­ing ser­vice in less than a month, and all will be af­forded a free three­month trial pe­riod.

Where, ex­actly, is the im­prove­ment? In Ap­ple Mu­sic’s all-in-one sys­tem? It’s not ex­actly rocket science, jump­ing from iTunes to YouTube and back again. Per­haps it’s in what Iovine dubbed “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mu­sic ser­vice cu­rated by lead­ing mu­sic ex­perts,” tout­ing the new ser­vice’s “hu­man touch.” The ex­ec­u­tive de­scribed it with sim­i­lar lan­guage to that which Jay Z and his posse used dur­ing the roll­out for their “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” Ti­dal ear­lier in the year. “Al­go­rithms alone can’t do that hu­man task,” said Iovine. “You need a hu­man.”

Out­side of the art world, do peo­ple re­ally care about cu­ra­tors? Quick, name your fa­vorite Spo­tify-em­ployed playlist maker. Have you ever shared its “All Night, All Love” se­lec­tion of slow jams, or any other stranger’s playlist, with friends, or made a point to save that “The Per­fect Road­trip” list to your phone be­fore em­bark­ing on your jour­ney? “Cu­rated” has a new def­i­ni­tion: “dragged and dropped into a playlist folder.” Pan­ning Pan­dora

Iovine’s swipe at al­go­rithm-based mu­sic se­lec­tion was an im­plicit in­dict­ment against Pan­dora, which de­liv­ers mu­sic based on pre-se­lected pa­ram­e­ters. But if any­one “needs a hu­man,” it’s Iovine, who might con­sider bon­ing up on his non-U2 con­tem­po­rary rock chops. In a post-pre­sen­ta­tion in­ter­view with Bill­board, the one­time star-maker couldn’t hide his en­thu­si­asm for his hottest new find, vet­eran indie-rock band the War on Drugs. “They should be gi­gan­tic,” he said. “I think they’re fan­tas­tic. This is the kind of place where a band like that can re­ally thrive.”

Lost on the old-guard vet­eran is that War on Drugs is do­ing fine with­out him. Whether he knows it or not, the band re­cently sold out the Fonda and gigged a sun­set slot on the main stage of Coachella — all with­out his help. Would the newly un­veiled Connect, which al­lows artists to in­ter­act di­rectly with fans, bet­ter pro­vide War on Drugs with “tools to grow, nur­ture and sus­tain ca­reers,” as Os­car-win­ning film com­poser Trent Reznor promised Mon­day?

If War on Drugs is lucky, it might land a spin or two on Beats 1, a world­wide sta­tion that prom­ises 24-hours-aday, seven-days-per-week live ra­dio by a batch of DJs headed by Zane Lowe. Like a regular ra­dio sta­tion ex­cept on the In­ter­net — what an up- heaval! — Beats 1 will broad­cast from stu­dios in Los An­ge­les, Lon­don and New York. Lowe, who gained fame at the BBC 1, is con­sid­ered one of the best in­ter­view­ers and tastemak­ers in the English­s­peak­ing world. An ac­com­pa­ny­ing ad showed lis­ten­ers in cities across the world all vib­ing to the same song. Whether this is good for global di­ver­sity is an­other thing.

But it’s “good for mu­sic,” said Iovine, as if he were the ul­ti­mate ar­biter. He later told Bill­board a story about a failed Beats ne­go­ti­a­tion, one that got off to a dif­fi­cult start im­me­di­ately upon Iovine’s ar­rival. Said Iovine: “I re­mem­ber sit­ting down with the CEO of a ma­jor car­rier once who said, ‘I can’t be­lieve you dressed like this to my meet­ing!’ ” Need­less to say, the deal didn’t hap­pen.

The im­pli­ca­tion was that Iovine was the di­sheveled rebel in a but­toned-up world. It’s pos­si­ble, though, that his clothes were more trans­par­ent than he thought.

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