Apple/Beats vs Spotify

by Nikolozi Meladze

It seems music streaming services are popping up left and right. There has been a lot of news about them recently. For instance, Beatport, that specialises in electronic music, now offers a free streaming service along with digital downloads. I never thought I’d see the day, but I can’t see that taking off now. Also, Jay-Z relaunched Tidal. This post by CDM sums up my feelings about it rather well.

Personally, I love Spotify, but I’m hoping that Apple/Beats will offer a superior streaming service. This NYT article caught my attention:

In a sign of how important Beats is in reshaping Apple’s digital music, the company has made a musician a point man for overhauling the iPhone’s music app to include the streaming music service, as opposed to an engineer. Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman who was the chief creative officer for Beats, is playing a major role in redesigning the music app, according to two Apple employees familiar with the product, who spoke on the condition they not be named because the plans are private.

I’m curious to see how Reznor will transform the music app. I’m a big fan of his music as well as his forward thinking attitude towards music. The current iOS music app could use an overhaul. I can’t critique it too much though, as I haven’t used it recent years. I’ve been using Spotify since its launch in Australia.

According to several music executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are private, Apple recently tried but failed to persuade record labels to agree to lower licensing costs that would have let Apple sell subscriptions to its streaming service for $8 a month — a discount from the $10 that has become standard for services like Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio. That $2 markdown may be small, but Apple’s failure to secure it reflects a shift in the company’s relationship with the music industry. While Apple once enjoyed enormous negotiating power as the dominant force in digital music — an area it helped pioneer more than a decade ago with music downloads — it now faces an array of new competitors and finds itself in the position of needing to modernize its offerings to catch up to the streaming revolution.

Surprisingly, Apple is late to the streaming game. Considering iTunes did a lot of pioneering work in this area and completely ended up dominating the digital music sales, it’s disappointing that they haven’t disrupted themselves yet. In a recent interview, Tim Cook reminded us that Apple is always willing to make bold moves:

Apple has always had the discipline to make the bold decision to walk away. We walked away from the floppy disk when that was popular with many users. Instead of doing things in the more traditional way of diversifying and minimizing risk, we took out the optical drive, which some people loved. We changed our connector, even though many people loved the 30-pin connector. Some of these things were not popular for quite a while. But you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore and go. We still do that.

Apple must have forgotten about the music services. Back to the NYT article:

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, downloads generated $2.6 billion in revenue in 2014, down 8.5 percent from the year before. Streaming made $1.87 billion last year, and overtook CD sales for the first time.

You can no longer deny that the music streaming is the way forward. We have to thank Spotify for paving the way. They are the biggest player at the moment. Indeed, it is the best thing around and I can’t imagine using anything else right now. I hardly come across a music release that is not available on Spotify. It has many great features too. The artist discography pages have a great layout. They showcase the releases quite well. This includes Top 10 most popular tracks by the artist. In addition, there’s a list of related artists the user might find interesting. You can choose to follow the artist by simply pressing the “Follow” button and be notified about new releases. These are all great features for discovering new music. The iTunes store doesn’t even come close.

The Spotify developers have been adding new features consistently to the service and are not afraid to experiment. Continuity is a great example of this. If you are listening to music on one device you can switch to another and continue listening to the song on it. Alternatively, the second device can become a controller for the device that’s already playing music. Giving you ability to pause, rewind or change songs remotely. This works well across all my devices: iPhone, iPad and Mac.

But what can Apple do to compete with all that?

Mr. Iovine has set the tone of the transformation of Apple’s music plans, according to music executives. Mr. Iovine, who reports to Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of software and Internet services, has been leading aggressive talks to secure prominent album releases that will be exclusive to Apple, akin to what Beyoncé did when she released her self-titled album on iTunes in December 2013. One music executive involved in the negotiations described this part of the new iTunes as “Spotify with Jimmy juice.”

I doubt that the curated playlists and exclusive albums alone will be enough to bring the users, who have already switched, back from Spotify. But, I believe, Apple still has time to recover and convert those who haven’t yet experienced streaming services. A lot of people still download files the old fashioned way.

As much as I love Spotify it has a few annoying shortcomings. For instance, the user’s music library management could use a lot of improvements on both OS X and iOS. It would be nice to have iTunes like album management. Another issue, and this is a big one, is the responsiveness. This can be felt across many areas. Often, the music streaming doesn’t start instantly. The lag can be more than 10 seconds long sometimes. Music release and friends message notifications aren’t always delivered on time. Friends activity feed may not load or update at all. I’m not sure if their servers can’t handle the demand or their apps aren’t very reliable, but it needs to be addressed. I tend to restart the Spotify app to get around these issues. It has gotten to a point where I created a “Relaunch Spotify” script which I call from OS X Spotlight.

Another annoyance has to do with making playlists on my iPhone available for offline streaming. If the phone goes to sleep the content download is interrupted. In order to finished downloading you have to unlock your phone and bring the Spotify app foreground. You may have to do this several times if you are downloading a few albums simultaneously. Obviously, this is not Spotify’s fault as Apple doesn’t let third party apps continue downloading content while in the background. But Apple can easily get around this. I never had this problem when I used to use iTunes Match.

Moreover, it's very likely that the iPhone app will have Siri integration. This is very useful, especially when driving. At the moment, if I want to change a track on Spotify I have to hope for a red light at the next intersection.

The way I see it, if Apple was to offer a superior overall user experience, and I believe they can, then their streaming service could become as important as iTunes was for the past decade. I hope, the service is launched in Australia the same day as US.

Update: Apple released iOS 8.4 beta today with the updated music app. This could be the redesign led by Trent Reznor.