Apple’s Ping remains one of its very few flops in the digital music world, having only lasted two years after its launch in 2010 as a way for music fans to communicate within iTunes.
Its memory lives on, though, which is why so many people will be mentioning it today, after tech site 9 to 5 Mac reported that Apple is making social features a key part of its upcoming relaunch of streaming service Beats Music.
Here’s how Mark Gurman – who is well respected for his sources within Apple beyond officially-sanctioned leaks – described them:
“Taking a page out of the discontinued iTunes Ping feature from earlier this decade, the service will allow artists to have their own pages within the streaming music service that they can use to post track samples, photos, videos, and concert updates.
Artists will also be able to share the content of other artists in an effort of cross-promotion. For example, all-gold Apple Watch wearer Kanye West could promote a new album from Taylor Swift on his “Apple Music” artist page, if he so chooses…
Using iTunes accounts, all users of the streaming music service will be able to comment on and like these posts from big name artists, but users won’t have their own social network profiles like with Ping.”
The obvious reaction is to compare this to the features within rival streaming services like Spotify. There, artists have profiles that fans can follow to get notifications when they release new music, and those artists can also create and share playlists – a feature that a growing number of labels are using in their marketing campaigns around new albums.
It looks like Apple is going a step or two further than Spotify, which in turn is ahead of most existing rivals in the streaming world in its approach to social, and artist profiles in particular. But there’s a much more interesting angle to Apple’s plans for what Gurman claims will be called Apple Music – its status as a challenger to Facebook as a network connecting musicians with fans.
Think about how Facebook works: artists have official pages where they (or, yes, the people who manage their social media presences and/or digital marketing campaigns) can post updates, photos, videos and so on.
Over time, the ability of those posts to reach a significant percentage of the artist’s fans – people who’ve liked their page – has been diminishing. The debate about declining organic reach on Facebook is a familiar one within the music industry, with marketers well aware that Facebook’s view is that if they want to reach more of their fans through the bustling news feed, they should pay to promote posts.
At Music Ally, we’ve regularly suggested that this is an opportunity for companies like Spotify to step in with their own networks for band-to-fan communication, with the ability to help artists communicate with their most engaged fans – not people who’ve just casually liked their Facebook page sometime in the last few years, but people who’ve followed their profiles on a streaming service.
Combine that with the ability to identify – within the bounds of privacy protection, obviously – the “superfans” who’ve listened to an artist most, and you’ve got the makings of a powerful alternative channel for social music marketing.
It sounds like Apple has realised this too. We expect the company to make a bullish pitch for Apple Music as the most artist-friendly streaming service – a title that rivals are all striving to claim too – and the 9 to 5 Mac report suggests that in Apple’s case this will be about more than simply promising heavy promotion (and possibly cash) for exclusivity on new music.
If Apple Music can outdo Facebook in its ability to connect artists with fans – and if its acquisition of music analytics service Musicmetric ensures that artists and labels are getting reliable, real-time data on those interactions as well as actual streams of the music – Apple will have a strong pitch for the music industry.
The caveat, of course, is that it’s still a platform owning this bands/fans social graph and the resulting data. Music marketers regularly talk about this issue: it’s why the savvy ones spend a lot of effort getting fans to sign up to their own mailing lists, rather than simply gathering fans on the platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Spotify and so on.
If Apple – or Spotify by way of a response – wanted to really shake things up, perhaps they could even include a feature in Apple Music to help artists and labels request fans’ email addresses. It seems unlikely, but we’ve learned not to rule anything out in this increasingly competitive market.
One more entirely-speculative thought. If Apple does manage to build a social graph of musicians and fans; if that manifests itself in some kind of feed of updates from the artists those fans follow; and if the company is smart about how it analyses data on listening habits – three ifs, yes – could there be an opportunity for other kinds of marketing here?
Apple might charge a label to promote a new artist to fans of a specific genre or similar musicians, in certain countries for example, in much the same way that Twitter and Facebook insert paid-for, targeted posts into their feeds.
Our instinct is that Apple is more likely to keep its social features ad-free to provide a better experience, but bear in mind advertising is likely to be part of Apple Music through whatever the existing ad-funded iTunes Radio becomes in the relaunch.
Apple as owner of both the biggest social music network and the biggest music advertising network? In terms of industry disruption, this is just as intriguing as speculating about whether the company is heaving sacks of cash in Taylor Swift or Coldplay’s direction for first dibs on their new albums. We hope to find out more at Apple’s WWDC event in June.