Apple Music launched three months ago on 30th June. At the start of this month, the streaming service’s earliest adopters had to decide whether or not they wanted to start paying for it.
From Apple we know that the service had 11m trial members halfway through the beta period, while a recent report in the New York Post suggested that had increased to 15m by the middle of September, while around half of those people had not (yet) turned off the auto-pay subscription due to kick in at the end of their trials.
During that beta period, some reviewers have proclaimed that Apple Music’s powerful curation can help it be a Spotify-killer, while others have attacked it for a clunky and counter-intuitive user experience. Some experts think it could tip on-demand streaming into the mainstream, while others see it as too little, too late for Apple.
What does the music industry think? Music Ally has been asking: we’ve canvassed a wide range of opinions from labels, publishers, managers, distributors, lawyers, digital marketers, consultants and even rivals. Anonymously, of course: this is Apple we’re talking about after all. Here’s what they’ve been telling us.
The user interface needs work
Clunky and counter-intuitive? In a word: yes. While one of our industry panel described Apple Music’s interface as “intuitive and very pretty”, many more had much less positive thoughts on its usability.
“The navigation is poor, the user experience confusing and actually making playlists is painful enough to make you throw your iOS device off the top of the nearest tall building,” said one unimpressed respondent.
“It looks like they designed it having never used a streaming service EVER. What other explanation could there be for launching such an awkward, clunky service?”
There were some interesting contradictions to tease out here. Some people said that Apple Music’s interface confused them, while others said they hated it because it felt all too familiar from the much-maligned iTunes.
“I tried it and found it unusable. Impossible to navigate and I couldn’t even figure out where to find it in the beginning,” said one respondent. “Learning how to use it and recreating my playlists really turned me off,” said another.
“How to make playlists and utilise playlists should be in easy steps on these pop-ups instead of me having to Google and figure it all out by leaving the iTunes environment,” added yet another. Creating your own playlists is clearly a pain point for early Apple Music adopters.
Some respondents played the man rather than the ball. “A pretty paltry start from the company with almost infinite cash and technical resource,” said one. “Apple Music is clearly lower priority inside Apple than most things and I have a feeling that they haven’t got the best engineers and product people on it.”
Others were more forgiving. “I think it is unfair to blame the designers for all its sins because, no matter how smart Apple designers are – and in the case of music services they have been showing signs of ineptitude for some time – there’s a limit to how many features can be offered in a single service and still expect to maintain a reasonable degree of usability.”
There is an acknowledgement that some of the initial gripes around Apple Music have died away, though. “It had issues and kinks to iron out but they’ve been committed to doing that and the product has improved noticeably over the last few weeks and will continue to do so,” said one optimistic respondent.
Praise for programming
Two areas that received plenty of praise from our industry insiders were Apple Music’s programmed playlists and its Beats 1 radio station. Apple’s design may be lacking, but its curation is (usually) worth wrestling with the interface for.
“I was impressed with many of the curated playlists and the overall programming; no surprises there as all these are the things iTunes has always done well in my opinion,” said one happy listener.
“They have a really good mix of familiar and new tracks to discover – the key to curating a good playlist,” said another, while pointing to one of the main challenges for Apple Music’s recommendation engine: filling in the gaps of users’ musical history if they’d previously migrated from iTunes to other companies’ streaming services.
“The only problem is that my purchase data (that it uses for recommendations) has a big hole in it from about 2011 when I stopped buying downloads, so the recommendations are missing some more recent stuff,” they said.
Apple Music’s “Intro To” playlists focused on individual artists have been praised during the service’s trial, although one respondent in our research questioned the track selections. “There’s a frustration for me over the in-house curation element to Apple,” they said.
“The ‘introduction to’ playlists were certainly not a true representation of my artists’ top-performing catalogues, leading me to question what sources they’re pulling these from.” Although Apple might argue that its playlist curators are looking for deep cuts, not just the most popular songs.
Apple’s radio rocks
Beats 1 is a success – for most industry listeners surveyed by Music Ally. Apple Music’s live radio station has been warmly welcomed, especially by US respondents who see it as a breath of fresh air compared to commercial radio in Apple’s homeland.
“From a curation perspective, Beats 1 is a masterstroke and I imagine that this will continue to serve as a differentiator,” said one respondent.
“Contrary to popular belief, radio is not a ‘simple business’ and the level of production, care and attention that has gone into Beats 1 is absolutely clear to anyone who knows their radio,” added another. “It is a first-class product.”
The music industry would love to see some figures for Beats 1 listenership – although few people expect Apple to release any in the near future – while one respondent reported that they had seen “direct uptake in sales and streams following plays on the station” – exactly what Apple has been promising.
There was one firmly worded criticism that Apple may do well to consider. “Beats 1 is highly exemplary of a general Apple problem that, for ages, has been bothering consumers of its products and users of its services outside the US,” said one respondent.
“It’s quite a feat of Anglo-centrism to boast that a radio 100% spoken in English and featuring US/UK pop is a radio for the world.” With Apple already working with Latin portal Remezcla on playlist curation for the on-demand section of Apple Music, perhaps there is scope to take that kind of localisation approach to Beats-branded stations in the future.
In recent years, Apple has often been accused of having a blind spot when it comes to social networking, epitomised by the very public failure of its Ping music-focused social network. Unfortunately for the company, it seems that the Connect segment of Apple Music is already being seen as another Ping in waiting.
“Connect is clearly a beta product and needs a lot more work, time and attention. At its best, it could be a SoundCloud killer; at its worst, another version of Ping,” said one respondent.
“There’s clearly a way to go for Connect to become used by both artists and users,” said another. A point that was also put with rather less diplomacy by one of their peers. “Connect is totally tedious,” they told us.
“Artists I love aren’t using it, the ones that are are the ones I don’t care about, and when they do post anything it’s only ever promotional pushes for things like the Apple Music Festival. Yawn.”
Taken together, Apple Music’s interface failings and its lack of social sass represented a wider, worrying truth about its parent company – for one of our panel at least.
“Apple Music seems to me like quite an achievement in synthesis because it managed to put into a single product everything that is wrong about the company’s current direction.”
It’s all about the ecosystem
When music executives think about Apple Music’s chances of success, they’re already thinking well beyond its design and features. For some, its pricing model is shaping up well, particularly the $14.99-a-month family plan.
“I’ve bought the family plan because my eldest son and my wife also use it so, on that basis, it’s also excellent value,” said one respondent. “I can see savvy youth convincing their parents they really need this and then, of course, getting themselves included in the subscription,” said another.
But it’s Apple’s overall ecosystem of devices, stores and marketing initiatives that is really exciting the industry.
“What’s really interesting is how the ecosystem can be powerful when, and if, all the dots get joined up – e.g. staff in shops evangelising, show-and-tell marketing kicking in, and Beats 1 promotion complementing the download store and Apple Music streaming,” said one respondent.
With Apple having sold 13m units of its new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus in the opening weekend of sales, there is optimism around Apple’s ability to leverage its huge and increasingly mainstream user base as a funnel towards subscription music.
“I think the real USP is the integration with the iPhone and other Apple products. Where an older generation couldn’t understand what a Spotify or an Rdio was, Apple Music will make more sense to them,” said one respondent. “Most folks do like that easy ecosystem and the strong trusted branding that comes with it,” said another.
There was praise for Apple’s recognition that a process of education is needed to bring consumers in: “Apple seems to realise this as they launch more explanatory marketing – like the recent Mary J advert in the US,” said one impressed executive.
And beyond all that, there’s the expectation that Apple has the resources to throw money at these marketing challenges.
“I think we’ll see a significant drop in subscription figures over the coming three months as people figure out how to stop paying – but, beyond that, I predict we’ll see a steady climb in user numbers over the next 12 months,” said one. “The marketing dollars they’re throwing at this is incredible and in the lead up to Christmas we’ll see much more.”
Inevitable Spotify comparisons
Spotify was mentioned almost as often as Apple Music by our panel of industry people: with 75m active users, 20m subscribers and an increasingly influential collection of programmed playlists, Spotify is the obvious comparison for Apple’s new service.
It didn’t always fare well in that comparison. “Whilst they have great editorial and curators, there are distinct UX issues – their search or indexing just isn’t as good as Spotify’s – they are well behind in terms of playlists and their algorithm (which fuels 40% of music discovery on Spotify) is limited,” said one respondent.
Some of their peers approached this comparison from a personal level, illustrating the challenges Apple will face convincing Spotify users to switch.
“I already have a streaming service/format: Spotify. I’ve had a premium account for 3+ years and it’s where I listen to almost everything now,” explained one respondent. “I don’t have the time (or inclination) to move my ‘collection’ to another service that essentially does the same thing.”
There were warnings of judging Apple Music too soon against its established rival. “I have to confess to some intense irritation by the consistent comparisons of a first-generation product against other streaming services that have been out there and iterating over the past decade,” said one respondent.
“My guess (and hope) is that Apple will invest heavily and perhaps by version 3 they will have caught up and it will be on track to be a product more worthy of the Apple name,” said another.
No cannibalisation… yet
A common theme among respondents at the sharp end of digital music distribution was that during its free trial, Apple Music has NOT had an adverse impact on either iTunes sales or Spotify streams.
“I’m glad to say I didn’t see any streams detracting from iTunes or Spotify. During the free period, all Apple Music streams were incremental,” explained one. “That’s not to say that will still be the case once it’s paid for. It makes a lot of sense that people trialed it side-by-side for free.”
“It is safe to say the impact has been very small. There was no ‘falling off a cliff’ in terms of iTunes sales and the revenue is really very light from Apple Music. I would say much of this is due to it still being early days for the service from a customer adoption point of view,” added another.
“Also the royalty rate is lower during the trial than it will be when people start to pay for it: around a third of what we experience from Spotify, which can fluctuate but which performs well above the minimum in our agreement.”
Not every response citing a lack of cannibalisation was so optimistic, however. “Right now it is the fourth best streaming service – both in terms of revenues and functionality. The good thing is that it didn’t cannibalise download sales, as people don’t get it.”
A bumpy but encouraging start
What to conclude? Outside its harsher critics – and some people who cheerfully admitted they haven’t even tried Apple Music – there’s a strong desire for it to succeed and complement, rather than cannibalise, its established rivals.
“We all certainly hope that it becomes another significant player in the long run. We can’t see a return to the dominance of iTunes in the download era,” warned one respondent. “Can Spotify and Apple co-exist? I believe they absolutely can and we will all be better for it,” said another.
Others warned against drawing any long-term conclusions from the relatively short trial period.
“Yes we’re all keen to see the numbers and the churn as they’re announced in the coming weeks, but let’s not draw conclusions too early,” said one executive.
“This is about new customers and users getting involved as well as converting existing customers. It’s a marathon, not a sprint; but the start looks healthy and the timing for such a service seems right.”
Music Ally shares that view. It’s no surprise to hear so many comparisons between Apple Music and Spotify, but it’s important to remember that point about this being a three-month old service – admittedly plus a year-and-a-half of Beats Music and a decade of iTunes – against a seven-year-old veteran.
Spotify in October 2008 was a very different beast to Spotify in October 2015. Plus, Apple has the luxury of being able to watch what Spotify has got right and wrong in that time – and to do what Apple has often done in the past: take an existing product or service, and improve it considerably.
At this point, though, it has failed to do that. Apple Music has had a bumpy start, from bugs in its software – including some users complaining that swathes of their existing music collection has disappeared – to the criticism of its user interface and the half-hearted adoption of Apple Connect.
However, Music Ally understands that Apple is planning a massive marketing push for Apple Music as it moves out of the initial three-month trial. Sources tell us the campaign will be unprecedented in terms of how a digital music service is promoted to the general public.
The free trial has laid the groundwork for that bigger marketing push in the coming months, then. Meanwhile, the feedback that Apple Music’s trial has not noticeably affected iTunes sales or Spotify streams can be read in two ways: either usage of Apple Music is disappointing; or – the positive option – it is opening up streaming to a whole new demographic that complements existing revenue streams rather than cannibalises them.
Apple is clearly in this for the long term, given the scale of its investment and its increasing need to evolve beyond music downloads. Damning Apple Music as a failure three months in would be rash, then, although there are plenty of areas for improvement if the service is to provide the competition to Spotify and others that the industry craves.
This story originally appeared in the Music Ally Report, which is part of our subscription research service.