“Apple Music saw over 40m users on mobile last month, leading Spotify by 10m,” ran a headline on 9 to 5 Mac yesterday.
“Apple Music reportedly leads Spotify, Pandora in unique monthly users,” claimed AppleInsider. TechCrunch went with “Report: Free trials push Apple Music ahead of Pandora and Spotify on mobile usage” in its headline.
All these stories made the stunning claim that Apple Music had 40.7 million monthly unique users in the US alone this February, based on a report from a company called Verto Analytics.
Verto was certainly clear about its claims, publishing its figures for “streaming music properties” in the US and announcing that “Apple Music is the top music streaming service on our Index, with nearly 41 million monthly unique users reported in February (on mobile devices only)”.
This is based on analysing the apps used by Verto’s opt-in panel of US internet users – it installs a measurement app on their devices, while also gathering data from other advertising, content distribution and analytics platforms.
Verto told TechCrunch that Apple Music’s startling popularity is down to the service’s free trial. Really? Let’s dig a little. When Apple announced in early December 2016 that Apple Music had 20 million paying subscribers, Eddy Cue briefed The Verge that more than 50% of them were outside the US.
For argument’s sake, if that ratio continued and Apple Music continued at its growth rate of around a million new subscribers a month, by the time of Verto’s study it would have had around 22 million – and thus a maximum of 11 million subscribers in the US.
By Verto’s reckoning, that would mean nearly 30 million non-paying Apple Music trialists in the US alone in February 2017.
As enjoyable as it would be to have some explanation for those enormous Apple Music streaming numbers for Drake’s ‘More Life’, we can’t help but question these figures.
They reminded us of some stats put out by research firm comScore in April 2016, when it estimated that Apple Music was used by 31.1% of American smartphone owners, which by its calculations meant around 61.9 million people.
comScore’s explanation then may hold the key to Verto’s claims now:
“Apple Music, as it appears in comScore’s monthly reporting since July, is the same measured entity as the previously named ‘iTunes Radio/iCloud’ that has been reported in past months’ mobile rankings,” noted comScore.
“This entity, now under the new name, is referring to Apple’s native music app, which captures all music activity within that app, including listening via the streaming service, radio service and users’ personally downloaded music libraries.”
Either Verto Analytics’ study, like comScore, is tracking US users of Apple’s native ‘Music’ app rather than its Apple Music service – in which case 40.7 million active users is plausible, albeit a lot less than the estimate from a year ago.
Or Apple did something at the end of 2016 that drove a sudden, unprecedented spike in the number of Americans signing up to a free trial of its music-streaming service. We know which of those theories we incline towards.
Update: Verto Analytics has contacted Music Ally to explain. “All data that Verto publishes is based on-screen engagement of the app,” said the company. “In the Apple Music case, this data includes both the listening of music stored on the device and Apple music streaming. In other words, we do not report separately these two types of usage, but instead the aggregate.”
The problem here is that this data on usage of Apple’s ‘Music’ app was presented to the world as “Apple Music is the top music streaming service on our Index, with nearly 41 million monthly unique users” – an assertion that has been republished by a number of journalists.
In the most extreme case, the figures have been used as the basis for an “Is Spotify lying about its numbers?” piece – although that’s based on a mistaken comparison of Verto’s US-only figure of 30.4 million Spotify users to Spotify’s own public figure of 100 million global users.
All this is to take nothing away from Apple: the rapid growth of Apple Music to 20m+ subscribers is a big, positive news story for the music industry, and its fierce competition with Spotify is driving the market upwards. Also note that Apple isn’t putting these figures out: it has stuck to ‘paying subscribers’ as its public metric.
It’s just a reminder to retain your scepticism about stats around our industry that seem too big to be true.