Update: I originally wrote this article in April, 2014. It now seems that Apple will announce a streaming service next week. I wonder if it will look like this.
The word is out that iTunes Radio isn’t performing as Apple had hoped. Album sales are down, streaming revenue is up. iTunes Radio may not be the appropriate model for Apple to use to compensate for a drop in music sales in the iTunes Store. It is said that Apple is in talks with record labels to set up a music streaming service. This wouldn’t be like iTunes Radio, but an on-demand streaming service, like Spotify and others.
I looked at the math in Is Streaming the Future of Music?, but now I want to look at how I think Apple could make a streaming service work. My main points here show why I don’t like current streaming services; obviously, other listeners have other ways of listening, so their ideas may be different. Feel free to post comments about changes you would make to have a streaming service that works for you.
My guess is that the occasional listeners – the ones who want to listen to songs, or use music as wallpaper – will continue with ad-supported streaming services, but album listeners, or those with broad, eclectic tastes – the ones who keep the music industry afloat – would be willing to pay, if these services welcomed them. (I’m going to leave aside the use of a streaming service as “radio,” using it like iTunes Radio or Pandora.)
Any such streaming service will include radio stations, perhaps just a slightly modified version of the current iTunes Radio, and “curated” playlists. Frankly, I find the latter to be cheesy; if you look on Beats Music, you see playlists of music for barbecues, beach parties, etc. I can’t see that such playlists cover the tastes of all those who have barbecues or beach parties, and they seem like fluff to me. (I wonder how many people use that kind of playlist…)
Here’s what I think needs to be done to make Apple’s streaming music service better than the others:
- It should be easy to find music, by artist name, song name, album name, etc. This currently isn’t the case with Spotify; they’re search isn’t very good (I’m not familiar enough with other streaming services, because there aren’t many available in the UK). iTunes searches are good enough: you can search by album, artist, song, etc., and, in general, you find what you want, even if it’s somewhat obscure. This also means that classical music should be easy to find. In general, the iTunes Store’s metadata is pretty good, but it often gets artists wrong, or has incomplete lists of artists, for classical music.
- You should be able to play an entire album with a single click or tap.
- You should be able to access a full history of what you have listened to. Spotify has a Play Queue – a sort of “Up Next” – and there’s a History tab, which should show everything I’ve listened to. I haven’t used Spotify in a while, and the History tab only contains what I’ve listened to on my computer. If I look on my other Mac, nothing shows up; nothing is listed from what I’ve listened to on mobile devices. This Recently Played playlist should contain everything I’ve listened to with my account, from every device, and should be available on every device as well.
- You should be able to rate music, not just “star” it, using a five-point scale, as you can do in your iTunes library. You should be able to record what you like and what you don’t, because if you listen to a lot of music, it’s hard to remember.
- If iTunes becomes a streaming service, you should be able to stream any music from the iTunes Store (as long as labels have opted in). It should be transparent as to what you can and can’t stream, and streaming should be as easy as buying.
- You should be able to add streaming tracks to your iTunes library. This is the killer feature. Just as you can have tracks “in the cloud” in your iTunes library, and use them as part of a playlist, you should be able to do the same with streaming tracks. They should become part of your library, combined with your purchased music, and you should be able to play them as if they were in your library.
- iTunes should cache what you listen to, so it doesn’t have to keep re-downloading the same tracks; so, rather than streaming each time, it would store tracks – in encrypted form – in a cache.
- You should be able to sync streaming tracks to your iOS device, either via iTunes Match or by a connected sync. In other words, the difference between what you physically own and what you stream should disappear. iTunes should be able to sync cached files or download streaming tracks for offline playing, so you can sync them to an iPhone and listen to them without worrying about paying for mobile data. (You should have the choice as to whether you want to sync actual tracks or just pointers, to later grab them on your iOS device.)
What I’m suggesting, in essence, is that the wall between your music library and the entire iTunes Store library be torn down, for a fee. Apple is the only company that can do this, because of the integration of the iTunes Store and the iTunes app, and its ability to sync content to mobile devices. If Apple were to do this, they would have literally no competitors, at least on iOS devices.
Here’s how you might see it in iTunes. Some tracks are local, others in the cloud, others are tracks you’ve added to stream. The icons in the cloud column show their locations:
However, if this is the case, who would buy music? I would still buy some CDs, because I want to own music, but I can’t imagine that I’d buy any more digital music. This is the problem with streaming services: if they’re too good, they will cannibalize sales. However, streaming done right could cannibalize piracy as well.
And there, as they say, is the rub. If you make streaming too good, no one will buy music any more. If streaming is mediocre, not enough people will pay for it. If streaming is going to generate enough income to keep musicians and record labels afloat, maybe it’s time to make a big leap into the unknown. Right now, only Apple can do this.