Here’s How Apple Could Make Music Streaming Work

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:

Apple streaming music

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.

9 thoughts on “Here’s How Apple Could Make Music Streaming Work

  1. This sounds great but far away :(
    In the meantime you may wanne take a look at rdio. You can easily add albums to your library and listen to them. You don’t have to create a new playlist for every album like in the iOS spotify app and the rdio app in general looks way better. It’s not the utopia, but it’s ok.

    • I was about to reply that Rdio was not available in the UK, where I live, but I went to their site and saw that it is now. It’s one of the few other than Spotify: there’s Deezer, but I don’t think there’s anything else. (There’s also Qobuz, but they’re a bit different from the other services.)

      I also see that Rdio has a web-only option, which is just £5 a month. Spotify is £10, though they used to have a web-only plan.

      Oh, and Spotify still thinks I’m in France, even though I told them to change my country (I moved from France to the UK a year ago). Apparently, it’s very hard to get them to change your country. Sigh.

  2. Spotify doesn’t have a library feature, so it is not suited for album listening. Rhapsody Rdio do have libraries. Rhapsody can play or download entire albums with one button.

  3. Uh, in Spotify on iOS, you just have to navigate to an album, then tap the first song, which will then play, followed by the rest of the album. Pretty simple to play entire albums.

  4. I like the ideas here, but I think there’s room for Apple to go even further to make the streaming/subscription feature worthwhile. For starters, instead of basing its “genius” recommendations and playlists simply on what you own or choosing a single song, Apple could be leveraging user song ratings and play counts to gain real insight into what types of music people like (maybe acquire Mood Agent to boot).

    Then — here’s an idea no one will like, but I think it’s really fair — they could introduce a business model wherein your first, say five listens to a track are free, but after that, there’s a micro payment involved. They could prompt you after a few micro payments to see whether you’d want to buy the track instead.

  5. The key for me–which you hit on–is the integration with the listener’s existing iTunes library. Consistent with what you write, but perhaps building on it, this means:

    1. I want it to be easy to switch from my existing library (including old/obscure/out-of-print albums that I’ve uploaded) to the larger universe of available-for-streaming options. When I search, the search should deliver results from both, perhaps listing items in my library first.

    2. I should be able to add streaming albums to my library, at which point they behave exactly like any other album in my collection.

    3. If the album is going to disappear from the streaming library, as so many of my classical favorites have recently disappeared from Rdio, then I want advance notice.

    4. The customer should be able to pay to purchase a streaming album to fix it permanently in his library.

    5. To the extent that some Apple technology is used to recommend music (e.g. Genius or some people-powered curation system), it should use my purchases, playlists, ratings and play counts from my existing library. This could be a secret sauce that makes the Apple streaming service instantly “smarter” than the competition. (Of course, Apple should make plain that it intends to use customer metadata.)

    6. And the catalog has to be richer than Spotify/Rdio, and much richer than Amazon Prime.

  6. Kirk,

    I find your comments regarding streaming music to be modest, but lack focus on the future of the music industry and how people can leverage from owning music.

    We don’t see every major motion picture in the world uniting with Netflix to pitch all their movies and television shows accessible, on demand, for a fee. What the music business is doing is failing to capture people to buy and manage music. People were doing this a couple years ago with no issues. As soon as Spotify appears in popularity, Apple has to abandon and completely do away with music. Come next week and for the rest of the year, there is no logical reason to buy music anymore. None at all. Most albums are $10 and classical albums are a bit more. To open the store and start Apple Music would mean to abandon the project and vision Jobs pioneered. The world will have the chance to see this in October with Steve Jobs, the biopic, on his life. He loved music. He loved the iPod. What will that device mean on Monday?

    Honestly, you can’t justify the purchase of an iPod because of how cool Apple Music will be. They will push this and the best option will be to use Google Play Music or Windows Music with Onedrive to listen to music. Music players are done and paid for. It’s a shame that they are but the iPod Classic when it was discontinued became one of the most electronics during the holidays. Why can’t Apple take out a 128GB iPod Touch model only, price it at $399 and make a profit? What’s going to happen to all the music I have and tagged? Gone forever?

    Streaming music is a fun to work around with. I just wish Apple didn’t do this type of business. Everyone else can but Apple is different. They have iTunes and where will artists go to release their music? They’re a streaming artist for now on? These questions must be answered.

    • Johnny

      Like a lot of people, I like buying CDs at the store, which is increasingly becoming an online store due to the lack of many records stores in my area. Secondly, I am an Apple person. I will never sign up for any Google services or Microsoft for that matter. (In fact, I am trying to eliminate those companies, Adobe included, from the computer life.)

      I don’t believe Apple has abandoned selling music due to Spotify’s popularity. It’s just another area where it wants to have a foot in the door. This one of the most cited reasons as to why Apple purchased Beats. Ask your friends, “How do you listen to music: By purchasing songs and albums or through a streaming service?” While being a Mac user forever, I only used iTunes Radio a few times. I would rather listen to the Internet stations. But I would rather buy than stream.

      In the next 10 years, I don’t think companies and artists will stop selling music the way it is sold today. And for most of the bands that you like that aren’t, um, “popular,” they will always use every method to get their music to the fans. Right now, I think your music and the method you use to obtain it is still very safe.

    • I’m not weighing in on whether streaming music is a good or bad thing; in fact, as I wrote here, I’m pretty negative about the whole idea. I’m simply suggesting how Apple could make it work, and make it work much better than existing companies.

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