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Kurt Hanson: Apple Music initial fail — but possible viable pivot

kurt hanson aboutAs you’ve read previously in RAIN, as part of their release of iOS 8.4 (the new version of their operating system for iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches), Apple launches their newly-reconfigured Apple Music service, which will be patterned largely after Spotify but will also include their live “Beats 1” (alluding to BBC Radio 1, get it?) global radio station. Beats 1 will start at noon EDT.

My prediction is that Beats 1 will be a disappointment.

It’s an idea hatched by old-school record execs and musicians and air talent, based on an outdated mindset that it’s good to have a massive audience listening simultaneous to one linear stream of music as selected by powerful tastemakers (i.e., those old-school record execs and musicians and air talents).

It’s like launching an FM station in 1976 in mono.

For the past 15 years, ever since the debut of the late Dave Goldberg’s ground-breaking Yahoo! LAUNCHcast service and continuing with the massive popularity of Pandora (now with an audience about as big as 10 share points of radio in every U.S. market) and its ilk, consumers who listen to online radio appreciate, more than anything else, the medium’s personalization features.

Users expect to be able to skip songs they don’t like, and they expect to rate or thumb-up or -down the songs they hear to influence the subsequent music played to them. (They also have grown to like the low ratio of talk-vs.-music on online radio — e.g., no voices jabbering over song intros or outros. But that’s a different topic.)

Beats 1 rolls back the clock to the days before online radio became a one-to-one customizable product. Everyone will hear the same songs, unskippably.

An upside is that the jocks will be able to talk up this week’s priority bands and albums. If it garners a huge audience, it will be a record executive’s dream!

But my guess is that it won’t.

By picking a single musical focus, rather than appealing to 100% of Apple’s users it will start out by appealing to perhaps 5-10% of them. Then, of those 5-10%, some will find the air personalities (most of them unknowns to the U.S. audience) appealing, but most will find the lack of personalization to be a deal-breaker — much like, as I said earlier, mono would have been a deal-breaker in 1975.

There is hope for Apple’s concept, however, and it may be part of their master plan, at least in the back of the minds of some of their staffers — and that’s if it makes financial sense for them to eventually launch a Beats 2 and Beats 3 and Beats 4.

Despite the existence for decades of satellite-delivered 24/7 syndicated formats, and the efforts of XM and Sirius, America has never had a great, live, national Top 40 station. Theoretically, that could be Beats 2. That might work. Top 40 listeners like the interplay of personalities and music.

One might frame this as “personalities vs. personalization,” and I believe a decent percentage of Top 40 listeners, if they have to choose one over the other, might choose the former.

And Beats 3, 4, and 5 might work with other genres — maybe country, maybe chill (which doesn’t benefit much from personalization), and so forth.

(That said, Beats 1 — or one of the Beats stations — may become the biggest AQH radio station in the world. But that’s a fairly low bar, since no one else is trying to do it, and it may not mean much in any given country.)

Remember, though: The big money here for Apple is if they can get their Spotify competitor launched successfully, collecting $10/month from millions of people for an on-demand music subscription service that replaces purchases of CDs and MP3s — and live radio is primarily envisioned, I believe, as a promotional tool for that business.

Caveat: My opinion on all this could change by 1pm EDT (after an hour of listening), when I hear what they’ve actually come up with. Maybe it will be awesome. Fingers crossed!

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Kurt Hanson

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