I presume a few months ago 54-year-old Apple CEO Tim Cook was hanging out at some sort of celebrity party in California and ended up talking to some hot new musicians. Wanting to sound in touch and down with the kids he must have said “Yeah, I like new music! I’m super trendy – always into the latest bands”, and as the hipster faces betrayed their claims that they believed him, Cook hastily wanting to prove his credentials by making stuff up on the spot must have added “...in fact, I’m thinking of starting a hip new radio station that’s just for new music”.
That would be the only real explanation for the announcement last night of Beats 1, a new streaming “radio station” that Apple is launching as part of its Apple Music app. The main app itself is nothing to get too excited about; it is basically exactly the same as Spotify. I’m sure it will be functional and do its job – but the radio station… that is surely the first sign of madness? When I first heard Apple announce it, I assumed it was merely a clever test of our Stockholm Syndrome: it was about hour 50 of the keynote address… surely Apple was testing to see if we’d believe anything that they told us now?
What’s bizarre is that the new radio station, which boasts Radio 1’s Zane Lowe as one of its presenters, is essentially the opposite of what Apple does. Since the start of this millennium, Apple has become the biggest company in the world by destroying what came before it.
Beats 1 has been positioned as an entirely human-curated service, with no algorithms or playlists, just what its “expert” DJs think we want to hear. It is like the last 20 years never happened: now that Apple has empowered us all to choose the music we want with its devices, it now wants us to listen to arguments from authority by a small band of tastemakers?
The broader problem is that the remit of Beats 1 can never hope to satisfy everyone – and as a result it runs the risk of not satisfying anyone. In a brief snippet of audio played on stage we heard Lowe interviewing Florence and the Machine, an act that which will only appeal to a relatively niche audience. Even the biggest bands in the world will only be popular among a relatively small proportion of people, let alone smaller and new artists. It seems utterly bizarre that Apple thinks that it can take an experience so deeply personal and connected to people’s sense of identity as music, and make a product that can be broad and homogenous, and appeal to a wide audience.
If you make content so broad, it becomes meaningless; the equivalent to an in-flight magazine. You might flick through the in-flight mag if you’re trapped on an aeroplane with nowhere to go and nothing to do – but if you had the print-article equivalent of pretty much every song ever recorded at your fingertips, are you really going to give a shit what easyJet thinks is the best wine in Tuscany or whatever? No one would willingly choose something so bland.
Perhaps that isn’t the intention; perhaps Apple is only interested in going after a narrow demographic of users who happen to like the same things as 41-year-old Zane Lowe. In which case the question is why bother?
I can’t help but wonder if this is like the U2 album giveaway last year: something that sounds like a great idea when thrown around the echo-chamber of a boardroom stuffed with middle-aged executives, but something that will ultimately piss off a large slice of the audience when fucking Bono turns up on their phones because of some executive vanity project.
Don’t get me wrong, radio can work. But what makes radio work isn’t the music, but is the chat and other content. A radio station isn’t just the songs it plays, but is the news, local information and the sense of community. Perhaps Zane Lowe and co. can create that feeling. But given Beats 1 is talked up as being “worldwide” with an ill-defined genre remit, don’t expect him to be talking much about your music scene if you’re into classical music in Jakarta, or are a Turbofolk fan in Belgrade.
Why won't it work? Blame the iPod.
The iPod gave us the power to carry around large libraries of music in our pockets. Radio has felt the heat ever since. Why would you want to listen to tracks picked by someone else when you have the music you like available at the touch of a button?
Since then more advanced technology has enabled algorithms to pick things that we like. Spotify has a feature where you can pick an artist you like, and it will recommend similar based on what other people who like the same stuff have been listening to. It calls this feature “Radio”, but it is not radio: it is a powerful recommendation engine that means that Metalheads will get more Metal, Hip-Hop fans will get more Hip-Hop, and Freakbeat fans will get more Freakbeat, whatever the hell that is.
Sure, there is an argument for more eclectic discovery – but I would wager most people know the sort of thing they like and will want to stick with it. Slipknot fans are not going to stay listening to Beats 1 if after playing a track for them, Zane changes speed and plays something off of the new Mumford & Sons album instead.
If Apple did want to do some sort of curation smartly, it could instead follow the Netflix route. Netflix is similar, as it offers a tonne of films and TV shows, but also makes its own programming. But rather than entrust programming to a self-appointed demagogue like Lowe, it has instead used its vast data assets to inform decision making. Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards was commissioned because Netflix viewing data showed that people who liked the original BBC House of Cards also like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey, so Netflix got all three to team up and create a hit. Crucially, House of Cards wasn’t aimed at everyone but a very specific demographic. With Beats 1, Apple has ruled out algorithms entirely.
Platforms vs Content
Ultimately, Apple needs to realise that it is a platform company, not a content company. By this I mean it should stick to what it is good at: providing apps and services on top of which content companies (like radio stations) can produce content for.
Viewed through this lens Beats 1 makes even less sense: it isn’t a natural extension of what Apple does, but is a weird, new direction where Apple will have to actively make editorial decisions about who it allows on air and what it allows to be discussed. Will it be a hands off proprietor, enabling Lowe to interview, say, Canadian punk band Propagandhi about the evils of capitalism? Or will the executives upstairs want to meddle in the output?
I’m willing to bet that Beats 1 will be a financial disaster for Apple. Yes, it is one of the richest companies in the world so it will likley cause nothing but a blip on the balance sheet, but operating a radio station like this will at least bleed away a little money on what is nothing more than a dressed up executive vanity project. Don’t be surprised if it is quietly closed down within a couple of years when everyone comes to their senses.
The old saying goes that rock stars want to be movie stars and vice-versa, but just as music mogul Dr Dre turned executive, perhaps it turns out that ageing Silicon Valley execs wish they were music moguls too?