Despite years of media’s insistence on pitting Apple Music vs. Spotify, a half decade after the former’s launch, it’s fairly clear there’s very little reason to consider these two platforms in competition. Even though Apple just held an event announcing a number of new products, Apple Music’s subscriber figures were last shared in April 2019. At the time, the platform had 56 million worldwide subscribers and it’s 28 million paid subscribers surpassed
Spotify’s 26 million. The latest worldwide estimates clocked the company at 80 million
, but only a couple years ago Tim Cook explicitly said
Apple wasn’t into Apple Music for the money. Spotify’s recent stock surges are linked to podcasting purchases, not music moves, which shows the divergent paths these companies took. That drop off in this particular narrative might make Apple Music a bit less exciting to cover but helps contextualize the company’s recent decisions and its potential paths forward.
My own speculation is that Apple Music will slowly just be rolled into a larger Apple services bundle with potential TV streaming, storage, etc. That way “paying” for Apple Music essentially is just part of the experience of owning an iPhone at a certain point.
I’ll take this as proof I can see the future (kidding). This wasn’t a big leap to make, considering the Music Industry Blog made the same proclamation later
in the year. The flattening of these services only further confines the scope of an Apple Music if it’s supposed to work neatly as part of Apple’s unlimited culture package.
Apple’s lack of explicit financial concern with Apple Music doesn’t mean ideas don’t come and go. There was a brief focus on original video content
, and no I’m not talking about Apple TV; there was the short-lived and always slightly confusing, now discontinued
, Connect. The company’s done a number of publicized playlist refreshes
, which I personally enjoy on an aesthetic level, though I doubt many have noticed. The company announced a couple of updates to Beats 1 by changing the name to Apple Music 1
, which beyond making my skin crawl, shows a recommitment to its artist-centered original programming. This is the role Apple’s traditionally occupied within the music industry dating back at least to the days of iTunes, where one selling point for record labels on the fence was millions of advertising dollars subsidized by Apple.
That’s why, as I noted last week, it felt entirely reasonable to see Apple work with the Verzuz series
, because it’s the kind of original programming the company’s previously attempted to produce, but to little avail. This fits within Apple’s decade-long tradition of using music’s cultural cool to help sell its own products. It’s also a show that trades on nostalgia and already established artists; the entire conceit would fall apart without the celebrity factor. The record industry gets a little return on the initial investment made to create the Verzuz stars, who are now supported through various tech firms.
That Verzuz started on Instagram, where it still does broadcast, would say that while Apple is sinking money into documentaries and Hollywood-like programming, it’s still not found compelling music programming. The unspoken cultural project of Apple Music, or at least the creation of a real enough facsimile, is to break through to mainstream culture. Yet, the quality of Apple’s content feels more relevant because there’s little else the company is doing in the music space on a grand
level. (I’ll admit this is glossing over Cherie Hu’s reporting on Apple’s B2B work
, couldn’t ignore that.)
So if this is all that Apple is doing right now. What isn’t the company pursuing within music? Even though last year Spotify backed away from distribution
(it still invested in Distrokid
back in 2018), Apple’s offered no hints or suggestions of diving into the fraught waters of music distribution. Despite the strained attempts at genning up interest in music AR or VR by music press, there’s been little concrete effort from Apple in this space, with rumored products
still years away. Also, despite Spotify’s intense pivot into podcasting and a willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on podcast companies and talent, Apple’s remained fairly quiet in the space and still keeps a wall between “Podcasts” and “Music” within its apps.
Yet, it’s not only the lack of new product or content pushes that makes Apple a bit unique in the contemporary music business. I keep harping on it but
Apple is the only major streaming platform that isn’t attempting
to fight the Copyright Royalty Board
ruling that would increase payouts to songwriters. The ongoing legal battle is one that continuously reveals the priorities of these massive firms and indicates that paying working musicians even a little bit more is a threat to the entire business model. Apple just shrugs. (This isn’t to ignore Apple’s monopolistic tendencies within its own App store.)
Similarly, Apple, as a company, remains unconnected to the highly financialized web
that interlocks all of the major labels, Spotify, Tencent, and others. A reason could be that much of the investment activity here during the peak of the iTunes era in the early 2010s when the industry was more at odds with Apple. However, Apple’s long-rumored potential purchase of a major label
suggests it may not be fruitful to draw a hard line of distinction between all of these firms.
This list of what Apple isn’t doing should not be read as a list of potential opportunities for the company. I’m certainly not sure any of these industries would be better with more Apple involvement. Still, Apple’s rather singular focus on artist-centered marketing, while making it less exciting for my own personal interests, makes for a rather consistent force in digital music’s ever-changing political economy. If you’re an A-list or aspiring artist, Apple is here at your service. Perhaps this approach will shift as the decade continues, but for now Apple is digital music’s steadiest ship.