How Apple is About to Reboot the Music Industry

Written by in Strategy on

It was almost twenty years ago today…

While that admittedly doesn’t have the punchy ring of the Beatles’ original, it sets the time nicely for two entities, Apple Computer (still to become Apple Inc.) and Jimmy Iovine, who was already building toward a post-Napster world for the music industry from artist discovery through distribution.

But first, a little here and now.

Beats by Apple

Apple’s 2014 acquisition of Beats, co-founded by Iovine and Dr. Dre, may have created the savior the music industry has been looking for since the late 1990s.  Earlier this month at WWDC, Apple unveiled the highly anticipated, and soon to be released, music service resulting from their acquisition.

In short, Apple Music strives to combine your music library with a subscription service in a single cloud-based offering. This pits Apple against Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Tidal and others in the next wave of consumer acquisition being hailed the “Playlist Wars.”

Flashback to 1999.

In 1999 Jimmy Iovine, Chairman of Interscope Records, partnered with Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music in a startup venture called farmclub.com. Farmclub was visionary in nearly every way. It was a three-sided website with the support of a weekly co-branded TV show on USA Network. The three sides were as follows:

  1. Unsigned bands could create pages to market themselves, upload their music and communicate with fans.
  2. Fans could discover bands, download and share their music.
  3. A&R staff could monitor activity to see where critical mass was forming in order to sign up-and-coming artists or route them to the weekly TV show.

If this sounds lackluster or like standard fare by today’s standards, consider 1999 carefully:

  1. AOL was the biggest consumer ISP (still via 28k and 56k dialup modems, not broadband)
  2. The iPod wouldn’t debut for another 2 years
  3. MySpace didn’t launch until 2003 (nearly 4 years later)
  4. Music-oriented reality programming like American Idol was still 13 years away (2002)

What Jimmy had going for him was the vision, second-to-none artist-focused music industry experience and a legitimate, mainstream cross-media outlet for artists. What he had working against him was that MP3s were still geek chic, no consumer-friendly plug-and-play handheld tech (the Rio was state-of-the-art), and an uncontrollable consumer experience (it took ~10 minutes to download a single song IF you didn’t lose your connection and have to restart the process).

Back to the future… and that much needed reboot of the music industry.

The Internet heralded in an era and consumer mindset that has been called the “end of the album.” For historical purposes, it’s important to realize that even The Beatles started out in a what was then a singles driven business. While the “death of the album” is a fun debate over drinks (after all, who doesn’t want to talk about how life-changing “Wish You Were Here” was?), it’s a wasted argument from a business perspective. We’ve come full circle and are now in a world led by singles again.

Partially in the face of declining sales of digital singles, numerous “all-you-can-eat” subscription services have emerged. Tech companies in spirit, many have played to their strengths, focusing on playlist models created by algorithms or social curation.

It’s no secret that Apple has had an interest in the music industry for a long time and, while on the surface this could be seen as a defensive play to protect the leadership position of the iTunes ecosystem, there’s a lot more at stake than continued consumer acquisition and market dominance. If Apple Music is successful, it could be the much needed reboot of the music industry.

If Apple Music, by way of its parent company and iTunes ecosystem were a Big Mac, Jimmy Iovine is most definitely the “secret sauce” the competition should be most concerned about. In addition to Jimmy having worked with artists that includes John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, U2, Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga, and Iggy Azalea over the past 40+ years, this isn’t his first foray into the post-Napster world.

 

Apple Music

Here’s why Apple may not only lift their bottom line, but the entire industry in a way that their competition cannot:

  1. Jimmy: He’s a veteran insider with a music first and an artist forward perspective, not a tech startup focus, doing it from the “outside.” He has the industry weight, credibility and track record with artists and labels to get buy in across the industry. He’s spent nearly 20 of his 40+ year career learning, experimenting and getting ready for this play. While he was brave enough to fail with Farmclub, now he has the power of Apple behind him.
  2. Apple: The #1 paying customer base and paid digital music ecosystem, and history and credibility with record labels and artists which includes the highest royalty percentage in the industry.
  3. Subscription: In a move that harkens back to the days of FM radio, Apple Music is betting on trend-setting music tastemakers, DJs who curate playlists out of music epicenters New York, Los Angeles and London. This expert-driven music subscription with physical homes in cultural epicenters steeped in music history is their bet on the future. In addition to the aforementioned streaming services competition, paid radio service Sirius / XM also better watch out.  
  4. Artists First: Apple retracted their initial plan (via tweet by Eddie Cue) to be royalty-free for the first three-months, during which the service will be free to consumers. While this was, at least in part, due to a letter Taylor Swift sent to Apple, it demonstrates that Apple is willing to be open-minded about the need to support artists.
  5. Social: Apple music provides a system that allows up-and-coming artists and unsigned acts to not only market themselves and engage with fans, but to convert to revenue, something that has been elusive for artists on social networks like Facebook (and once upon a time, MySpace).
  6. Your Music: Icing on the cake is that Apple Music is a one-stop-shop. In addition to the subscription service, all your music is also accessible right from the same app.

Although I’m skeptical that Apple will allow direct integration with my Sonos system, I’m looking forward to the free 3 month trial that starts later this month… and what’s to follow for Apple and the music industry as a whole.

For context and transparency, I led the development and delivery of farmclub.com on the Internet for Jimmy Iovine and Doug Morris in 1999-2000.

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