Apple Music puts a human face on the mess that music’s become

By

Iovine
Jimmy Iovine talks up Apple Music at WWDC 2015.
Photo: Apple

Apple’s big idea for transforming the way we experience music is bringing a personal touch — and a simple, unified platform — to the tangled technological mess that music’s become in 2015. Apple Music is classic Apple: putting a human face on technology that threatens to overwhelm us.

Tim Cook brought out high-profile artists, and Apple’s team of industry insiders, to show off what he called “the next chapter in music” today at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

“I know your are going to love it,” Cook said, introducing Apple Music. “It will change the way that you experience music forever.”

Here’s what Apple Music will bring to your ears.

Order from chaos

After transforming the music industry with iTunes and the iPod, Apple was slow to jump into the streaming game. iTunes Radio, which offered a Pandora-style internet radio service, failed to take the world by storm, and Apple had no horse in the on-demand race dominated by Spotify. Ever since Apple bought Beats Music, the world has been waiting for Cupertino’s next move.

Today, Jimmy Iovine — music industry vet, Beats Music co-founder and current Apple employee — laid out a clear vision for simplifying the “fragmented mess” that the music industry has become.

“I said, ‘Guys, can we build a bigger and better ecosystem, with the elegance and simplicity that only Apple can do?'” Iovine said Monday at WWDC, describing his meetings with the Apple team to dream up a service that he called “one complete thought around music.”

To that end, Apple is building something that’s more than just a Spotify competitor: It’s an end-to-end music ecosystem that brings together streaming (of on-demand tracks from your music library and the Apple Music catalog as well as curated playlists and 24/7 radio) with tools for letting artists connect directly with fans. We won’t know for sure how well it works — or exactly how it feels — until it launches at the end of the month, but we do have some details.

Apple Music Radio

Apple Music Radio will consist of two parts:

Beats 1: Billed as a 24/7 live worldwide radio station, Beats 1 will play music selected by three star DJs — Zane Lowe in Los Angeles, Ebro Darden in New York and Julie Adenuga in London. In addition to music, it will offer interviews, guest hosts and music news — basically what MTV used to be back when everybody loved it (and it actually played music).

Apple execs stressed that the DJs will be charged with playing tracks they like, whether from big stars or undiscovered artists, meaning this is all about making Apple a trusted music tastemaker. It’s far different from the data-controlled robots that spit out playlists for traditional radio these days.

“I am a music fan. I play records,” said DJ Lowe in a video intro, in which he revealed that Apple charged him with “moving the needle” with Beats 1. “We have real music fans running this place,” he added.

Beats 1 was the biggest surprise of the Apple Music unveiling — and a throwback to the days when radio DJs were kings of the musical universe, making or breaking acts simply by offering their coveted seal of approval.

Still, in today’s completely fragmented musical landscape, just how big of a draw will one station run by three individuals be? Some people love the idea of tastemaker-driven live radio, but others love fragmentation — the fact that you can drill down and queue up anything from hillbilly music to hip-hop with just a simple search.

Apple Music Radio: This will be a series of internet radio stations “created by some of the world’s finest radio DJs,” according to the Apple Music press release. Listeners can expect “expertly curated” stations in genres “from indie rock to classical and folk to funk,” and Apple Music members can skip as many songs as they like.

While Apple stresses the human influence, this feature doesn’t sound particularly innovative: It’s similar to what Sirius XM satellite radio already does, only with a better distribution system.

Apple Music Connect

With Apple Music Connect, Cupertino seems to be trying to recapture the magic that was MySpace a decade ago. It gives musicians and bands an opportunity to share anything and everything — lyrics, videos, new tracks or behind-the-scenes photos from the studio or green room. “Fans can comment on or like anything an artist has posted, and share it via Messages, Facebook, Twitter and email,” Apple said. “And when you comment, the artist can respond directly to you.”

Just like on MySpace. Or Twitter. Or Facebook.

It’s another attempt by Apple to build a beautiful walled garden where all the wonderful things can happen. Will it work? You can’t deny the power of the iOS user base, but Ping didn’t work out so well.

And just how much time do musicians have to capture all this super-compelling audio and video when they’re at home, on the road or in the studio? Still, Apple’s star-maker status could be a draw for musicians who currently wrestle with getting their words, music and videos out to all their fans across so many different platforms.

Playlists curated ‘For You’

Like Beats Music, Apple Music Radio is being pitched as a service that’s better because of human curation. A new feature in Apple Music called “For You” will pull together suggestions based on your musical preferences as well as queuing up the perfect playlist for a beer blast or a chill dinner date at home.

“Algorithms alone can’t do that emotional task,” said Apple Music architect Trent Reznor in a video touting the new service.

Pricing and availability

The best news is that everybody (at least in the 100 countries Apple Music will launch in) can try the service for free, starting June 30 for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac and PC users. Apple Music comes to Apple TV and Android phones in the fall. After the three-month free trial, an Apple Music subscription will cost $9.99 per month. The real bargain is a family plan, which is available to iCloud Family Sharing users and lets up to six family members join for a flat fee of just $14.99/month.

“It’s an incredible value,” said Cook, who hasn’t weaned himself off the superlatives. “Isn’t that amazing?”

About that WWDC reveal

After months of speculation and leaks, there weren’t that many big reveals about the Apple Music service. The name, the pricing and free three-month trial, the shot at grabbing the streaming crown from Spotify — most of that had already been reported (attributed usually to unnamed sources).

The WWDC presentation mostly covered familiar territory, painting a portrait of Apple Music with broad strokes and plenty of talk about how amazing and artist-friendly the service will be.

Apple played the street cred card, with a halting appearance by Drake (who talked about how technology has fueled his career) and a capping performance by The Weeknd. It wasn’t stunning, but it also wasn’t creepy and weird like Tim Cook glad-handing Bono during last year’s U2 debacle at WWDC. Overall, played up Apple’s stated goal of making artists the most important part of the digital musical equation.

But even with a heart that’s in the right place and the power players like Iovine and Reznor onboard, can Apple once again fundamentally transform the way we listen to and consume music?

Apple has pulled off this feat before, and the WWDC rollout was just our first look at what Apple Music will be. It’s an ambitious plan to focus all the world’s musical attention on a single platform. Like the Apple Watch unveiling, the Apple Music keynote gave us just a glimpse at Apple’s vision for music. Now Cupertino will focus its marketing muscle on making Apple Music a winner.

The idea sounds simple and direct, if not exactly world-changing, but the devil will be in the details. If it’s truly an easier, better and cheaper way to immerse ourselves into the world’s vast trove of music, Apple could have another hit on its hands.