I want my Apple Music TV: Cupertino’s latest concept is fascinatingly retro

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MTV shirt
Is Apple reanimating the corpse of MTV?
Photo: Chris Benson/Unsplash CC

What’s old is apparently new. With Apple Music TV, the new streaming channel that plays music videos 24 hours a day, Cupertino created a 21st-century version of MTV that looks a lot like the 1980s.

The service — which is free to everyone in the United States, not just Apple Music subscribers — launched out of the blue Monday. More than a quarter century after the original MTV’s heyday, this is going to be fascinating to watch. Can it possibly work?

Video killed the radio star. And YouTube killed MTV

Back when Steve Jobs was running Apple, a former employee emailed him to enquire about Apple staging a celebratory event to mark its 30th birthday. Jobs was quick to put the kibosh on the idea. “Apple is focused on the future, not the past,” he wrote.

Why do I start with that anecdote? Because, with Apple Music TV, Apple is launching an unashamedly backward-looking concept.

MTV defined the 1980s in a lot of ways. When The Buggles sang “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the song was a direct reference to the way music videos transformed pop music — and popular culture as a result.

MTV, which launched in 1981, created modern music programming and helped break some massive acts in the process. For the ’80s and much of the ’90s, MTV defined a cultural zeitgeist. While it gradually embraced non-music video programming, it more than lived up to its name.

Somewhere around the early 2000s that changed. MTV stopped playing music videos. Napster and iTunes redefined the way we listened to music. And, a few years later, YouTube changed how we watched music videos — and MTV got out of the game completely.

A basic cable network aimed squarely at the teen market, even today’s oldest cord-cutting teenagers won’t remember a time when MTV played music or set trends.

Apple Music TV takes retro approach

It’s interesting, then, to see Apple dive into this space. Apple’s approach is a decidedly retro one. Eschewing any kind of algorithmic personalization, Apple Music TV plans to deliver 95% music videos. And it will stream the same curated rotation for everyone tuning in, playing the big hits of today in a constant stream.

“The basis of it is really contemporary hits, so a perfect hour of music programming would be Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Tate McRae, Zayne, J Balvin, Pink Sweats, Blackpink, Victoria Monet, Big Sean,” Apple Music TV boss Rachel Newman told Variety in an interview published soon after Apple launched the channel Monday. “It’s really contemporary, well-known hits, so if we have a sample representation of artists, it would be Drake, Dua Lipa, Cardi B, BTS, Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish.”

There will be special events, like this week’s Bruce Springsteen takeover, as well as “short-form video interstitial content.” (Show me a teenager who doesn’t love short-form video interstitial content, and I’ll show you a person that’s bored with life).

However, the focus, Newman said, is “very intentionally music videos.” Doubling down, she said that “even lean-forward music fans want a lean-back solution that they can set and forget.”

Don’t bet against Apple

Apple, for my money, has made very few mistakes when it comes to music. The creation of iTunes, of course, was a game-changer for Apple. Apple Music is one of the two leaders in the streaming music stakes, along with Spotify.

Over the years, the company ran its own music festivals and brokered deals with multiple artists. Today, it operates three radio stations — Apple Music 1, Apple Music Hits and Apple Music Country — with DJs and plenty of star power. (While the company hasn’t confirmed listening numbers, Apple claims Apple Music 1 is a storming success.)

Apple has changed the culture plenty of times in its history. Teens love Apple products. But can the company retrain a generation that grew up discovering music through TikTok memes and YouTube videos to tune into a “lean-back” platform like MTV was back in the day?

Can whatever Apple’s answer to classic MTV shows like Yo! MTV Raps and Headbangers Ball work as recommendation alternatives to an algorithm?

Does Apple Music TV have a shot in heck of becoming a new cultural touchstone?

I don’t have the answers. But I’m looking forward to finding out. Apple has the advantage of being, well, Apple. Its deep pockets mean that it should immediately be taken seriously as a company that can swing for the fences. And its growing web of services — Apple Music, Apple TV+ and even things like Apple News+, Apple Arcade and Apple Fitness+ — offer plenty of opportunities for cross-promotion.

As someone with very fond memories of watching MTV back in the day, I’m excited to see how a new generation of music fans will react to this new twist on a concept their parents (and maybe their grandparents) loved.

What’s your take on Apple Music TV?

You can watch Apple Music TV right now in the Apple Music and Apple TV apps.

What’s your take? Do you think Apple can make Apple Music TV a hit? Has the music landscape changed too much in the years since MTV to allow this to work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.