The day after Apple Music’s launch is much like the day before it. Apple has potential to change the record business but hasn’t released the product to do it. The general feeling is: Apple has launched a product that will eventually lead to a much more successful, later version of the product. It’s a first step.
History suggests Apple Music can improve. Apple doesn’t always launch products that excel out of the box. Smart buyers often wait for a later iteration of an iPhone rather than buy a first edition. Some products, notably Apple Maps, were notoriously bad at launch yet improved over time (Apple says it’s now used 3.5 times more often than the next-best map app). Apple TV has grown slowly and quietly (sales reached 25 million at the end of 2014).
The service hasn’t gone without adoration. Business Insider‘s glowing review included a headline that predicted “Apple Music will make Spotify totally irrelevant within a year.” Noted technology writer David Pogue wrote that Apple Music “works flawlessly on day one.” But Pogue also criticized the app for being “stuffed with features, controls and interface.” Here, Pogue gets to the heart of problem: Can Apple Music be all things to all people?
But there are more critics than fans — and for good reason. Marc Ruxin, a former executive at Rdio and founder of recommendation app TastemakerX, sees numerous user experience problems. The “download to mobile” feature is too difficult to find. The new release section is inadequate and impersonal. It has a “lifeless” search experience. “Subscription services have to make it braindead simple to discover new music and build or replicate a beloved collection,” he tells Billboard.
Finding a great user experience isn’t easy, Ruxin admits. Apple Music has the task of wrangling nearly every song in commercial release into a fun, easy-to-use experience. “It’s not like taking a picture, picking a filter and publishing to Instagram,” says Ruxin. “The goal should have been simplicity, discovery and social connectivity.”
Radio consultant James Cridland criticized Beats 1 for lacking what radio listeners want: a list of recently played songs, a schedule of upcoming shows, and good production, among other things. “The launch was botched, confused, lazy, uninspiring and most of all, deeply ignorant,” he wrote. Kurt Hanson, CEO of AccuRadio, felt Beats 1 was out-of-step with consumer demand for streaming music. A case of “old-school record executives and musicians and on-air talent” seeking a global audience “[is] like launching an FM station in 1976 in mono,” he wrote at RAIN News.
But Apple Music is a good first version with room to improve, says Bryce Clemmer, CEO of Vadio, a video streaming platform. “Generally speaking, whenever you release hardware and software experiences, there will always be multiple iterations on the first experience. This is a great initial experience they’ve launched, and over time they’ll optimize it based on how people use it.”
Beats 1 certainly has room for improvement. Hanson posits that Apple could launch multiple channels — call them Beats 2, Beats 3, Beats 4, etc. — that could provide music diversity and give a large country like the United States “a great, live, national Top 40 station.” Personality-driven radio might seem old-fashioned in 2015, but radio executives know people are still drawn to the format. Improvements would pay dividends since Beats 1 is free to all users and a gateway to paid subscriptions.
Although its global reach has attracted some derision — global seems anachronistic in an age of personalized and localized radio — Beats 1 can provide a service where currently none exist. Americans have embraced non-interactive webcasting mainly because of services like Pandora. But much of the world doesn’t have good Internet radio. Sonos CEO John MacFarlane sees an opportunity. “You can listen to terrestrial radio [on the Internet], and that’s the biggest replacement, but it’s not the same,” he said in an interview. “So with Apple launching a free global digital radio service, that really opens up that whole category.”
Back to the topic of iteration, though. Although success will all but kill download sales, the record business needs a winner in this space. Of all the players, Apple might have the greatest potential to bring music subscriptions to a wide audience. But this product won’t bring growth back to music sales. It will have to be a future version. And it will have to seem like a better value. “It needs to convince people of the unbelievable value that is a subscription to the history of recorded music for less than $10 a month,” says Ruxin. “But this product doesn’t.”