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Apple Music’s Spatial Audio Strategy Is Paying Off With More Listeners, Major Releases

Plays of Spatial Audio tracks have quadrupled since September, the company tells Billboard.

Apple’s efforts to differentiate its music streaming service seem to be working.

Eight months after it was released, the early results are in, and Spatial Audio is rapidly growing on Apple Music. The majority of Apple Music subscribers have experienced Spatial Audio, and listeners have increased by 50% since September, the company tells Billboard. Plays of Spatial Audio tracks have also quadrupled since September, and the catalog has rapidly expanded, growing sevenfold since Spatial Audio became available last summer.

Last June, Apple Music released Spatial Audio, its version of Dolby Atmos Music, the immersive audio experience that has been billed as a successor to stereo. And while Spatial Audio had been available under different brand names from both Tidal and Amazon Music, Apple declared that growing Spatial Audio would be a main focus for the streaming service, with Apple senior vp of services Eddy Cue telling Billboard the feature would be “a true game-changer” for the music industry.

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While it may not have changed the music industry yet, the growth of Spatial Audio is reflected in Apple Music’s charts. Since the beginning of the year, 37% of the top 10 songs on Apple Music’s global Daily Top 100 songs chart are available in Spatial Audio and 42% of the platform’s top 100 songs in the U.S. today are available in Spatial Audio. Additionally, 40% of the biggest new releases on Apple Music since September have been available in Spatial Audio, according to the streaming service.

Apple Music’s Spatial Audio push helps the company differentiate itself in a commoditized market. With every major music streaming service maintaining the same catalog of songs, an improved and easily noticeable audio experience would help the company separate itself from its competitors like Spotify. For the labels, remastering catalog music in Spatial Audio can reinvigorate streams around an album or artist and provide new artists with an additional promotional tool alongside the improved listening experience for fans.

“This is the biggest priority in what we do because we believe in it, because we think this is better for the customer and is better for the creative industry,” says Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vp of Apple Music and Beats. Schusser says Apple Music only had a few thousand songs available in Spatial Audio when it launched the feature last year, and the company went on a journey to sell artists and producers — along with listeners — on the new immersive experience.

“We now have more than half of our worldwide Apple Music subscriber base listening in spatial audio and that number is actually growing really, really fast,” says Schusser. “We would like the numbers to be higher, but they are definitely exceeding our expectations.”

When Apple Music launched Spatial Audio, the service made a bet that the feature would appeal to a wider audience than high-fidelity audio, something that Spotify referred to as its most requested feature when it announced its Hi-Fi service last year, which has still not arrived. While Apple Music does support high-fidelity with its Lossless streaming option, it made it clear that it looks at high-fidelity audio as a “pro feature” for audiophiles and instead would focus on Spatial Audio as the differentiator for the service.

“Everyone in the industry was really focused on Lossless,” says Schusser. “We have every song in our catalog available in Lossless to us delivered by the industry, but the challenge is it doesn’t play on any headphone in the world over Bluetooth or any wireless connection, and that is by a country mile the number one way how people consume music these days.”

Schusser says most people can’t tell the difference when Lossless music is played and noted that while it’s an important feature to a select niche, it isn’t a mass-market product. “And so,” he says, “we went out and said we would like to have a feature for the mass market that works on pretty much every device and where people notice a difference.”

“It’s a strategic imperative for us and it starts with the artists,” says Michael Nash, Universal Music Group executive vp digital strategy. Nash notes that the meticulous process for converting an entire catalog to Spatial Audio for an artist can take “months,” but the rewards are worth it. For Apple’s part, the company is emphasizing the importance of quality mixing here — compared to the early days of Dolby Atmos Music, when some mixes didn’t live up to the quality of the original recordings. “We listen to every song that comes in Spatial Audio to us and we try to engage with people who make the cut during the process,” Schusser says.

“There’s a much larger audience for Spatial Audio compared to the early days of the Dolby Atmos Music rollout, when there was more experimentation with the format,” Schusser says. “Now it gets a lot more serious, and now we’re not the only one to make it part of the standard [streaming] plan,” says Schusser. “There’s a real audience now, so people spend more time on it. There’s more knowledge and we know just from the engagement, the conversations that we’re in, that people within the creative community talk about it a lot more.”

The Beatles, The Weekend, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, J. Cole, Post Malone, Katy Perry and other superstar artists have reworked numerous songs to incorporate Spatial Audio, and according to Apple that has led to an increase in streams — and more importantly an increase in new listeners. Apple Music has also provided additional support to Spatial Audio tracks, highlighting songs that have been reworked in the new format on its home page.

When The Weeknd re-released his 2016 album Starboy in Spatial Audio on June 7, Apple says his first-time listeners increased by 20% over the eight weeks following compared to the eight weeks prior. Eilish matched that growth in the same time frame when she re-released When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go in Spatial Audio. Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding and Swift’s Lover saw even greater gains, growing new listeners 40% and 50%, respectively, according to Apple Music.

Older catalog releases that have been re-released in Spatial Audio have had similar success. When The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was released in Spatial Audio, first-time listeners increased by 50% — and 40% of those listeners went on to discover more music from The Beatles. “We’re seeing huge uptick in artists’ back catalog off the basis of them re-engaging their fans with a new way of listening to the music,” says Rachel Newman, Apple Music’s global head of editorial and content. Streams of Spatial Audio tracks on Apple Music editorial playlists have grown by 125% since the feature launched last summer, Newman notes. “Part of the key has just been making sure that it’s highly accessible for all kinds of artists at all different levels,” she says. “And the number of studios is now exponential compared to when we launched.”

Despite the global pandemic, Dolby now has over 400 studios in over 40 countries specifically designed for recording in Atmos, with 200 more slated to open in the near future. “There’s been over 50% growth in the last six months, and that’s really thrilling and it’s keeping a lot of people very busy,” says Christine Thomas, Dolby’s senior director of music partnerships, about the company’s Atmos studio expansion. Dolby has been focused on expanding studio support as well as educating both artists and engineers on how to maximize Dolby Atmos Music. Apple also updated its Logic Pro recording software to support Dolby Atmos mixing late last year.

Spatial Audio listening still isn’t available everywhere. Cars, for example, are still without the capability, but Dolby and Apple both tell Billboard they have spoken with automakers and see this as a target area. But with development cycles for new vehicles that can extend over five years, it may take some time before the commute to work is an immersive experience. In time, however, Schusser is confident that Spatial Audio will arrive in every area where music now streams. “Good technology will eventually make it into all places,” he says. “And I think that’s what this is going to be.”