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Digital Watch: Is Apple Music a Threat to Indie Internet Radio?

On Monday Apple announced its much anticipated music service, called, appropriately enough, Apple Music. It essentially integrates Beats Music, which the company acquired last year, more closely with iTunes and iTunes Radio, and adds more celebrity-curated stations and playlists.

Apple Music doesn’t become available until June 30, so nobody has taken it for a spin yet. But looking at the feature list, frankly, the only thing that appears to make it special is that it comes from Apple. That means it will be instantly available on millions of iPhones, iPads and Macs, giving the service an immediate head start over every other streaming music platform. But I fail to see much else that rises above the heap.

It’s main service is on-demand access to some 30 million tracks, just like Spotify, Rdio, Deezer and Rhapsody. Features like artist-curated playlists also are found on other services. Certainly Apple’s deep pocketbooks mean well-known artists like Trent Reznor and Drake are participating, but Jay-Z’s TIDAL has also signed up big-name talent while Slacker has “artist takeover” stations curated by the likes of AWOLNATION, The Black Keys and Reba McEntire.

It’s also difficult to see anything innovative at all in Apple’s “Music Radio” stations, even the flagship “global station,” retaining the Beats name as “Beats 1.” Again, the only unique element is that Beats 1 is curated by three apparently well-known DJs based in LA, New York and London. There are thousands upon thousands of great internet stations out there, with dozens or hundreds curated by popular and famous DJs.

So, really, all Apple is bringing to the party is a service that is available by default on the most popular smartphones and tablets. That also means there’s a little less friction for the iPhone owner to sign up for Apple Music, since she has likely already set up an account with her credit card to buy apps or iTunes tracks.

If Apple Music’s major threat is to big, well-funded platforms like Spotify, Rdio and TIDAL, this begs the question of why Radio Survivor readers should care. The reason is Apple’s market power when it comes to online audio, and what affect it could have on internet radio as a whole, especially independent stations and networks.

For comparison, Apple’s embrace of podcasting, especially bundling its Podcasts app with iOS, helped spur the medium’s growth. It’s not a trivial thing that iTunes provides a pretty level platform for just about any podcast to be found. iTunes may highlight some podcasts and rank the most popular ones, but a surprising number of quirky and independent shows make their way onto the front page.

With Apple Music, the company is exercising this power, only to offer a closed platform. It’s too soon to tell how good, and therefore, how much of a threat the Apple Music stations will actually be. If iTunes Radio is any indicator, the threat level could be very low.

However, it’s easy money to bet that Apple Music Radio will exceed iTunes Radio’s low bar. So the real question is how much variety it offers, and how enjoyable it is to use. Because the on-demand service does not have an ad-supported free tier, this will push more listeners to try and use Music Radio. But, because it will be available free to any iOS user with an Apple ID, it’s likely that it will have commercials. The question is how frequent they are, and how annoying they’ll be. Keep in mind that online radio listeners appear to be less tolerant of ads than terrestrial radio listeners.

The commercial aspect alone reduces the threat, I think, since there are so many great non-commercial and commercial-free stations out there. I reckon a listener who has a favorite station has little incentive to ditch it in favor of Apple’s stations.

The big unknown lies with the thousands, or maybe millions of iPhone owners who don’t already use an internet radio app or platform. Will Apple Music Radio be good enough not only to lure them to listen, but to stay tuned?

In the same way that iTunes is in some ways synonymous with Podcasts, there’s the risk that Apple Music Radio could become synonymous with internet radio for too many people. Though I think that’s still a longshot, such an outcome would be detrimental to the medium as a whole. If Apple’s platform ends up being kind of crappy or too annoying with ads, then that might tarnish internet radio for a lot of new listeners. The more realistic threat is that Apple Music Radio is just good enough to capture millions of casual listeners who won’t be bothered to look for or try other stations.

That said, I’m more inclined to see a rising tide that raises all boats. While I’m certain some percentage of listeners will be happy to stick with whatever Apple Music provides, I think there will always be segment of people who, once they discover the medium, will seek out fresh and novel stations.

Despite being nearly 20 years old, internet radio still only makes up about 11% of all audio listening in US. There’s room for a lot more growth, and it’s hard for me to imagine that Apple can soak it all up.

However, that doesn’t mean we should take our eye off Apple, either. Market power does funny things to companies.


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