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What does Apple Music mean for musicians?

Apple Music

by Chris Singleton

With the arrival of Apple's new streaming service, 'Apple Music', the music industry looks set for yet another massive shake-up. Here are some potential consequences of its arrival for bands and artists...

1. Music bloggers just became more important

Because of the ubiquity of Apple devices, and the fairly strong likelihood that a significant proportion of their owners will opt in to paying for Apple Music, a much larger slice of the music-listening population is going to start consuming music via streaming. Apple’s aim is to get 100 million paid subscribers on its books (the current number of people streaming music via paid accounts is thought to be around 41 million) – and, unlike many of its competitors, Apple has the advertising funds handy to help it achieve this goal. All this points to the fact that we may well soon reach the point where streaming become a much more popular way to listen to music (in all probability the de facto way).

And with streaming becoming more mainstream, the journey from reading a review of an album to listening to it becomes a lot more straightforward for a lot more people – they can simply click on a link at the bottom of an online review to hear a piece of work that is being lauded or panned by a rock critic. Contrast this to the ‘old’ scenario where a music fan encountered an album review in a printed publication: in order to get their mits on the record, they would have had to take several steps – get up off the sofa; locate the album in a physical or online store; cough up cash; bring it back from the store (or wait for it to download); insert or transfer into music-playing device…and so on. Most people are lazy, so only a fraction of printed reviews ever led to people actually auditioning the music being written about.

But if an online review contains a link at the bottom to the whole album on a streaming service that is used by millions – well we’re talking about a different kettle of fish entirely. Reviews suddenly carry more weight, because they create an instant path between the music being reviewed and its consumption.

Yes, you could argue that we’ve already arrived at that situation thanks to links to Spotify, Soundcloud or Youtube accompanying reviews, but with the arrival of Apple Music we’re talking about a massive ‘upscaling’ of all this. Its introduction will, in my book at least, have labels and music PR companies 1) taking bloggers more seriously than ever before and 2) begging them to include Apple Music links alongside reviews and features.

2. It’s going to be harder to collect fans’ email addresses

Eh? What’s Apple Music got to do with the sign up form on my website? Bear with me. First, Apple Music’s arrival is going to kill off the MP3. Not right away perhaps, but we’re now way past the beginning of the end for the ‘Motion Picture Experts Group Audio Layer Three’ file. This means that people are less likely to get excited by your band’s offer of a free MP3 in exchange for their email address – partly because they don’t bother downloading stuff any more, partly because it's inconvenient or because downloading files feels well, a bit dated – and not in a hipsterish retro good way (give it time though: I suspect that in 10 years time we'll see a downloading revival in Shoreditch...).

And will offereing people a quick - albeit exclusive - stream in exchange for their personal data yield much in the way of sign ups? My feeling is no, not really: for all its virtual nature, the MP3 could still be considered a 'thing' of sorts, whereas a stream feels more like a bit of a fluffy cloud or something. Upshot? You’re going to have to be more creative about what you offer people in exchange for their email addresses.

3. You’re going to have to get your head around a new social network

As if having to be constantly witty on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on wasn’t enough hard work, you’re now going to have to engage fans via Apple Connect, which Apple describe as

”a place where musicians give their fans a closer look at their work, their inspirations, and their world. It’s a main line into the heart of music — great stuff straight from the artists.”

Whether or not Apple Connect lives up to this hype or not is another question, but it would be foolish – given the number of devices Apple Music will be pre-installed on – not to take it pretty seriously. 

4. Musicians may have less time to write and record songs…

So far, all indications point to Apple Music managing to both kill CD and download sales whilst providing minuscule financial renumeration to artists; as with Spotify, we’re talking about musicians getting a fraction of a pence per play. Amongst other things this means that bands are going to have to tour more regularly to make any dosh, and one potential consequence of this is that some acts will have considerably less time to hone their writing or production skills (that said, they might improve their chops somewhat thanks to all those gigs).

5. …but the songs they write may be influenced by way more artists

A lot of musicians I know decry music streaming – yet subscribe to a streaming service at the same time. There’s simply no denying the convenience of the format – hence the hypocrisy. As with listeners, so with musicians: we can expect a lot more of them to get into streaming simply because of Apple Music’s arrival on their iOS device. And this will provide access to a really wide range of influences that many songwriters might never have encountered (or been arsed exploring) before. This in turn has the potential to shape their music – and music in general – in new ways, making it even more post-post-post-postmodern than it already is.

6. You’ll have more data to play with

With Apple Music, you’re going to get more access to more data – as usage of the platform becomes more widespread it’s going to be easy enough, based on being able to see the number of plays you’re getting, to spot your popular songs from the duffers. What you do with this data is, of course, up to you: some bands recoil from writing anything that could be considered remotely popular, and those acts will be no doubt pleased to see yet more evidence that nobody is listening to their music.

7. It may mean that bands start to get slightly more cash from streaming

If the number of paid streaming accounts goes up – which is likely with the introduction of Apple Music – then so will the revenue generated by this method of consuming music. This means that musicians may make a bit more money from streams of their songs. But we’re still talking fractions of pences per play. Streaming in itself does not look like making musicians rich anytime soon.

8. Should you put your songs on Apple Music?

Musicians are caught between a rock and a hard place here. If you’re a ‘niche’ act (and who isn’t these days) with say, 1000 listeners who religiously cough up for each new album you release, then you may find that putting an album up on Apple Music decimates these sales – your die-hard fans are still human at the end of the day, and given the choice most will take convenience and ‘free’ over the effort involved in a purchase (not to mention parting with real hard cash money). But not putting music up on Apple Music closes off your chances of being discovered by a lot of new listeners.

Personally I feel it’s a case of using Apple Music (and indeed other streaming services) judiciously: putting back catalogue up there will make sense for a lot of bands, along with EPs and singles; but whether you want to go the whole hog and make a new album release immediately available on Apple Music will involve weighing up a set of pros and cons and looking at your specific audience carefully. If you are an indie band with a history of ‘surefire’ sales to fans that you can communicate directly with, then there is a strong case for releasing a ‘paid-for’ physical / downloadable version of the record in advance of putting the whole thing on Apple Music: to stagger the release, in effect. Crowdfunding is also a potential option. If you’re Beyonce, it’s another scenario of course, because you'll be in a position to negotiate more favourable terms with Apple for putting your music up on Apple Music (oh how they cowered when Taylor Swift got annoyed with them recently). Horses for courses, much like everything else in today’s multi-platform, multi-format music industry.

9. So is there any good news for musicians in all of this?

The best thing about Apple Music for musicians is the 'conversion' factor: it brings with it the potential to turn the person who might casually hear - and like - a song on the radio or at a friend's house into somebody who engages with your music more regularly, simply because your catalogue is very easily accessible on their iOS device. The difficult part, however, will be turning that engagement into a financially beneficial arrangement. And you'll have to remember that with accessibility comes disposability: your song will be 'just' one of millions on Apple Music (and will be perceived as such by listeners). This means that your music will have to fight even harder to be the signal in the signal to noise ratio. In a way, that could be a good thing: with the advent of mass streaming, we musicians will all have to raise our songwriting game to get heard. Again.

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The end of the download is nigh

MP3 Player

If internet rumours are to be believed, June 6 2011 may possibly be the music industry’s equivalent of “The Rapture” (for those of you who haven’t been on Facebook recently, or have been living in a hole in the New Forest, The Rapture was the end of the world, and was supposed to happen on May 21. It didn’t, unless you are reading this on a cloud with Jesus or you are feeling rather hot and can’t concentrate on this article because a devilish imp is poking your bottom with a pitchfork). Of course “The Rapture” turned out to be a damp squib, but June 6 is more likely to live up to its reputation as being a day on which the music industry will change forever.

So what’s happening on June 6? Well, according to a multitude of newspaper articles and blog posts, it’s the date that Apple may unveil their ‘cloud service’ – a system that lets listeners stream music from the web. Now, as the cloud service in question hasn’t been unveiled yet, it’s not clear what form this is initially going to take. It could be that Apple are simply going to offer something similar to Amazon and Google’s new cloud systems, which allow you to upload and stream your music collection on the web, wherever you are.

But frankly, that’s a pretty boring approach, and unlikely to be what Apple’s “cloud offer” will be. If rumours are to believed, Apple have been working hard to secure licensing agreements with the “big four” record companies – Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, EMI Group and Universal Music Group – which means all this is heading in one direction: a streaming service similar to Spotify’s, where listeners will eventually be able to stream whatever music they like (for a fee, of course).

If Apple does go down this route, it means that an en-mass switch from paid-for downloads to on-demand music streaming is now just around the corner – the rise of 3G web connections, increasing use of smartphones and Apple’s 75%-85% share of the download market would more or less guarantee that streaming becomes the de facto way that music is consumed. If Apple release a software update for iTunes containing streaming functionality, millions of iPod, iPhone and computer users in general all around the world would suddenly be able to stream music instead of paying to download files. The choice of tracks would be vast – significantly bigger than Spotify’s library, due to full music industry buy-in – and the reach of the service would be enormous too, thanks to Apple’s strong global position in both the download and mobile device markets. All this would arguably result in death of the download, and pretty quickly too.

What would be the impact of this on musicians? Well, for bands who are signed to a label and getting a significant marketing push, it would be fairly good news – it makes their music even easier to access. For musicians without a budget however, it would represent more of a headache. This is because streaming removes the attractiveness of a key tool used by musicians to entice people to sign up to email updates: the free download. For several years now, indie musicians with any clue whatsoever have been giving away downloads in exchange for the ability to communicate with fans online – with individual tracks, EPs or even albums being swapped for email addresses or Facebook ‘likes’. However, there is not much of an incentive for a potential fan to grab a free download from a band if a) they don’t really download music anymore and b) the track can be streamed anyway on iTunes.  

The free-download-for-email-address scenario that we’ve seen over the past few years has led to a situation where clued-up independent musicians have to a certain extent been able to bypass traditional gatekeepers – labels, journalists, distributors, promoters and radio stations – and still make (often quite decent) amounts of money from music via direct-to-fan sales. Perhaps it’s a negative way of looking at things, but with downloads diminished as an incentive for joining a mailing list, indie musicians will be able to communicate directly with fewer and fewer listeners online, and power will go back to being concentrated in the hands of the traditional music industry tastemakers: a label will decide what music to promote, and spend money encouraging people to stream it (rather than buy it). In effect, a technological advancement may lead us back full circle to a situation whereby only those with budgets can create demand.

But if you are an indie musician who has built a business model on free downloads, and all this does sound like the end of the world, don’t despair yet. Pretty much every technological development in the music industry has shut one door only to open another; and with all these developments, the trick is to stay ahead of the curve. The musicians who twigged that free downloads helped build databases first built the biggest databases (and sold the most music and merchandise); and it will be the musicians who twig how best to use streaming cleverly who will monetise the new landscape. The trick is to think fast. The end of the download is nigh – get ready.

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