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What Apple Music’s Streaming Radio Station REALLY Means


In part one of the slicing of Apple Music, I looked at the all-you-can-eat streaming service itself. Today, in part two, I go inside the strategy behind Apple Music’s streaming radio station, Beats 1.

What is Beats 1? It is “Apple’s first 24/7 worldwide radio station.”

Special? Innovative? No (and does Zane really not have his own board op?). That’s despite the hyperbolic and breathless reception this initiative is getting by some tech-heads who should know better.

Take MacWorld, for example:

What’s really neat is that every user around the world will hear the same content at the same time, and [it takes] a much more curated approach to radio than iTunes Radio does.

It’s almost as if Apple invented radio, isn’t it? In fact, Apple hasn’t even re-invented radio. The talent behind the mics comes from the land of terrestrial radio where, from what I can tell, they sat behind identical mics in nearly identical studios talking to the same music artists and infinitely larger audiences than the ones they will soon address.

As for curation, this, too, is as old as radio itself. And it’s found everywhere online, including at Apple Music arch-rivals Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, and virtually all the others. In some cases, in fact, that curation comes from the best music experts any music fan knows – his or her own personal friends.

It seems to me that it’s rare for Apple to spend so much time blowing hard about benefits which are little more than hot air, but you can almost feel that warm, breathy breeze blowing from Beats 1. The original iPhone was a model of innovation. But where’s the innovation in Beats 1?

So if it’s not an innovation per se, then why should Apple do it at all?

The way I see it, Beats 1 has three primary functions in Apple Music:

1. It humanizes Apple Music and symbolizes the “human curation” of the platform.

The human element in music discovery and curation is central to Apple’s pitch: “There needs to be a place where music is treated less like digital bits and more about the art it is, with a sense of respect and discovery.”

While I can’t think of a single streaming platform that doesn’t treat music as art and with respect, there is that cultural meme out there that pure-plays are somehow “ripping off” artists even though, in one analysis, when Spotify and others pay music labels for their premium content, the labels keep 73% of the money and hand over only 11% to artists.

So evidently there’s a difference between treating music with respect and treating music industry labels with respect. Apple is preaching from the Gospel according to Jimmy Iovine, so being the music industry’s “favored nation” is only good for the business of Apple. Even if the meme is wrong.

Meanwhile, Apple Music argues that it is bringing human curation to what has too long been about music genome projects. It’s almost as if you have your own personal music curator in Cupertino, watching over you selections and recommending something he or she thinks is better.

Except you don’t.

Apple will leverage the same type of algorithms everybody else does, learning from your selections and those of others like you.

So then how do you make a fairly robotic process appear to be more human?

You add humans, and you put them before mics in a studio on the radio. And not just any humans, but humans who know how to pick cool music and have a following for just that. Humans who are living proof of your commitment to humans.

2. It serves as a “barker channel” for Apple Music

According to Wikipedia, a “barker channel” in cable TV is:

…a channel that is entirely composed of sales promotion and advertising, usually marketing various features of the service carrying the channel. The name is derived from the circus barker, who stood outside a circus and shouted to passers-by to encourage them to enter to view the entertainment being provided by the attraction.

Beats 1 gives Apple the ability to promote specific content important to its music sales-oriented business model and add value to partnerships with music labels.

It is, in other words, purely a promotional tool in this context – a 24/7 ad for Apple Music.

3. It reinforces the cultural relevance of Apple as a fashion brand

Music is, without question, central to pop culture. And it has long had a central role in Apple’s brand. Since technology and culture are so inextricably linked, it’s critical for Apple to maintain a pole position in the world of music, and that position has been slipping along with iTunes music sales.

As long as Apple devices are digital extensions of us, they are also digital extensions of everything we care about. And to music fans – and there are a lot of us, there’s little more important than music.

Beats 1, while not novel or innovative, does bring personality to a brand that otherwise rests on the personality of CEO Tim Cook (or, worse, keynote speakers who dance like your dad). And that’s not enough anymore.

All credit to Apple for recognizing this problem. It continues to be one that plagues their competitors, I believe. For the leading pure-play brands, we’re less likely to listen to them than through them. In other words, they are great utilities, but the humanity of these brands rests on the shoulders of their rarely seen or heard from founders. What other humans do we know representing these brands?

And it may well be that Spotify’s Daniel Ek or Pandora’s Tim Westergren don’t connect with music fans at the same level and with the same raw, emotional passion as Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. You can’t represent the interests of business and the interests of music fans with equal fervor, especially when you spend more of your spotlight time with tech bloggers than with real consumers.

This is a legitimate challenge for these players, I think, and Beats 1 is Apple’s way of solving it.

So there’s my take. What do you think?

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