Not sure if you’ve heard (or if you care), but Apple is about to announce something big for iTunes. I care because it’s my business to care. And by “business,” I mean the music business and its quasi-archaic, litigious nightmarescape of restrictions, turf wars and low creator returns.
And I’m an optimist!
Today, Apple devoted their entire their home page to a cryptic message about an “exciting announcement” regarding iTunes. “Tomorrow is just another day. That you’ll never forget,” the oddly-phrased teaser states. (We won’t find out what it means until Tuesday at 10AM EST.)
There’s been talk for some time about Apple moving to “the cloud” — which is a fancy way of saying that the songs you listen to would be “accessed” (played) from a remote server, rather than your hard drive. Before any Luddite readers start ranting about “ownership” being the only meaningful expression of consumerism, allow me to point you to this French report indicating that streaming music online is now more popular than downloading. Yeah, but it’s France, you say. Fine. But the mythical “celestial jukebox” is here, kids. And you best get used to it.
That doesn’t mean that subscription on-demand listening has taken off in the addled minds of Americans. Europeans are quite accustomed to streaming whatever song they can think of via the phenomenally-popular music service Spotify, but us Yanks are mostly only down with Pandora — a streaming “radio” service that customizes to your tastes, but doesn’t let you pick the songs. Last year, I interviewed Dan Ek of Spotify and he told me that the US launch of the service was imminent. Then he said the same thing a few months later. And a few months after that. And after that.
Spotify has yet to arrive, due to certain major labels’ insistence that it lose the “freemium” feature, where listens are supported by intermittent audio ads. (The service aims to get users hooked on its general awesomeness and then convert them to $10 per-month subscriptions; this price also includes mobile listening on the Android and iPhone platforms.)
Sure, we’ve got streaming subscription services in the US that let you listen on the go; I belong to three of ‘em. Each of these platforms — MOG, Rhapsody, Napster — has struggled to attract and retain customers. Darth Jobs has managed to corral those Americans who actually pay for music into the 99-cent-per-track model, and they’ll stay put until he serves up an Apple-branded alternative. Too bad, because economically it makes a lot more sense to pay ten bucks for unlimited on-demand access to the world’s entire catalog of recorded music.
If anyone can flip the script, it’s Apple. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: before the iPod, there were several MP3 players on the market. It took an oh-so-sexy scroll wheel (and a savvy marketing campaign) to make the lightbulb turn on in people’s heads.
Some of us pundits think Apple is about to unveil an entirely new framework for iTunes. The company has been quietly building server farms for… something, and it seems logical that, having previously acquired streaming music service Lala, Apple has set its sights on colonizing the cloud.
There’s reason to be skeptical. Why would Apple scrap a sales model that has given rise to the world’s dominant music shop? There’s no doubt that a streaming subscription iTunes would render Spotify DOA if and when it makes it to these shores. But the 99-cent model makes more money, and the labels aren’t exactly trusting of Jobs’ agenda ever since he broke the album format and turned music into the digital equivalent of penny candy.
Others think that Apple will unveil a “music locker”-style service, where you’d buy the download, then enjoy access to it across all of your devices (well, Apple devices, anyway). From a tech standpoint, this is identical to streaming on-demand, but the consumer thinks that the song they purchased on their desktop also dwells magically within their iPhone, computer, iTV and what-have-you. Better still, Apple can still charge you a monthly fee for the privilege! The music industry loves double-dipping, and customers do what their tech overlords tell them. Everybody wins! Never mind that the labels already sued one entrepreneur who previously attempted to build such a service. This is Apple we’re talking about here.
A locker service makes perfect sense: Jobs preserves his business model, appeases the major rightsholders and staves off competition like Spotify by leveraging his near-monopoly of tech + content. The only question is what took so long. (Answer: licensing with the labels and the publishers.)
So this is what’s on deck for tomorrow, right?
Nope. Turns out it’s just the Beatles catalog coming to iTunes.
Better luck next year…