If you've perused the Internet in the last little while, you're probably aware of the rumors of Apple's "iRadio" service--a streaming music service that would (if it became real) provide Pandora-like functionality to computers via iTunes, as well as to iOS devices. Such rumors naturally provoke questions: If such a thing existed, how would it differ from Pandora and other streaming services? And given that Pandora and its ilk do exist, what can Apple bring to the party that isn't already there? Let the conjecture begin.
Radio versus on-demand
Let's first clarify what kind of service we're talking about. Currently there are two commercial music streaming models. The first is a Pandora-like service, where you have no choice over the specific tracks you listen to, but rather you create stations based on particular songs, artists, and albums you enjoy. By rating the music streamed to you with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, you fine-tune the station to the point where everything you hear is, at the very least, tolerable. At best, it's familiar music you love and unfamiliar music that you'll cotton to.
The other model is on-demand streaming. This is practiced by such services as MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, and Google's All Access. With these services you can choose specific tracks, albums, artists, and genres to listen to. They also let you create playlists and download tracks to mobile devices. Additionally, each offers a feature similar to Pandora where you can stream stations or channels based on a selection--an artist or genre, for example.
All rumors of Apple's service have pointed to radio rather than on-demand streaming. And that leads some people to wonder why, when Google has jumped into on-demand listening and Spotify seems to be getting ever-greater attention, Apple would take what appears to be the less interesting path.
The truth is that the on-demand market is getting a little crowded, and there's not a lot that differentiates each service. They all have enormous catalogs and provide the ability to share playlists with other people to varying extents. Although I'd love it if Apple were to offer on-demand streaming (because I think the company would do it well), I'm not sure it makes sense for the company or the music labels.
And the labels are an important component in this scheme. They may feel that it's in their interest to agree to an Apple-hosted radio service rather than on-demand access.
Dreaming of details
Currently, few would dispute that the iTunes Store remains The Place to go for purchasing digital music. As such, you can understand why the labels wouldn't care to weaken such a lucrative storefront, as might happen if on-demand listening turned out to take listeners by storm. What they gain in steady income could be offset by fewer sales, particularly of blockbuster albums. (You can also imagine that, given how little money streamed music generates for artists, some important artists would choose to opt out of such a deal.) The labels and artists would, however, love nothing better than for the iTunes Store to provide greater exposure to the music in their catalogs.
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