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Why streaming music services matter

Christopher Breen | May 12, 2014
Around the office I'm known (among other things) as the Guy Who Won't Shut Up About Music Subscription Services. Since the mid-2000s I've cheerfully pungled up my monthly subscription fees for such services as Rhapsody, Napster, Spotify, Rdio, Mog, Pandora, Slacker, and, most recently, Beats Music. And, with a little less cheer, my colleagues (and some readers) have cocked a curious eye and inquired, "Why would you rent your music rather than own it?" With rumors circulating that Apple is talking to Beats Music about a change of ownership--and given that Beats happens to be my current favorite among the subscription services--I thought it time to revisit the topic.

Apple has been known for years as the company that acquires those considered best-in-class in their particular field. Specifically in regard to music, in 2002 Apple acquired Emagic, the German company responsible for the Logic digital audio workstation (DAW) application. While dense, Logic was considered the most powerful DAW of its time. Since that acquisition Apple has significantly cleaned up Logic's interface and released GarageBand, which, at its heart, is a form of Logic lite.

In my view, Beats is a similar standout in its field. However, as I've watched Beats grow over the past months I've noticed that its curation efforts are so broad that its playlists are starting to become unwieldy. If you go into its Find It area and tap Genres you'll find that some genres have hundreds of playlists — Hip-Hop has 835 of the things and Alternative, 553. On an iOS device, swiping through these lists becomes tiresome in a hurry. There are plenty of other ways to find music — through algorithmic recommendations based on what you've listened to and prefer, The Sentence (a playlist generator based on mood and activity), and featured music — but curation seems to be at the core.

While Apple hasn't shown much leadership in social networking in regard to music or algorithmic playlist generation, the company certainly knows interface design as demonstrated in its taming of the Logic interface. With a Beats/Apple conglomerate, similar order could be brought to the service's curation efforts.

Then there's Beats' hardware business. Again, I'm not impressed with its headphones, but who says that the Beats technology would be confined to such intimate listening? Among Apple's audio efforts is AirPlay, a terrific technology for streaming music from the company's devices to receiving units. Among those units are iOS devices, Apple TV, Macs, AirPort Express, and compatible speakers and receivers. Yet none of them are great whole-home audio solutions. Yes, you can play the same music in multiple rooms from your Mac, but try doing it from an iPhone. Or attempt to play different music in different rooms, as you can with Sonos. Perhaps an Apple-and-Beats-branded home audio system would be attractive enough for people to justify the cost.

And of course as Beats is run by music insiders, it has the power to talk directly to artists, producers, and labels. Apple prides itself on the exclusives it offers on the iTunes Store. With Beats in its arsenal, this power could only increase.

It's possible that all this will come to nothing — that the Beats acquisition rumors were just that. However, whether or not Apple buys into subscription at this point, I'm fairly certain some kind of streaming service (and one far more powerful than the current implementation of iTunes Radio) is in the company's future and best interests. Ownership among younger listeners simply isn't as important as it was to their parents. Nor is the value of music particularly respected among a large number of people. The future is something other than clicking a Buy button on the iTunes Store. Perhaps this is the time Apple has chosen to think ahead and march to a different beat.


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