One of the new features Apple launched with iOS7 was iTunes Radio, available not only to iPhone and iPad users but also to anyone who uses iTunes on Windows or OS X. While the service got some attention back when it was announced alongside iOS7 early in the summer, it has received surprisingly little focus since then.
Surprisingly, I say, because I’ve been using it every day since it went public a week and a half ago, and it is without question the single best internet radio I’ve ever used. Not “tying with Pandora”, not “a little better than Rdio”, but head-and-shoulders above anything else in the field. Ten days and a few conversations with friends and acquaintances along, I’m convinced the service is a gamechanger for the music industry—and possibly a very good one.
The number one reason I think iTunes Radio is going to change the game is because it just works. I have lots of friends who have had good luck with Pandora over the years, and a fair number of acquaintances who swear by Spotify for finding new music. Neither of them has ever worked for me at all. Part of this is my taste in music, which runs toward neoclassical and film scores—two areas in which all previous internet radio services’ libraries have simply been shallow (and here I’m being generous). though Another part is that the algorithms have simply failed me: even in more mainstream music, it’s always been a hit and miss experience, with the services often surfacing things that really didn’t match the other music at all.
iTunes, by contrast, has not only provided quite a bit of good listening among artists and music I already knew I liked, but has also provided me with new selections I hadn’t heard before, but loved. No exaggeration: I have discovered more new music that I want to buy and add to my library in the last ten days via iTunes Radio than in a year of Spotify use or a half decade on Pandora. Moreover, this experience has been repeated on stations ranging from contemporary classical to one built on Mumford & Sons. The stations, with the tuning inputs I have supplied, have consistently surfaced music that was actually what I was looking for, and introduced me to artists I had not yet heard but really enjoyed.
iTunes Radio just works in a way that other services haven’t for me. Friends and acquaintances with whom I have discussed it have had exactly the same experience. I am not sure what Apple is doing for their algorithm—one friend suggests they might be using groups that have toured together—but it is working, and working well. Add in the ability to tune a station to switch between “Hits”, “Variety”, and “Discovery”, and iTunes Radio is just fantastic.
So the first half of the equation is the consumer-facing side of things: as it stands, I think iTunes Radio is the best service of its kind out there.1
The other half of the equation is the impact iTunes Radio may have on musicians. The last decade has been an interesting time for the music industry: innovation in means of distribution has been enormous, and the number of artists putting music into the public space has exploded. However, the result has been that the bottom has fallen out of the industry. Top performers still make boatloads of money; everyone else is scrambling to find their feet.
Pandora and Spotify pay artists notoriously low rates—a point that artists have made time and again, and which I will therefore not belabor. Airplay on terrestrial radio may be an order of magnitude harder to come by, but it pays at least that much better, too. In any case, it’s beyond dispute at this point that for all but the biggest acts, Spotify will be an irrelevant source of revenue.2 To date, streaming services have been at best a way of getting ears on sounds, in the hope that those ears turn into purchasing—but they rarely do. Why buy, when you can listen endlessly?
As such, music producers—whether labels or individual artists—have always struggled with streaming options. They may provide exposure, but they rarely provide the income necessary to keep making more music. Pandora and others have offered options to purchase music one likes, but it has always been a little kludgy. Here, again, iTunes has it nailed.
Purchasing a song I like in iTunes Radio is one click. Adding it to a wish list to buy later, or showing the item in the iTunes Store, is two clicks. All the friction is gone. This is great for music consumers: it makes owning music we like trivial and immediate. This in turn means that it is also great for music producers: the chance that someone actually buys music they heard streaming goes up enormously when it is this easy.3 Purchasability—conversion, in marketing terms—has always been the missing element in streaming solutions, and the reasons artists have been so suspicious. Here, it’s front and center, simple and straightforward, and attractive. Like that artist? Buy her stuff, right now.
So there you have it. iTunes Radio, although it has largely been overlooked by tech media in the last few weeks, is a gamechanger. In fact, it may be the biggest gamechanger in music we’ve seen in the last few years, because unlike the myriad other streaming services we’ve seen, it actually offers the promise of revenue to artists, while providing real value to consumers. I expect that the next few months will see iTunes Radio become increasingly popular as word of mouth spreads that it is just plain better than the alternatives. I also expect that as a result, people will starting buying more music again. That’s a net benefit to everyone. (And if somebody can come out and compete with Apple on both terms, more power to them: that, too, will benefit everyone.)
- Worth note that iTunes Radio isn’t directly competing with Spotify, which offers streaming of arbitrary music as its main selling point. It is competing directly with Pandora, and with the much-hyped discovery elements of both Rdio and Spotify. ↩
- I ran the numbers a while back on an artist whose music I had given thousands of plays. Said artist made more when I bought one two-disc album for about $18 than from all those thousands of plays combined. ↩
All of this seems like an obvious way to use the iTunes platform—so much so that tech observers have been calling for it for some time. This in turn raises the question of why it has taken so long, especially given that the labels have been willing to make deals with platforms like Spotify or Google Play which presumably make them much less money. If I had to make a guess, it would be that the labels disliked being beholded to the de facto monopoly iTunes created in the 2000s, and had no interest in repeating that scenario.
At some point, however, the promise of actual revenue from streaming overwhelmed this hesitation, and the labels finally made a deal that was to Apple’s satisfaction. Barring something surprising happening, and assuming artists recognize the value this offers them, I expect that the labels will once again find themselves in Apple’s pocket—and they know it. That’s a better outcome than going broke, though, and they know that, too. ↩