In 2003, two years after the introduction of the iPod and six months after the debut of the iTunes Music Store, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told Rolling Stone that music subscription services were going to fail. "People don't want to buy their music as a subscription," he claimed. "... The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model and it might not be successful."
A dozen years later, Apple is betting billions of dollars on Apple Music, a streaming music service conceived around the very subscription model Jobs once dismissed, and the second coming at hand is that of a vision of a music consumption that made Apple the world's biggest music retailer. In that sense, Apple Music isn't the new iTunes, it's the new iPod. But instead of offering 1,000 songs in your pocket, it's offering damn near every song — and not just in your pocket, but pretty much wherever you feel like listening to them (your car, your computer, your home stereo, your bluetooth speaker on the top the mountain).
With Apple Music, Apple is actually delivering on the promise Jobs made when he first announced the iPod — "it lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go." In October of 2001, that claim was pure Reality Distortion Field hyperbole. Today, services like Spotify, and even iTunes Match, combined with fast phone networks make it a near-truism. Which is simultaneously great and terrible.
Great, because these collections give us access to vast libraries of music — Spotify's catalog boasts more than 30 million songs. Terrible, because 30 million songs is more of a Borgesian library than a collection. Daunting and tough to navigate, it's a library where earnest searches for a new song to play often conclude with listening to a familiar song because it's just easier. OK, sure. I'll just sit here in the basement eating Cheetos while Freedom Rock plays again, I guess. It's a great library with a lousy UX.
Apple Music is an argument. It posits that we want to listen to something new, but we don't know what that is. It claims that music discovery is about more than finding music that simply sounds like other music we already like. It's not about algorithmically generating a list of "related artists." It's about finding music we never knew or expected we'd like, the stuff that takes us by surprise. In that sense, Apple Music is also Aquarius Records — or rather, it aspires to be Aquarius Records.
Aquarius is the oldest independent record store in San Francisco, and drawing a parallel between it and Apple Music is, perhaps, blasphemy — but the comparison is apt. Because Aquarius is a music store run by curators — people who understand music deeply and sift through a ton of it to uncover the best stuff. With staff faves lists and "Records of the Week," Aquarius is the kind of music store you visit intent on purchasing one thing, and leave with something different because the guy behind the counter convinced you it was the right move (it was). It's a music store that understands the power of serendipitous music discovery, and the personal emotional connection that often goes along with it.
This is something Apple claims to understand as well. Certainly, it was part of the messaging around the unveiling of Apple Music at the company's annual WWDC conference earlier this month. Onstage at that event, Apple's Jimmy Iovine touted Apple Music's human editors as the service's killer feature and a key differentiator from its streaming music rivals. "Algorithms alone cannot do curation; you need a human touch," he said. "These people are going to help you with the biggest question in music: What song comes next?"
That's a very tough question, and current streaming music services have largely failed to answer it. But independent record stores like Aquarius and others have been doing it for years, entirely by hiring people who have both excellent taste, and the ability to understand what will appeal to other people. So, it can be done. The question now is, can it be done at the scale Apple is undertaking?
Apple clearly believes it can. And if it's able to pull it off, it may well have another disruptive music service on its hands. Certainly, with more than a billion iOS devices in people's hands around the world and some 800 million iTunes accounts — most with associated credit card numbers — Apple has the makings of what could someday be the largest paid music streaming service around. But to get there it has to answer that very important question. And it has to do it again, and again, and again. Every time you walk through the door.