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Forever Changes

Date: 15th October 2015

Forever Changes

The music industry is in a constant state of flux, but sometimes it’s hard to spot the change while it is happening. Rather like tectonic plates moving the Earth’s crust around, nothing appears on the surface for years, then tremors occur which invariably presage an earthquake. 2015 has seen some small but interesting developments in the way we consume music, ones that will be more apparent in a year or two’s time. It took Compact Disc the best part of a generation to comprehensively vanquish the format that it was designed to replace – the LP record. Sales figures tell us that CD won’t last quite as long, and it looks to be in the late autumn of its life now. The assault against the silver disc began in 1997 with Napster, and by the time Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003, the writing was on the wall. By 2008, downloading AAC music files via iTunes was America’s most popular way of purchasing music, and people were talking about the death of physical media.

They weren’t wrong, because nothing has happened to buck the trend away from physical formats. Indeed, we’re now seeing the death of ‘owned’ music altogether, as people prefer to stream rather than store it on their hard drives. Downloads have gone from being the future to the past in the space of just five years, and it’s now streaming that’s beginning to take the mantle of the world’s favourite way of listening. The notion of downloading a single on the iTunes Music Store suddenly seems as antiquated as buying MiniDiscs from your nearest Tower Records branch.

No need worry for Apple just yet, as it’s still making a tidy profit, but there are clouds on its horizon – and we’re not talking the data storage variety. Its problem is that it wrote the book with iTunes, when the Steve Jobs-run company managed to unite recording artists and the wider music industry with his own hardware and software platform. At the time, it was a unique and compelling sales proposition which went on to bring 88% of Apple’s revenue from its online music store by early 2013. In the space of just two years, this has fallen to 62% – all explained by the rise of streaming.

The demise of Beats Music, for which Apple paid $3 billion (alongside Beats Electronics) just sixteen months ago, reminds us of this. Its technology has been absorbed into Apple Music, but it’s an indication of how high Apple regards the stakes when it’s able abandon a multi-billion dollar brand to focus on its own music sales proposition. Being so late to the party, it’s going to be hard to slay the giant in the room – Spotify. Sometimes, as the VHS tape format showed us all those years ago, being first to the party makes you the most popular. With Apple Music, launched earlier this year, the company is playing catch-up.

You can take it as a sign of either Apple’s seriousness or its desperation, that it has taken Apple Music onto the Android platform. With the notable exception of China, Android is the world’s favourite smartphone operating system and accounts for over eighty percent of global sales. The company has no choice if it wants Apple Music to succeed, it must cater for its nemesis, just like it did with iTunes on Windows PCs thirteen or so years ago. Just to make life more complex for Apple, Spotify isn’t the only game in town. Other subscription music services like Pandora are pushing hard and announcing licensing deals with major content providers.

Maybe because it’s a Californian company, but Apple was early to announce tie-ups with big stars and branded services. It has been suggest that in this respect, the company behaves rather like the Hollywood studio system, where deals are brokered to use stars exclusively. Whether this adds real utility to Apple Music remains to be seen, as does the fact that many still prefer to play their own music via iTunes and/or non-internet connected devices – rather than stream something that’s foisted on them.

Reflecting this, we’re seeing a rise in the number of specialist music player apps – including JRiver Media Centre, MediaMonkey, Swinsian and Audirvana – which let more ‘old school’ musos and audiophiles build and maintain their vast collections of often high resolution music on their own computers, as opposed to ‘the cloud’. These tend to have little of the ‘bloatware’ of the latest iTunes, and are not trying to sell you a lifestyle or tell you what you should be listening to. Serious music collectors tend to get very proprietorial over ‘their’ music, and wish to keep their files in their own domain. Apple has a strong idea about where it wants to be, and that may involve leaving the collectors behind – or possibly it is they who will forsake Apple.