Apple Music: The Record Industry’s Steadiest Ship
7 min read

Apple Music: The Record Industry’s Steadiest Ship

Hello, hello, hello! First off, last week I did not include the correct sign-up link for next Wednesday’s reader call. The updated sign-up link is here. The call will feature a short presentation on Liberty Media, a discussion, and, time permitting, brief chats on recent news stories. Also, a couple of weeks ago I removed a number of inactive subscribers, but in that process accidentally removed some engaged readers. It’ll be a few more weeks until it’s completely sorted, so if you missed any recent newsletters check out the archive. Now that’s enough housekeeping, let’s chat about Apple.

Despite years of media’s insistence on pitting Apple Music vs. Spotify, a half-decade after the former’s launch, it's fairly clear there’s very little reason to consider these two platforms in competition. Even though Apple just held an event announcing a number of new products, Apple Music’s subscriber figures were last shared in April 2019. At the time, the platform had 56 million worldwide subscribers, and its 28 million paid subscribers surpassed Spotify’s 26 million. The latest worldwide estimates clocked the company at 80 million, but only a couple of years ago Tim Cook explicitly said Apple wasn’t into Apple Music for the money. Spotify’s recent stock surges are linked to podcasting purchases, not music moves, which shows the divergent paths these companies took. That drop-off in this particular narrative might make Apple Music a bit less exciting to cover but helps contextualize the company’s recent decisions and its potential paths forward.

Yesterday, Apple announced a long-rumored entertainment subscription bundle for its various services like TV, gaming, and music. In spring 2019, the last time I devoted a full newsletter to Apple Music, I wrote:

My own speculation is that Apple Music will slowly just be rolled into a larger Apple services bundle with potential TV streaming, storage, etc. That way “paying” for Apple Music essentially is just part of the experience of owning an iPhone at a certain point.

I’ll take this as proof I can see the future (kidding). This wasn’t a big leap to make, considering the Music Industry Blog made the same proclamation later in the year. The flattening of these services only further confines the scope of Apple Music if it's supposed to work neatly as part of Apple's unlimited culture package.

Apple’s lack of explicit financial concern with Apple Music doesn’t mean ideas don’t come and go. There was a brief focus on original video content, and no I’m not talking about Apple TV; there was the short-lived and always slightly confusing, now discontinued, Connect. The company’s done a number of publicized playlist refreshes, which I personally enjoy on an aesthetic level, though I doubt many have noticed. The company announced a couple of updates to Beats 1 by changing the name to Apple Music 1, which beyond making my skin crawl, shows a recommitment to its artist-centered original programming. This is the role Apple’s traditionally occupied within the music industry dating back at least to the days of iTunes, where one selling point for record labels on the fence was millions of advertising dollars subsidized by Apple.

That’s why, as I noted last week, it felt entirely reasonable to see Apple work with the Verzuz series because it's the kind of original programming the company previously attempted to produce but to little avail. This fits within Apple’s decade-long tradition of using music’s cultural cool to help sell its own products. It’s also a show that trades on nostalgia and already established artists; the entire conceit would fall apart without the celebrity factor. The record industry gets a little return on the initial investment made to create the Verzuz stars, who are now supported through various tech firms.

That Verzuz started on Instagram, where it still does broadcast, would say that while Apple is sinking money into documentaries and Hollywood-like programming, it's still not found compelling music programming. The unspoken cultural project of Apple Music, or at least the creation of a real enough facsimile, is to break through to mainstream culture. Yet, the quality of Apple’s content feels more relevant because there’s little else the company is doing in the music space on a grand level. (I’ll admit this is glossing over Cherie Hu’s reporting on Apple’s B2B work, couldn’t ignore that.)

So if this is all that Apple is doing right now. What isn’t the company pursuing within music? Even though last year Spotify backed away from distribution (it still invested in Distrokid back in 2018), Apple’s offered no hints or suggestions of diving into the fraught waters of music distribution. Despite the strained attempts at genning up interest in music AR or VR by music press, there’s been little concrete effort from Apple in this space, with rumored products still years away. Also, despite Spotify’s intense pivot into podcasting and a willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on podcast companies and talent, Apple’s remained fairly quiet in the space and still keeps a wall between “Podcasts” and “Music” within its apps.

Yet, it’s not only the lack of new products or content pushes that makes Apple a bit unique in the contemporary music business. I keep harping on it but Apple is the only major streaming platform that isn’t attempting to fight the Copyright Royalty Board ruling that would increase payouts to songwriters. The ongoing legal battle is one that continuously reveals the priorities of these massive firms and indicates that paying working musicians even a little bit more is a threat to the entire business model. Apple just shrugs. (This isn’t to ignore Apple’s monopolistic tendencies within its own App store.)

Similarly, Apple, as a company, remains unconnected to the highly financialized web that interlocks all of the major labels, Spotify, Tencent, and others. A reason could be that much of the investment activity here during the peak of the iTunes era in the early 2010s when the industry was more at odds with Apple. However, Apple’s long-rumored potential purchase of a major label suggests it may not be fruitful to draw a hard line of distinction between all of these firms.

This list of what Apple isn’t doing should not be read like a list of potential opportunities for the company. I’m certainly not sure any of these industries would be better with more Apple involvement. Still, Apple’s rather singular focus on artist-centered marketing, while making it less exciting for my own personal interests, makes for a rather consistent force in digital music’s ever-changing political economy. If you’re an A-list or aspiring artist, Apple is here at your service. Perhaps this approach will shift as the decade continues, but for now, Apple is digital music’s steadiest ship.

Unheard Labor

Several music organizations and advocacy groups announced their support of AB 2257, an amendment to the California bill AB5 that would allow exemptions for the music industry. The coalition included the RIAA, A2IM, American Federation of Musicians, Music Artists Coalition, Songwriters of North America, and Record Academy. Last week, the National Independent Venue Association partnered up with YouTube, which pledged financial support and “unique programming” to help out struggling venues.

I continue to be impressed by just how broad a base NIVA continues to reach with its efforts to help smaller venues as the United States government continues to not act for them, much less anyone else struggling through this pandemic. Also, last year Spotify purchased the podcast company Parcast, which earlier this month launched an unionization drive. Spotify still hasn’t recognized the union, so much solidarity with Parcast workers right now.

A Note of Financialization

The Hipgnosis Song Fund, the music industry’s most curious song rights vacuum, is now a real deal music publisher. Last week, the company purchased L.A.-based Big Deal Music, an excellent name, and are renaming it Hipgnosis Songs Group. Merck Mercuriadis, the company’s founder, told Cherie Hu the company wasn’t interested in traditional music publishing days before the deal’s announcement, but who’s counting. Earlier this week, Vine Alternative Investments (no relation to the former video sharing app) bought the publishing catalog of Sean Douglas, who’s written for Demi Lovato, Jason Derulo, Lizzo, and more. The alternative investment firm was founded in 2007 with a focus on Hollywood/television rights, so I’ll keep an eye out if they begin further stepping into the world of music publishing.

Will Hipgnosis actually work? - Water and Music

Cherie Hu’s analysis exposes that while Hipgnosis is pulling down a lot of headlines, the company’s long-term success isn’t a sure bet. What fascinates me about Hipgnosis, however, is why so much money is being poured into such a company during a moment of economic distress, especially for musicians. The post-financial crash rise of these firms looking to earn a steady check from song rights isn’t a new idea, but the proliferation of these companies is what I hope to dig more into later this year.

The Emperor’s New Rules - The Baffler

Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein offers a fairly concise critique not only of Netflix’s debt-backed growth but also Reed Hastings’ needlessly harsh and punitive management style. Still, the value of crushing middle management spirits for a company that exists at the whims of cash-flushed financial backers is unclear.

Musicians Are Surviving the Pandemic by Giving (and Receiving) Virtual Lessons - Pitchfork / For Many Touring DJs, Returning to Normal Seems Less Likely Than Ever - Beatportal

A couple of first-hand accounts of the continued struggles facing working musicians during the coronavirus contrast well with rosy headlines about music streaming revenue growth. The record industry may chug along off a buzz of sustained streaming revenue, but many parts of the live music economy remain ever precarious.

Deconsolidation: The Next Business Cycle - Pollstar

This story provides an excellent rundown of the consolidation in the live music industry that’s taken place after the 08 financial crash. It then makes a leap by claiming that the formation of a couple of one-off companies may signal a broader industry shift away from consolidation. Now, I’d love for that to be the case, but unless there is some federal legislation or massive live music workers revolt brewing that can challenge the power of LiveNation and private equity-backed agencies, I wouldn’t lean too heavily on this next business cycle pointing towards deconsolidation.

TikTok Is Paying Creators. Not All of Them Are Happy - Wired (Subscription)

TikTok creators assumed, not unreasonably, that a “Fund” for creators would be akin to financial grants...not a revenue sharing program. Now platform-backed grants could be interesting...but that starts to get ever closer to a platform potentially employing talent, which is often a third rail of digital platforms.

1% of Artists Generate 90% of All Music Streams, Latest Data Shows - Digital Music News

This isn’t new information but I wanted to highlight the study and link to this Twitter thread by Mat Dryhurst riffing on the news. In a way, this highlights the dual need for reform and break with the current streaming systems. Those in that top percentile should fight for a less winner-take-all system, and for the vast majority of artists, the unfeasibility of streaming should open doors for alternative digital music visions. Certainly easier said than done but that’s the project folks.