Hello, welcome back to Penny Fractions everyone. Last month, I realized that I should probably share a little intro about myself since new people sign up every week and I often don’t explain who I am or what this newsletter is in any formal fashion. So, if you’re a longtime reader, skip ahead to my dive into the state of Apple Music in 2019.
My name is David Turner and I started Penny Fractions in November 2017, as a way to think through various topics within the world of music streaming. Since then, the newsletter has grown to reach over two thousand subscribers and its archive can be found right here. I’m currently a contractor at SoundCloud; you can read about some of the work I do in Billboard. Prior to this career shift, I was a music journalist and have written for publications like Music Business Worldwide, Pitchfork (who just unionized!), the New Yorker, Noisey, Rolling Stone, and Spin. I also create content on Patreon to help cover email billing costs and to compensate my copy editor, Mariana Carvalho. Otherwise, I’m happy you’ve signed up and I hope you enjoy the newsletter!
Last week, Apple made a number of announcements including Apple News+, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and even its own credit card. Noticeably absent from the presentation was Apple Music—especially considering most of these products are subscription-based efforts. Still, this newsletter is centered on music streaming, so even if Apple didn’t make any major announcements about Apple Music, this provides a good opportunity to check in on the nearly four-year-old music streaming platform.
The Billie Eilish Effect
A week before the beloved, highly fashionable singer Billie Eilish released her debut album, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Music Business Worldwide ran a number of pieces discussing the teenage singer’s business relationship with Apple. Headlines read: “Apple: Billie Eilish’s record-breaking album shows why ‘pre-adds’ are now the new ‘pre-orders’” and “Zane Lowe on why Apple Music is ‘in the storytelling business’ – and why Billie Eilish is ‘magic’”. In the former, Oliver Schusser, Head of Apple Music Worldwide, said: “While most services focus the majority of their efforts around playlists, Apple Music still emphasizes albums because we understand their value as a storytelling tool for artists to create context around their music.” The greater narrative being told is that Apple Music’s vision of supporting artists exists beyond a simple playlist placement.
Billie Eilish is a perfect test case for the Californian company’s story because Apple has worked with the singer in the past year to debut new music, produce a short animated Christmas film, and plaster her face all over the Apple Music app in the lead-up to When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. That’s what initially made me chuckle when I saw that the album had garnered 800,000 global pre-saves because this is a statistic that’s never (until two weeks ago) been a public-facing point of pride. This is partly because unlike an album pre-order, which comes with a specific price tag attached to it, the amount of streams generated from a pre-save is far less exact. Luckily, Music Business Worldwide quickly followed up (“Billie Eilish proves that young people WILL stream blockbuster albums… when they’re encouraged to do so”) on Monday after the album’s release, stating how well the entire album was streaming on Apple Music. Yet again, without any further context about the streaming performance of other albums, it’s hard to glean much real value from these isolated information drops.
Last Friday, Music Ally wrote about how major music streaming services scrambled to promote Eilish’s album. In short, YouTube released a documentary series, Apple made an effort to push the album in the ways I’ve just described, and Spotify created something called the “Billie Eilish Experience” where one could access unique video content. The piece attempts to close on a hopeful note:
Our hope, though, is that the effort and thought being put in to these kinds of ‘storytelling’ campaigns at the top end of the artist pyramid will have an impact further down, with product features and learnings that other musicians can use to properly connect with fans, rather than just being another line on a playlist.
I won’t hold out the same amount of hope because it doesn’t really seem like it’d be in the interest of any of these streaming services to put in the effort that went into Eilish, unless it was put into an artist that is already at a level of notoriety where such obnoxious promotion wouldn’t be a turn off to users. There is also no economic incentive for these companies to champion smaller acts with this level of support; yes, Apple Music premiered Eilish’s earlier work, but that was still years after she had signed to Interscope.
Apple Music Loves Artists...Well Some Artists
Last year, I wrote in my newsletter about the experience of using the Apple Music app and here is something I said about the Browse screen specifically:
The entire screen is filled to promote Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V. It’s hard to imagine a better advertisement space for an artist than taking up an entire screen on music app used by tens of millions of people. There is no endless playlist scroll or endless feed of songs; instead, Apple treats its app space like a billboard ready to promote whoever needs it for the week.
Over the weekend, Billie Eilish was impossible to miss on the Apple Music homepage, which mirrors the contemporary playlist space where major labels’ priorities dominate playlists (which is certainly nothing new), so Apple’s rhetoric around supporting artists with these lavish promotional campaigns and Beats 1 support isn’t speaking to all artists. Much in the same way, the Browse opening screen is just Billie Eilish, this increased push for an “experience” through streaming is again just funneling users down to certain artists and leaving lesser-known acts not only out of top playlists but also out of the promotional cycle.
Certainly, for most artists, this is nothing new, but it contrasts very much with the public-facing narrative of forward-facing Apple Music employees like Zane Lowe, who told Music Business Worldwide: “I can only speak to our ambitions, but we are very much in the storytelling business. We’re in the streaming business and the storytelling business, and the magic place is when those two things come together.”
(I'll be snide and say I don’t think many music fans really care about Beats 1 Radio. A quick glance at Google Trends shows that, at least based on pure search results, the radio service hasn’t moved the needle much in the last couple of years.)
If Tuma Basa, when he was still at Spotify, said he wasn’t a gatekeeper in order to boost his name recognition, then Zane Lowe, who unsurprisingly has a radio background, leans into such responsibilities. I won’t say gatekeeping in the context of music is bad, because there is a lot of music in the world and trusting a single person’s taste is a fine way to contextualize music. However, Lowe’s gatekeeping abilities only apply to the top tier of artists. Apple Music is not providing real resources or tools for artists who aren’t at the level of Billie Eilish, or to those who don’t (on some level) aspire to such dreams.
That’s why I found it amusing when Apple Music chided Spotify for appealing the Copyright Review Board’s ruling about needing to pay songwriters more — obviously, Spotify, Google, Amazon, Pandora are being money-hungry monsters when they deny songwriters a minor monetary increase that they deserve. Even still, there is nothing artist-friendly about Apple Music. The company does pay out a higher amount in per-streaming royalties, but as I’ve discussed previously, per-stream royalties is a rather broken system for individual artists. Instead, Apple Music continues to funnel resources and time into improving the lives of music’s 1%, while the remaining 99% sees all these documentaries and featurettes and wonders when their time will come. Perhaps for most artists—if there ever was a time when Apple Music was a good option—the time has long passed.
I received a pretty major correction to my previous newsletter. A couple of weeks ago when I writing about YouTube, I cited Stephen Witt’s book How Music Got Free in his retelling of what led Doug Morris, the CEO of Universal Music Group, to threaten to remove music from YouTube after hanging with his grandchildren one holiday and watching YouTube videos with them. The issue a reader pointed out to me was that Morris wasn’t watching YouTube, but rather Yahoo Music. According to a January 15, 2007 NBC News story, the story of Morris and his grandson happened while watching 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” music video on Yahoo’s video player, which led to Universal pulling all of its videos from the former web giant up until 2005. I’ll admit that part of the book’s timeline felt off (as I couldn’t find anything to fully back it up), so I was glad to see a reader point me towards a source that provided the full story.
6 Links 2 Read
New Creator Plans - Patreon
This is a Public Service Announcement: Make a Patreon page today. The company that helps fund this newsletter is planning on introducing new tiers for creators that exist only to drain more money from future creators and effectively form fissured creator class groups. Sadly, that’s what happens when a creator-first platform is still reliant on venture capital money.
The loss of Myspace’s archive is tragic but I’d love to imagine a world where this spurs action to demand better preservation of musical archives rather than inevitable sorrow over future songs lost to time.
Spotify's Strategic Offensive Hits Three Fronts - Billboard
Billboard gave a nice assessment of all the different public relations fires that Spotify is attempting to quell at the moment.
That radio is more willing to promote women rappers is surprising given radio’s tradition of keeping women out of the mix, but streaming struggling to keep up with radio only reaffirms just how boring mainstream playlists are in 2019.
YouTube Bows Out of Hollywood Arms Race With Netflix and Amazon - Bloomberg News
The writing for this news story has been on the wall since last year when Susan Wojcicki said that YouTube Red, before the launch of YouTube Music, was a music streaming service seemingly throwing all its original video content under a bus. While it’s certainly a bummer for the creators, YouTube focus shift away from original scripted video programming doesn’t feel like a major loss.
I got to appear on a podcast/variety show last week, where I spoke about my thoughts on Tik Tok and compared signing a record deal to an endless career of shelving library books. Fun stuff.
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. The newsletter is copy edited by Mariana Carvalho. My personal website is davidturner.work. Any comments or concerns can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.