Apple is holding their WWDC (World Wide Developers Conference) this week and laid bare their plans to offer a streaming music service to compete with Spotify. It’s called Apple Music and emerges from the streaming service Apple acquired when they purchased Beats Music, which was originally MOG before it became a part of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s empire back in 2012. The new streaming service will begin service on June 30th with the arrival of iOS 8.4 and will adhere to the normal cost structure of $10 per month (the family plan runs $15 per month).
The new service will have “curated” content, which is term that’s being applied to a number of enterprises. In this context, it means that actual humans will provide suggestions, programming playlists, and sharing their celebrity on Beats One as the new global radio station will be called. It’s all about the human touch at Apple Music, whereas Pandora, Spotify, and Google Play depend heavily on machine-based curation.
The tilt from downloading to streaming has already happened. In 2014, the number of music downloads slowed by 12% while the streaming market surged ahead over 50%. The way that music is consumed has fundamentally changed. Portable playback devices are rapidly replacing home audio setups and higher quality portable devices and the accompanying headphones are where the market is growing the fastest. And despite Steve Jobs aversion to streaming, Apple has finally entered the game with Apple Music.
They are going to compete with Spotify, which has recently tweaked its own system with new features, Google, Rdio, Rhapsody, and of course, Jay Z’s new Tidal service. Tidal is the only on of these services that is attempted to play the “audio quality matters” card…and they’re already misrepresenting what is high-resolution and what isn’t. I’ve learned that some of your favorite high-end music players are already in conversation with Tidal about supporting the new service AND it has been announced the MQA is going to happen on Tidal. But does quality or even “high-resolution” matter? Didn’t the NPR quiz and other surveys establish that it’s really hard to distinguish between very good quality MP3 files and uncompressed PCM masters? And that most people don’t care.
However, none of this matters for audiophiles. How the masses acquire their music won’t affect how audiophiles and dedicated music fans get their tunes, will it? Even if it’s possible to stream high-resolution audio files encoded at 192 kHz/24-bit PCM specs, doesn’t mean that we have to subscribe to Tidal. I think that downloads and even physical media will still dominate this end of the market for years. I’ve been telling customers that purchase physical discs (DVDs or Blu-rays) from AIX Records that they can get the same tracks in real high-resolution through my iTrax.com download site. I’ve already sent a few dozen coupons to customers from the recent Newport Show.
What was clear from watching the Apple WWDC keynote address is that better quality audio is not on the agenda for Apple, at least not yet. In spite of having virtually all 30 million iTunes tracks in native 96/24 PCM format, Apple Music (and iTunes) will be providing 256 kbps quality. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is high-resolution audio is a myth in the marketplace. What parades as high-res music isn’t. The new high-end portable players and home servers that brag about 384 kHz/32-bit “Ultra High-Resolution” are delivering capabilities that completely silly because almost no one producing records at that those specs…and you couldn’t hear a difference even if they were!
Perhaps someday Tim Cook will announce a version of the OS (laptop and iPhone) that will support the 96 kHz/24-bit PCM files. But it won’t make any difference in the music experiences that consumer get from their iPhones. The path forward has to be through the artists, engineers, producers, and most importantly, the labels. GIGO rules.