What to expect from the U2-inspired iTunes/Beats mashup

OK I admit it, I have a bit of a soft spot for U2. It’s become somewhat of a guilty pleasure over the last few years with the band firmly moving into the ‘dad rock’ category but there you go. Despite this however, I wasn’t overly interested in all the fuss surrounding the recent U2 / Apple album launch. While I think it was great exposure for U2 (unprecedented reach and guaranteed headlines), I think it could have been handled better by Apple (apparently, music lovers are touchy about having their privately curated music collections violated). Nevertheless, all that talk of the band selling out and people moaning about being spammed on social media bored me.

What I’m more interested about though are the statements made by Bono after the launch that revealed that the band was working with Apple on developing a new music platform that aims to give listeners a richer experience and ultimately get them back paying for music and not solely using buffet-style monthly subscriptions. As people’s music consumption behaviour has slowly moved away from downloading towards steaming, Apple’s approach of selling music downloads has become marginalised. I’m sure the irony of Apple being on the wrong side of being disrupted this time is not lost on them.

Despite owning the Beats Music streaming service since their acquisition of Beats Electronics in May (along with the services of music mogul Jimmy Iovine), there is still quite a gap between the download and streaming offerings available to consumers, not just within iTunes, but across the board. It looks like this is the next target on Apple’s hit-list and it seems like they are intent on taking artist feedback seriously by collaborating with one of the most experienced acts in the world in bringing this project to light.

What form this will take remains to be seen, although it will likely involve an assimilation of the Beats Music service into iTunes and a general revamp of the overall offering, possibly with a basic streaming package as well as a richer, premium experience that could be charged extra for. Here are a few more ideas.

The value of music in today’s connected world

Many in the music industry blasted U2 for giving their new album away for free. Critics of the move claimed that, while an act of U2’s size can afford to make little or nothing from music sales due to their lucrative live tours, this step towards devaluing music was damaging to less established acts. U2 stress the fact that they were paid by Apple, who then gave the album away for free to their users, and maintain that they are firm believers that artists should be paid for their work. So much so, that they feel compelled to do something about it.

“Songwriters aren’t touring people. Cole Porter wouldn’t have sold T-shirts. Cole Porter wasn’t coming to a stadium near you” – Bono

Bono told Time Magazine that the band hopes that this new collaboration with Apple will prove “so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music – whole albums as well as individual tracks”. Details on the platform were sketchy but he gave a bit of an insight into it on Dave Fanning’s 2fm radio show on Sunday morning.

Click here for the link to the iTunes podcast of the show (21st Sept). Talk of the new music platform runs from 25:20 – 31:50.

What next for ‘iTunes’?

Straight from the horses mouth, it seems like this approach will be based around giving listeners a more visual and interactive experience, adding value on top of the music itself. Bono gave examples of giving more prominence to album artwork, lyrics and behind the scenes content that would complement the music and give listeners a richer experience. It seems that it’s all about adding value to the overall package and making it something that users would be willing to pay extra for. It’s clear that Bono is not a fan of the way digital music is currently presented to users, either via streaming or downloads.

“I said to Steve Jobs, how is it, for a person who cares about the way things look and feel more than anyone else in the world, that iTunes looks like a spreadsheet?” – Bono.

As well as this, the platform aims to offer more value to the artists themselves, giving them better analytics on how and where users listen to their music (this could impact touring arrangements for example), and making their earnings more transparent so they know how much money their record company is creaming off the top (a major cause for complaint in the early Spotify days).

While all this is commendable, making the experience more interactive is fine for home listening, but with more and more people consuming music solely on their smartphones, is there enough of a user base there who want these types of extra features, or will it end up being a niche product, appealing only to die-hard audiophiles and superfans? Once again, they have a job on their hands trying to change consumer habits, but like with the new Apple Pay mobile payment platform, if anyone is big enough and bold enough to do it, it’s probably Apple.

Streaming is certainly not going to go away, but as music becomes more and more of a commodity, anything that differentiates the offering and adds value to the experience is to be welcomed. Using Bono’s projections, if they can convert even 10% of an expected 1 Billion iTunes accounts over the next couple of years to a $10 a month subscription, that’s a $12 Billion a year business — more than the entire current music industry combined. It’s worth a bash I suppose.