Apple Music execs hate the word ‘utility’ —  and it says a lot about what they’re trying to build

Jimmy iovine
Apple music exec Jimmy Iovine Charley Gallay/Getty

Apple really, really doesn’t want people to think of Apple Music as a utility.

You might think its streaming service, which provides access to a vast catalogue of music and playlists, is a handy internet utility. But you’d be wrong, according to Apple Music executives. Very wrong.

“We’re fighting ‘free,'” Apple Music exec and music heavyweight Jimmy Iovine said Saturday at TCA, referencing the free tiers of competitors like Spotify and Pandora. “So a simple utility where, ‘here’s all the songs, here’s all the music, give me $10 and we’re cool,’ is not going to scale.”

That argument isn’t entirely sound. Spotify has over 40 million paying subscribers, as of September, and its future as a business isn’t going to hinge on the freeloaders. Same with Pandora, which is set to soon launch a premium on-demand tier. Paying customers will determine who wins and who dies in the music-streaming business, and Apple Music has 20 million of them as of December.

But Iovine’s broader point is that Apple Music has to set its brand apart.

Music is a commodity when every streaming service offers more or less the same catalogue of songs and functions. “Apple Music” has to mean something to consumers. And defining what that “something” is may be the most pressing question for Apple as it tries to establish itself in the streaming music business.

Beyond personalisation

In an interview with Complex published Monday, Apple Music’s content chief, Larry Jackson, outlined his initial goal with the product:

“Make something that’s the intersection of all things pop-culture. To make it more than just a utility. I like to think of it as a place where the best creative thinkers in music can congregate and come up with different ideas.”

There’s that word again: utility.

Utility is the enemy.

Competitors like Spotify, Amazon, and Pandora seems to be betting on their hyper-personalisation to lift them out of the utility realm. Spotify, in particular, has had a cult hit with its Discover Weekly playlist, which gives you a fresh slate of songs every week aligned with your taste.

But Apple Music is going in a different direction. Apple has signed up some of the biggest names in music, from Drake to Taylor Swift, to make Apple Music less of song database and more of an artistic meeting of the minds — where Apple is intimately involved.

Here’s an example: Jackson himself co-wrote a 20-minute music video for Drake called “Please Forgive Me.” To do the video, Drake “uprooted his life to go to Africa for seven days in the middle of BET [Awards] week … All for an idea we had,” Jackson said.

That is much more than just a weeklong exclusive window for an album on Apple Music.

The Netflix playbook

Perhaps a better touchstone for understanding Apple Music’s vision isn’t its direct music competitors, but rather, Netflix.

Netflix began as a place you could watch an expansive catalogue of movies and TV shows ( on DVD and later on streaming) that weren’t particularly exclusive to Netflix or infused with its brand. But Netflix has transitioned more and more toward producing its own original shows, moving up the content food chain. On the way, it has built a brand that is both distinctive and has mass appeal.

You could imagine a similar trajectory for Apple Music.

Iovine has said that Apple has “no interest in being a label,” citing the fact that labels “manage hundreds of groups.” “We don’t, nor could we,” he said.

But the role of the music label in the future is being questioned, especially since big artists like Frank Ocean, who works with Apple, are trying to extricate themselves from label deals. And perhaps Apple doesn’t need to step in and become Frank Ocean’s new label, but merely fulfil some of the functions the label once did, and let Ocean’s management team pick up the rest.

There is a common misconception that Netflix “makes” most of the shows it brands as Netflix originals. In fact, it only produces a small fraction of them, buying the rest from studios. Lionsgate, for instance, makes “Orange Is the New Black.” Netflix is moving toward producing more shows in its own studios, but the process has been a slow one.

Apple could ease into music in a similar way, branding releases and videos as Apple Music exclusives, but having each deal be crafted in different ways, based on the type of resources Apple could provide.

Regardless, all would all serve to build up Apple Music’s brand.

The stars

The Netflix analogy isn’t a perfect one.

Where Apple already seems to vary substantially from Netflix is in cultivating specific personalities. Netflix doesn’t have a roster of stars that are closely associated with the brand. Apple seems to be trying to create one already, especially with Taylor Swift and Drake. And it’s not just about their albums, but rather a whole host of creative endeavours, like the previously mentioned music video.

That mandate could even spread beyond music.

“At Apple Music, what we’re trying to create is an entire cultural, pop cultural experience, and that happens to include audio and video,” Iovine said Saturday. “If ‘South Park’ walks into my office, I am not going to say you’re not musicians, you know? We’re going to do whatever hits popular culture smack on the nose. We’re going to try.”

In 2016, Apple announced it would launch a video series based on the “Carpool Karaoke” sketches on James Corden’s “Late, Late Show.” The show does relate to music, but the draw is Corden’s personality, and the format he created. (It’s also not produced by Apple, but rather by CBS Television Studios).

If Apple can succeed in creating a compelling roster of stars associated with the Apple Music brand, that will be bad news for competitors. Sophisticated algorithms that learn listeners’ musical tastes are great for retaining loyal customers, but no streaming music service has yet figured out the most powerful sales pitch for attracting first-time users.

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