Apple Disconnects

Originally published on Marx Rand on June 18, 2015.

Sidenotes in the Independent Consciousness

Apple either refuses to, or simply can’t, understand the mentality of a huge growing customer base, that of the independent artist. This is going to present significant challenges going forward, since now that the Internet of Things is beginning to take connective shape, a new sort of revolution is getting underfoot—but without Apple’s involvement being required or wanted. Power breeds knowledge and knowledge breeds power: with the help of the world’s largest value network, the internet, the independents are beginning to have both.

Last week, Apple announced the release of its latest music platform, Apple Music Connect. [1] The product comes on the back of Apple’s shady dealing with independent artists: never mind the fact that the artist which Apple spotlit during the keynote was a manufactured act, it turns out they won’t get any of the precious royalties from Apple for the next three months anyway. [2]  While just 9% of college students say they are willing to shell out for Apple’s new music service, all these things are ultimately sidenotes in the grand picture of the independent consciousness anyway.


 

Simply an Attempt to Mollify

Apple made headlines recently with the release of its new music service Apple Music during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). While the presentation was panned by many for numerous reasons, there was one feature that stoked a range of discussions: Apple Connect.

Connect sat amongst a whole slew of cool new things that Apple announced it was releasing that day. (New, remember, does not carry the same weight in the post-Jobs era as it once did, when it used to be a synonym at Apple product launches for unprecedented).

Connect nonetheless seems like an attempt to mollify artists who have become increasingly disgruntled (which is exactly what I predicted before).

Low streaming royalty rates and complexities with the service in general have become a hot-button issue in the music industry lately, so everyone is presently searching in the dark for the magic potion to lead the blind to the place of worship. (Naturally, in such an environment, most preach what they claim is a slightly more purified version of the same stuff as their competitors have concocted already).

What is amazing is how few people are focusing on how irrelevant Connect will end up being as a tool for independent artists.

 

“Even unsigned artists” = “You’re still a secondary priority”

“Apple Music will be great for all artists,” the Cupertino, CA.-based one-time music industry disruptor claimed at the launch. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what independent artists heard Apple say.

“Even unsigned artists [will benefit],” was how Eddy Cue,  the senior vice president of Internet Software and Services for Apple, addressed the possibility for independent artists to use Connect. In other words, they were spoken to like second-class customers. Yet again. Cue might as well have intoned:

“You’re irrelevant and pretty much a second priority for us right now while we continue to fight the bigger media war that’s a lot more profitable with the major record labels on that other platform—the one we can’t seem to get off now that’s called iTunes!”

Try and put this in perspective for a minute: these artists are not in a perpetual minority anymore. They are now a rapidly growing segment of the music universe, and are actively looking for a place to creatively collaborate and build to their strengths, despite being ‘left of the dial’. And yet the words coming through the Connect presentation are basically reinforcing this “You’re nothing but an afterthought!” mentality.

 

The Great Irony

The result of all this is, ironically, that over the long term Apple will come out most shaken of all.

It’s barely days into the product launch of Apple Connect, and there are signs that this is the case already. The technology into which multi-millions of dollars were invested in the form of R&D and product sales and marketing, presently is sitting out there on the high seas, flapping like a half-full galleon with a split in the side of its sail, and no navigational map. The very people that Connect was built to serve Apple is locking out at the first port of entry.

iTunes is a great music library, but what is far too often taken for granted these days is the notion that because Apple disrupted the industry once, it will succeed in doing so again. The reality is that the concept of paying for music is now more elastic and ambiguous than it ever was before, and Apple needs to find a way to adapt. In that sense, the company appears more like Sony did in 1998 than it does any brainchild child of Steve Jobs right now.

Alienating a rapidly growing market segment worldwide is definitely not going to help Apple sail back into the balmy seas of yesteryear.

 

The New Apple Music Q&A Page

If you go to Apple Music’s information page and read through the questions and answers, two of them immediately stick out. The first of those two questions is:

“How do I get my music on Apple Music?”

Apple’s response is flat and corporate: “you can go through either your label/distributor or one of our approved aggregators.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 1.11.12 PM

Wow. Let’s take a moment to let that sink in.

Basically what Apple is telling the independent artists––who in a rising number of incidents have professed openly to rejecting major label offers voluntarily––is that they need to be a part of the established label/distributor paradigm in order to even have their music played on Connect.

Then there is the question of users having to submit through Apple’s “approved aggregators.” Apple seems reluctant to admit that increasing numbers of musicians are deliberately foregoing the major record label route (or even any label at all), and it looks here like they are trying to cover their bases a bit thinly by aggregating specific unsigned artists in what will be of a halfway house solution.

But what Apple misses is that when it comes to aggregation, the net result is the same for the artist: less creative control over the product, and more control for the gatekeeper. Anyway, even if there was a way to harmonize this risk, the question still lingers: who are going to be the appointed aggregators? Guys at Apple? Guys at major record labels? Now we’re back to square one.

The second question smacks of exactly this sort of highly-selective, industry buttoned-down approach:

“How can I get access to Apple Music Connect?”

Apple responds by providing a link to a Google News-style verification gate.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 1.11.34 PM

Guess who’s in charge of the admission policy? Ostensibly it’s Apple of course, but it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that major label brass might have a say in the outcome of who gets picked for Connect and who gets the door slammed in their face.

Now I know that many will say that verification is the only way to keep a service from falling to trolls or being overrun by artists who aren’t really serious. But the reality of it all is that trolls and non-serious artists will get through anyway—that’s just the nature of this business. (For a great example of this, look at all the marketing and spam that gets through Google News’ aggregator every day.)

 

The Upshot and the Bigger Picture

Apple is clueless about how independents will—or won’t—react to different innovations. They will wonder why they need to be verified, what “verified” even means, and who gets to decide. And why shouldn’t they wonder? They’ve pretty much spent their entire existence in the independent sphere marginalized and pushed aside by the major label dynamic.

The upshot is that if I’m an independent artist, Connect will essentially be the same to me as all the other services out there. What people need to understand is that the established music field of the music industry moves with a different rhythm and flow than the independent universe. Dynamics that are taken as gospel for the former do not necessarily apply to the latter. Independents have their own rules, and you can’t play their game without learning how they work.

But when it comes to Apple, the company is not even trying to do that.

 

Notes:

[1] The time articles in the piece reflect the original publication date of June 18, 2015.

[2] This policy has since been changed by Apple, while it stood true at the time of the article’s original date of publication.

 

Thanks to Alyssa Shaffer and Shelley Marx for reading early drafts of this.

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