Spotify is almost synonymous with streaming music. It may not quite have managed the Google trick of becoming a verb, but it’s pretty much the default way to stream music.
Spotify has 75M active users and, despite doubts in many quarters about its ability to convert free users to paid subscribers, it has succeeded there too. The company announced this week that it now has more than 20M paid subscribers, half of them added in the past 12 months, at a rate of one every three seconds.
It seems hard to imagine that any new entrant into the market, even one with Apple’s clout, could steal its crown. And yet early market leaders often look unassailable – until they are left behind. Look at Nokia or BlackBerry. I wondered back in February whether Apple could decimate the competition, and now the company has thrown the wraps off Apple Music, I think it’s time to revisit the question …
Spotify does have a couple of advantages over companies like Nokia and BlackBerry, who seemed to sleepwalk into oblivion as new developments passed them by. First, on the surface at least, Apple isn’t offering anything radically different to Spotify.
Spotify offers “over 30 million” tracks; so does Apple. Label licensing terms mean that, Taylor Swift aside, they are likely exactly the same tracks. Spotify supports both desktop and mobile devices; so does Apple. Spotify supports downloading of albums for offline listening on a mobile device; so does Apple. Spotify charges $9.99/month; so does Apple.
Second, Spotify seems to be very well aware of the threat posed by Apple’s entry into the market. The company this month raised more than half a billion dollars in funding, to be spent on expanding both its offering and marketing reach.
So Apple isn’t ‘doing an iPhone’ here: it isn’t launching something everyone can immediately see is significantly superior to existing services. Nor is Spotify sitting idly by while Apple goes after its market. But there are still reasons to think that Apple could have a dramatic impact on Spotify’s future.
The obvious one is Apple’s reach. Apple has sold more than a billion iOS devices. Even allowing for those no longer in use, and multiple devices owned by the same customers, that’s a lot of customers. Most of whom will, thanks to extremely high adoption rates of new iOS versions, be automatically exposed to Apple Music.
So, the new icon will automatically appear in front of Apple customers, and a three-month free trial will mean that there’s no reason for them not to try it. A huge percentage are going to do so.
A separate but related reason is the Apple ecosystem. For anyone who already stores their downloaded music in iTunes, there’s a real appeal in the way Apple blurs the line between your own music and the music available to stream. Again, this isn’t an innovative new feature – Spotify also allows you to combine downloaded and streamed music – but for anyone embedded in the Apple ecosystem, doing it all through Apple’s own apps is simply going to be a slicker experience.
There’s also a simplicity to sticking to Apple products and services. I used to be technologically promiscuous, using a whole range of different devices and services across multiple suppliers. Apple fanboys, look away now: at one point, I had an Android phone, an iPad and a MacBook Pro which had identically-sized partitions for OS X and Windows. Oh, and my Apple calendar app read data from my Google calendar.
These days, I tend to the view that life’s too short. All my hardware is Apple (they even got me with the Watch, damnit!). The Windows partition on my Mac is no more. My calendar is an iCloud one. I do still use Dropbox, because iCloud Drive isn’t there yet, but I’m looking forward to the time when I can replace that too. It just makes life easier to stick to one platform.
Even if Spotify and Apple Music were functionally identical, that alone would be reason enough for me to make the switch.
But despite the superficial similarities, they are not functionally identical. Take curated playlists, for example. Spotify has these too, but I’ve tried the Spotify ones and I’ve tried the Beats Music ones and there’s simply no comparison between the two.
Apple (and Beats before it) has really gone to town on involving music industry heavyweights in ensuring that its human-curated playlists work, and that work shows.
There’s also a lot of clever thought and work gone into the Apple/Beats system. When I first tried Beats Music, I was impressed by the simple, two-step process to feed in my initial tastes. I either tapped or double-tapped a bunch of genres to identify my favorites, then did the same with a number of artists. Just with that little info, Beats was already making solid suggestions – including artists I hadn’t encountered before.
Apple isn’t stopping there, either. Zac Hall recently outlined six ways in which Apple Music goes beyond the Beats offering it replaces – like Siri integration. And the company seems to be going all-in to ensure that Beats 1 radio is everything iTunes Radio wasn’t. So much so that Chance Miller thinks it’s the killer feature.
The combined Apple and Beats depth of expertise in the music field is going to make a huge difference as people start comparing services.
Then there’s Apple’s reported ambition, of 100M subscribers. That, if true, is huge. We don’t know whether it is, of course, but it does strike me as credible. Despite the fact that Apple makes most of its money from hardware – and the company’s only dedicated music player, the iPod, found itself demoted this week – a great deal of Apple’s identity is caught up in music. The very fact that Apple is choosing to extend the service to Android users is a huge statement about just how big the company wants Apple Music to be.
The iPod played a key role in Apple’s success story, and I think the company has never forgotten that. Apple was very late to the streaming music party, and it’s not credible to imagine that’s because it didn’t see which way the wind was blowing. It waited for the reason Apple always waits: because it wanted to do it properly.
Is all this enough to kill Spotify? I have a less clear-cut answer than last time. Then I said that I think there’s room in the market for a range of streaming music services, and that much of my view hasn’t changed.
It’s worth remembering too that two of the reasons I think Apple Music will be so successful apply only to Apple customers. Android and Windows users won’t have the free trial appear magically in front of them on their screens, and there’s no appeal to them in the Apple ecosystem.
But there’s no doubt that Apple has chosen the best streaming music service out there, and that it intends it to prove wildly successful. There’s also no doubt that Apple has the clout to pull off that aim.
I don’t see Spotify disappearing anytime soon. But I do think it’s going to struggle to maintain growth, and I also feel significantly less confident than I did back in February that Spotify’s long-term future is assured. One thing’s for sure: the moment Apple Music launches, Spotify will wave goodbye to my subscription.