Yesterday, Apple unveiled its upcoming new music service:
Apple Music takes the human-curation element of Beats Music, the subscription service Apple got in its $3 billion Beats Electronics purchase last year, and adds Beats1, a live DJ-helmed radio station aimed at giving music a cultural center that has been diluted since the digital revolution rocked the music industry landscape.
"It's all the ways you love music, all in one place," [Apple's Jimmy] Iovine said. "Algorithms can't do it all. You need the human touch."
Will the new service compete capably with Spotify, Last.fm, and the rest? Beats me. But I'm not surprised to see a company offering this kind of pitch. Back in 1999, when Internet radio was in its infancy, I wrote a Reason article that did a fairly decent job of forecasting the future of music streaming. Apple's move fits what I wrote pretty well.
"Commercial radio today is less concerned with finding music that will draw listeners in than with eliminating music that might drive listeners out," my '99 piece said. "The result is numbing repetition." But an alternative was emerging from within the belly of the beast:
Increasingly, program directors are using computer programs to choose the records their stations will play. The most popular such program is called Selector. Once everything in the music library has been entered—not a terribly onerous task, since the typical station has a library of only 500 to 1,000 songs, the vast majority of which are rarely played—the director can give Selector a series of instructions and let the program produce a playlist. Those parameters might be broad genre restrictions ("no rap"), general patterns ("two upbeat songs, followed by one ballad, then repeat"), or more narrow rules ("no more than three songs with female vocalists per hour"). Selector then chooses which songs will be played, and in what order, for the next 24 hours, seven days, or however far a horizon the program director requests….
For decades, each radio station has been trying to figure out the formula that will generate the perfect series of songs for its audience. Now some bright computer programmers have created a tool that will turn its preferences into a playlist. But what happens if its listeners have access to that same program—and to a much larger library of music on the World Wide Web? What if a Web site let listeners select their own parameters and then followed them to the letter, with no commercial interruptions and no DJ schtick?
The upshot was that services whose playlists were aimed at the preferences of each individual consumer should be able to take listeners from stations whose playlists were aimed at broad demographic groups. And we've seen exactly that happen. But, I added, traditional outlets could do one thing
that an automated, Web-based system can't. Like the old freeform stations, they can hire skilled knowledgeable hosts who understand how to put disparate songs together in creative sets that no scheduling engine could conceive….
Then program directors could stop playing super-DJ, and take on the larger visionary role of shaping the station's personality, of figuring out the boundaries of what it will play and finding the right staff to play it.
And if the old stations don't do that, surely there are Web-based stations that will.
Sixteen years later, those personalized "radio" streams are a familiar part of the landscape. Now Apple is adding something both old and new to the stream market: old-fashioned DJs who choose what songs they play. I have no idea whether Apple's streams, be they DJ-driven or algorithm-driven, will be good enough to outcompete the other options out there. But this certainly does seem like the natural next step to take.