Apple’s Beats1? Beats me

Comment from Peter Saxon
By way of disclosure, I should state from the beginning that I’m a huge Apple fan – have been since 1984 when I inherited the first Mac from my then boss the late Chris Brammall at Wesgo (owner of 2WS before it became WSFM),

I wish I’d kept that Mac, it’d be worth a fortune today. Mind you, it cost a fortune then. That and a dot-matrix printer cost 5,000, 1984 dollars. No hard disc, one megabyte of RAM, black and white five inch screen. Everything was saved onto a 712 kilobyte “floppy disc.” Yet, it was a revolution for it’s time. It was the first home computer with a mouse and a point and click interface. It would be more than a year later before Microsoft released a hopelessly underdone Windows 1.0 in a desperate effort to compete.

Apple’s mercurial co-founder Steve Jobs was booted out of his own company soon after but was enticed back to Apple in 1998 when the company was struggling to survive. Jobs’ vision of the personal computer as the hub of home entertainment and communication laid the foundations for a spectacular comeback that eventually made it the world’s most valuable corporation.

More than any other organisation on the planet,  Apple through relentless innovation has disrupted whole industries. The iPod coupled with iTunes changed the way we bought and listened to music, killing off record and video stores in the process. HMV, Virgin,  Sanity, Blockbuster and scores of other retail brands have all disappeared.

The mobile phone industry, dominated by Nokia, was considered mature when Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. In no time the new device captured the market, marginalising Nokia (which has never truly recovered) with a product in which a phone was just a minor feature.

When Apple introduced the iPad, many, including me, wondered what purpose it could possibly serve – especially at the price. Now tablets are everywhere. Then there’s The Watch which, like other Apple products, does so much more than tell time. And while it has some serious teething problems, once fixed, The Watch should be well on the way to becoming another Apple product that no-one expected they needed but must have now that they’ve seen it.

It is with this formidable back catalogue of success that we arrive at Apple’s latest foray into disruption with both streaming “radio” and terrestrial radio in its sights. With Apple’s track record, only a fool would bet against their success. Nonetheless, I’ll rush right in here and say: maybe… maybe not. Or rather, I don’t think that Apple will be as all conquering with Music and Beats 1 as they have been with iPods, iPads and iTunes.

Let’s take a look past the hype (which is brilliant as always) at what’s on offer for consumers and the threat it might pose for traditional radio.

On June 30, Apple will launch two distinct services. One, Apple Music will be a music streaming service that will compete in an already crowded field with the likes of Pandora, Spotify and iHeart.

The other, Beats 1, is more like a real radio station except that it is only available online but covers the whole planet. The announcing staff is headed up by ex-BBC jock Zane Lowe based in L.A. along with presenters Ebro Darden in New York and Julie Adenuga in London. 

Let’s start with Apple Music, which, it must be said, is not much more than a rethink of the less than spectacular iTunes Radio that was launched a little over a year ago.

After testing iTunes Radio, I said at the time (edited), ‘Whatever the threat to broadcast radio that’s posed by music streaming, adding iTunes Radio to the players already in the market doesn’t increase it.

‘If iTunes Radio represents any real threat, it is to the established market leaders in the music streaming space such as Pandora and Spotify. Not because iTunes Radio is so much better than them – it’s good but it’s no category killer – rather, because it is seamlessly integrated into iTunes with access to its own giant well-established user base from day one – estimated at around 800 million.’

As it turns out, iTunes Radio hardly made a dent in the streaming market. The new version, Apple Music, promises a better integration of iTunes’ vast music library with your own favourite, store bought records, provided you’ve uploaded them to Apple’s cloud. You can even download songs to your personal music player to take jogging or driving. Apple’s mpeg4 sound quality is remarkably good given its mere 256kbs and will please all but the most fastidious audiophiles. But will it be enough?

As I’ve said all along: “For all its bells and whistles in terms of selecting and playing music, iTunes Radio can’t tell you tomorrow’s weather in Cairns or how long it will take you to get to Tullamarine from Swanston Street. It won’t give you the cricket score or give you a summary of the game. For all its brilliance as a juke box with a brain, iTunes Radio lacks heart, soul and a sense of humour.”

Enter Beats 1

In August last year I foreshadowed that Apple would introduce real live personality to streaming radio.  And in about a week, it too shall come to pass. Beats 1 shall be born. And the music it will play, along with expert commentary from warm blooded humans, will be new. All new. If you believe the hype from Apple, the whole world will want to listen. Or, at least a percentage of them.

Remember RADAR? It was SCA’s online venture into new music in 2008. The following year it was extended to DAB+. 

Austereo Digital Radio Content Director at the time Jamie Angel, told radioinfo, “Right now it’s not about making money. Look, we’re a commercial entity and at some stage of course it will be. But digital is going to take a long time to turn a profit. In the meantime let’s put something together that’s really good and that we’re all really excited about and will help us get to profitability that much quicker.”

To speed things up, RADAR spawned a weekly show on 2Day-FM in 2011 hosted by Byron Cooke.

By 2102 RADAR was also a TV show broadcast on SCA’s regional TEN affliliates presented by Killing Heidi’s Ella Hooper.

No one could accuse SCA of not giving RADAR a red hot go, but by November 2013, it was gone. It’s digital bandwidth handed over to Triple M.

Given the RADAR experience, what portent for Beats 1?

“It may succeed but I’m not sure that the comparison is valid.” says SCA Content chief Craig Bruce.

“RADAR was our first digital format when DAB+ was in its infancy. We had a bunch of people who had other jobs at the station helping in their spare time to get the radio station on the air. Compare this with Apple who will throw a squillion at this concept and can market their product to an existing database of millions of subscribers.

“Having said that, I think it’s pretty cool that the most successful company in the world has spent the time and effort on creating a product that broadcasters have been doing for ages. an announcer curating a playlist and sharing it with an audience in real time is the essence of music radio.

“It might just catch on….,”

If Content is King then marketing is Queen. Funding, branding, PR is Prince, Princess and Grand Vizier. With the deepest pockets of any company on earth, if Apple wants Beats 1 to succeed it will. It’s just a matter of patience… which, at Apple is in shorter supply than money. Over the years there’s been plenty of failed products released from Apple, all of them killed off before they became too much of an embarrassment. 

As a traditional radio format “New Music” 24/7 is a niche at best. Even with the greatest presenters on earth Beats 1, IMHO, has little chance of gaining meaningful share against local CHR, Gold or Talk stations. Still, if it can pick up 1 per cent of the potential audience across the planet – and sell it – I’d call that a success. Will Apple?

 Peter Saxon 

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