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Beef Of The Week #416: Tim Cook v streaming music

By | Published on Friday 10 August 2018


Apple CEO Tim Cook has really put the boot in to Spotify. I mean, he hasn’t, but that’s how it’s being reported in a lot of places. And that’s good enough for me to dwell on at length, what with a deadline to meet and everything.

What happened was that Fast Company published a profile on Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and also asked Cook for his thoughts on streaming music. His response is framed as if Cook was asked, “Why do you think Spotify is such a piece of shit?” Although there’s no real evidence that he was asked directly about his company’s main streaming rival at all.

What he’s quoted as saying is: “We [at Apple] worry about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft”.

That could be a dig at Spotify. But it could just as easily be hand-ringing about Apple Music’s contribution to the ongoing evolution of music consumption. Maybe he’s concerned about what his predecessor Steve Jobs did to music with the iTunes store and all that downloading nonsense. It’s fun just guessing, isn’t it?

There is a little more to go on though. Cook also said this: “I couldn’t make it through a workout without music. Music inspires, it motivates. It’s also the thing at night that helps quiet me. I think it’s better than any medicine”.

If we assume that Cook listens to his music via a streaming service, then we could also assume that he listens to a gym playlist and a sleep playlist for those two activities. When it launched, Apple Music made a big deal about having humans involved its playlists, at least writing editorial content to go alongside the music. Then there’s its radio station with its human presenters, Beats 1. And more recently there’s been video content like ‘Carpool Karaoke’ and that new Ed Sheeran documentary. Do those count as humanity?

So, maybe Cook is saying his streaming service is more human, and that’s what helps him work out and sleep. Though Spotify has had human playlist curation alongside its automation for quite a while now. Just as Apple Music has automation alongside its human curation. Indeed, just this week Apple launched a new automated playlist featuring music played by your friends on the service. But Spotify has been developing something very similar. And it also has human-fronted video content that nobody really wants to watch.

My point is, aside from it having a radio station that no one listens to, Apple Music seems pretty much equal to its streaming service rivals when it comes to levels of humanity. So maybe Cook isn’t having a go at his rivals at all, but at streaming in general. Maybe he’s not even streaming the music that plays when he’s at the gym. Maybe he’s not streaming playlists when he’s trying to get to sleep either. Hell, he’s running a trillion dollar company, he can probably afford to have a human being personally playing music at him at all times.

Maybe Cook thinks all streaming services are shit. Or maybe he thinks none of them are, as yet, fulfilling their potential. Perhaps he’s concerned about all those reports that the art of songwriting is changing as songwriters battle to stop listeners skipping their songs in the first 30 seconds. Damn those streaming services with their bits-and-bytes.

That said, it’s humans who are doing the skipping. And providing said humans with the option to skip – rather than having to wait until the machine that powers most radio stations these days moves onto the next track – has possibly increased the humanity in music.

And anyway, like many of the things people complain about in the streaming age, skipping tracks isn’t really new, it’s just that it’s become measurable. I’ve known plenty of people who would change the radio station every time they heard a few seconds of that song they didn’t like. Or which they thought they weren’t going to like. Car travel with those people was as awful pre-digital as it is now. Except now they have more songs to skip.

Of course, when a song is played on the radio, everyone still gets paid their royalties even if half the listeners skip four seconds in. And that’s not the case with streaming. So maybe the lack of humanity is in the new business model that’s changing the way songwriters and performers get paid.

This week Citibank published a report on the flow of revenues in the digital music age. It found that only around 12% of the money that goes into the music ecosystem actually reaches artists. For an explanation of why that is so when it comes to streaming income itself, you should get yourself a copy of the ‘Dissecting The Digital Dollar’ report CMU Insights and the Music Managers Forum first published in 2015.

Though artists only earning 12% of the money isn’t really all that new either. And Apple hasn’t done a massive amount to change the way music monies get shared out, despite all its many years at the forefront of digital tunes. So maybe Cook wasn’t dwelling on business models or revenue shares or any of those other streaming music debates.

Perhaps what he actually meant was that he and other execs occasionally sit around and worry a bit, don’t really come up with anything, and then carry on building roughly the same services as everyone else. Then he goes to the gym. And then he goes to sleep.