When Apple launched the iPod in 2001, not even the company’s former mastermind Steve Jobs could have predicted what was going to happen.
Fifteen years later, the company is shaking things up once again with the launch of Apple Music, its own streaming service to rival the likes of market leaders Spotify and Deezer.
Is it possible Apple could revolutionise music consumption, in the same way they did with their little white box back at the turn of the century?
The white device, based on Dieter Rams’ iconic 1958 Braun T3 Radio, had a 5gb hard drive - a tiny capacity by today’s standards - and was billed by the tech company as “the Walkman for the 21st century”. Their late, turtle-neck-loving CEO said it put “1,000 songs in your pocket”.
At first, many wondered why anyone would want 1,000 songs in their pocket, and few but the most tech-savvy Mac owners could even get songs onto the device; in fact, it wasn’t until 2004, when the iPod became PC compatible and the iTunes store had launched, making it very easy to fill the gadgets with music, that they really took off.
Sales in the first quarter of 2005 - five million units - surpassed the combined total of the previous three years. By 2014, almost 350 million of the things, now in various shapes, sizes and configurations had been snapped up, alongside iPhones and iPads with similar functionality.
We’ve gone from wondering why anyone would want their entire music library in their pocket to being baffled when we meet someone who doesn’t.
The way we think about music itself has changed beyond recognition, and it’s in large part down to Steve Jobs’ vision.
So when the Cupertino-based company announced their new streaming service, it was a big deal. Apple had been expected to announce something along these lines for a long time. They snapped up Dr Dre’s Beats Electronics for a whopping three billion dollars this time last year, a company that makes gaudy headphones and speakers and had just started making headway in the streaming market in the US, with Beats Music. Apple’s first move was to close down that service.
Behind the scenes, they were renegotiating deals with record labels and artists and, more recently, snapping up talent such as Zane Lowe from BBC Radio 1 and four other key staff, triggering something at the Beeb reportedly known internally as the ‘Apple crumble’.
Little was known about what Lowe would be doing - until recently, when it was announced he was going to be a DJ on Beats 1, Apple’s live radio station.
“You have to humanise it a bit,” former Beats co-founder and now Apple Music head honcho Jimmy Iovine told The Guardian. “Because there’s a real art to telling you what song comes next. Algorithms can’t do it alone. They’re very handy, and you can’t do something of this scale without ‘em, but you need a strong human element.”
So far, their pitch for Apple Music is that it will incorporate all sorts of playlists based on your personal taste, making it clear that the streaming service isn’t just aiming for a large slice of Spotify, Tidal and Deezer’s streaming pie, but also radio too.
Spotify announced earlier this month they had reached 20 million paying subscribers, with 55 million using their free service. More than 800 million have iTunes accounts already, and when the new streaming service launches, all they’ll have to do is a click a button and they’ll have Apple Music too, without the need to key in any more details to pay for it.
Of course, cost will be a deciding factor for many. UK figures are yet to be announced, but it’ll be 9.99 dollars in the US, and like Apple’s other products, it’s unlikely to be a straight conversion to sterling.
It’ll be interesting to see how Spotify react. They’ve fought hard to be the market leader, so it’s unlikely they’ll just roll over and accept the new kid in town. Tidal couldn’t dent their sales, even with the starry roster co-owner Jay Z roped in to help launch the service. Expect the competition to bring out something of a price war, or at least special offers to help keep hold of existing users.
Radio will likely suffer too. Recent Rajar figures - that’s the auditing body for radio listening statistics - showed that almost 90% of the UK population listens to the radio each week, dropping to around 83% in the 15-24-year-old category Apple Music is possibly hoping to concentrate on.
More crucially, the amount of time spent listening to the radio is falling quite rapidly, particularly in that age range, presumably down to competition from social media, the still-booming video game market and Netflix.
Criticism of Apple Music has so far included the lack of details about the service, as the company’s yet to announce the size of its streaming library. Fees paid to artists are still under wraps, too, with rumours of aggressive negotiations taking place behind closed doors.
For the music streamer with a conscience, how much artists are paid per stream will have an impact. It will most certainly affect artists’ willingness to work with them, and a streaming platform is only as good as the music available on it.
Apple will almost certainly come in for a large amount of stick when, on July 1, the Apple Music app installs itself on your iPhone or iPad automatically, just like when U2’s most-recent album landed in your iTunes account without consent last year.
The iPod revolution surprised us all, record label and consumer alike. The days before carrying all your music around in your pocket seem like another bygone age. Another revolution seems unlikely - you can only change the world once - but if one company is going to make streaming as commonplace as turning on the radio, only a fool would bet against it being Apple.