In 2003, Apple launched its online music store called iTunes and changed the music industry forever. Just as piracy was stifling the industry, artists and record labels were given a marketplace where consumers could legitimately buy digital music, for less. The beauty of iTunes was that instead of buying an entire album, as you traditionally did when buying a CD or a cassette, you could buy individual songs. Of course there were detractors even then. Some artists grumbled that Steve Jobs was bullying them into selling their music for less. Many said an album was one piece of work and that it was sacrilegious to let people dismantle them as they chose.
Yet, the concept worked. iTunes quickly became the world’s largest music retailer. And along with sales of iPods (remember those?) Apple defined the music industry for more than a decade. It sold its 25 billionth song in 2013.
But times, they are always a-changin’. As internet connectivity became pervasive, more and more people were downloading less songs and listening to them online. By using streaming services, where you simply just choose from a massive database of songs and listen without actually downloading. You would have your pick of almost any song that you would like to listen to, without worrying about how much space it is going to take up on your phone or computer.
That is why services such as Spotify are hugely popular. The streaming service last month announced it now has 20 million subscribers, of which 10 million were gained in just the last year. Jay Z has his own too, called Tidal. So does Google.
So it quickly became inevitable for Apple to jump into the bandwagon. And after it bought streaming service Beats Music for $3 billion (Dh11 billion) last year, it finally launched Apple Music on June 30.
An app on your smartphone, setting up Apple Music is a breeze and comes with a software upgrade for iOS users — sorry Android users, you will have to wait a few more months for yours — refreshing the existing music app in your phone.
With initial questions about the kind of artist and genre you mostly listen to, the app then makes music compilations and curates lists based on those choices in a section called ‘For You’. Then there is ‘New’ — a section dedicated to new songs, fresh artists and releases. If you live in the UAE, you will have a lot of Arabic content there even if you do not listen to them. The ‘Radio’ comes with plenty of stations such as Pop Hits, Charting Now and, my personal favourite, Workout Anthems — Dance. Then there is ‘Connect’ — a social media-like platform for artists to post messages, teasers and even videos. As I am writing this, Eminem just dropped the video for his new single, Phenomenal, exclusive to Apple Music. Unfortunately it has not appeared on my UAE Apple Music, yet.
But Apple is slowly expanding its reach in the Middle East. Until recently, you could not buy songs or rent movies off the regional iTunes stores. Now you can, with few limitations. Which is probably why Apple Music’s whopping 110-country release included the UAE and Saudi Arabia among other Middle East countries.
You have probably heard its cheaper to subscribe to Apple Music in some countries than the other. Price comparisons — its Dh20 a month, Dh19.99 if we are being pedantic, and it is free for the first three months — are inappropriate, mainly because content differs from country to country.
The limitations I referred to above cover culturally sensitive contents as well — like language used in songs — that will result in a song not being available in the UAE. That is probably why I cannot see Eminem’s new video. Instead, I can see updates by the very talented UAE-based DJ duo Hollaphonic. Apple has not explained why the much-touted Beats 1, which it calls a worldwide radio station, has not been made available in the UAE at launch.
But all-in-all, Apple Music is a really good thing to have. Spotify, Tidal, Pandora are not available legally in the region. Anghami, the Lebanese start-up launched in 2012, is one of the few legitimate streaming services in the region. Using the app, I have not had any problems looking up songs, from my favourite 1990s band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, to my current obsessions, Florence + The Machine and, don’t judge, Taylor Swift.
Speaking of Miss Swift, Apple and she had a bit of a public spat recently when the pop star riled against the corporation for refusing to pay artists during the three-month free period for Apple Music. Artists get commissions every time their music is streamed. Apple quickly did a U-turn, saying it would. For the record, Swift has removed all her music from Spotify, citing their policy. She is there front and centre on Apple Music.
So will Apple change the game again? It might just.
With its relationship with the music industry, Apple has goodwill to begin with. And with a massive database — 30 million songs in its library, apparently — it can easily ride this new wave of music streaming to great success. Of course, the real test will come once the three free months end. For now, it has created a whole lot of buzz and that, going by the company’s history of launches, has never been a bad thing.