As journalists have pointed out ad nauseam, Steve Jobs was wrong about streaming. In a 2007 interview, he was adamant that people wanted to “own their music.” Six years later, though, Apple is unveiling a new streaming service, iTunes Radio, to compete with Pandora and Spotify. The company even went so far as to introduce it alongside the first major style revamp of their mobile operating system. At first glance, this all seems to be a relatively simple matter of a failed prediction and a subsequent game of corporate catch-up, but, as usual with Apple, there’s more to iTunes Radio than initially meets the eye.
At first glance, iTunes Radio operates on basically the same model as Pandora—it creates a playlist based on the listener’s selection of an artist or a genre. Just like Pandora, iTunes Radio has limits on song skips and annoying ads that pop up just as you’re getting into the mood your playlist was meant to evoke. The series appears to offer nothing new, and has the familiar stench of “too little, too late.” Apple has had quite a while to put its unique stamp on the world of streaming, and it let the opportunity slowly pass it by while formidable foes like Spotify hustled to fill the void. No matter what Apple does now, it can’t dominate the world of ad-supported streaming like it could have done had it gotten into the game earlier. But maybe this isn’t its end game.
Last week, I streamed two unreleased albums in their entirety: Kings of Leon’s “Mechanical Bull” through iTunes, and Dr. Dog’s “B-Room” through the band’s website. Shortly thereafter, I bought “Mechanical Bull” and pre-ordered “B-Room” on iTunes. Why did I do this? Because I like the bands and their music enough to want a stake in their latest projects. I want to be able to take them with me when I’m walking on the street or riding the subway, and I want to enjoy the albums without interference from the corny ads on streaming sites or the inferior quality of pirated downloads. As we all know, this is where iTunes still dominates the market: It’s still the best place for high-quality, legal downloads, and neither Spotify nor Pandora can ever take that away from it. Why, then, should Apple bother trying to get into the streaming game, investing resources in creating a service that will always pale in comparison to its competition?
The simple answer is that iTunes Radio has a point-of-sale advantage that none of the other streaming services has: the buy button. To buy a song on Pandora, it takes four separate clicks to get from the listening page to the buy button on iTunes. That’s four clicks during which the easily distracted millennial listener (which, let’s be honest, is most of us) can think, “How much do I really like this song, anyway?”—not to mention the fact that Pandora’s buy option gives listeners a choice of going to iTunes or Amazon, giving the listener more decisions to make and therefore more time to decide whether the song is worth owning.
With iTunes Radio, there is virtually no decision time: As listeners enjoy their music, they find that all-too-familiar 99-cent icon looming directly above the album art. As consumers, we’ve proven ourselves willing to buy entire albums based on a few 30-second samples—how many albums could we be persuaded to buy when we’re treated to a steady stream of entire songs? Given my own actions last week, and the habits of all music lovers I know, the answer is quite a lot. Add to that the dramatically reduced decision time, and it seems that iTunes Radio might have a recipe for success by using streaming to promote music ownership. Darn it, Steve Jobs, you were right again!
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.