The iPod was hip and cool. A device that was introduced to the world as being able to hold one thousand songs in your pocket went on to be Apple's trojan horse and take over not only the music industry, but also the entire music culture. The iPod won because it was different and cool, working seamlessly with iTunes in bringing emotion and passion back to music. Fourteen years later, Apple finds itself in a new music predicament. Holding on to the paid music download model a few years too long, Apple is once again trying to recapture music mindshare with Apple Music. Instead of competing on technological terms, Apple is positioning Beats 1 as the new iPod, a tool meant to add emotion and coolness to a sea of commodity music streaming services.
The iPod Was Cool
On October 23, 2001, Apple unveiled a device that went on to position the Mac as the temporary hub of our digital lives and ultimately play a role in shaping modern culture. Wearing a pair of white headphones didn't just mean that you had an iPod in your pocket, but also meant that you were a rebel, someone who thought differently.
Something interesting happened with the iPod. It went from a sign of being different to an outright symbol of being cool. During a time when Macs were destined for art classrooms, and mobile phones left much to be desired in terms of design and functionality, iPods were taking over college campuses and schools like nothing seen before. Music was once again something fun, something that could be listened to mostly anywhere. A fact that now seems like a given was a new experience just 10 years ago.
Beats 1 Is the New iPod
With Apple Music, Apple is once again looking to leave its mark on music culture, which is arguably much more important and valuable than the $15 billion of annual digital and physical music sales. We are no longer in the iTunes era. The iPod we have come to know is now just a footnote in Apple's financial statements. Instead, Beats 1 is being positioned as the new iPod.
Consider how during what was arguably the most important day in Apple's music history, nearly the entire discussion was centered around Beats 1. The 30 million songs now available for streaming are nice, but we are already used to that with other streaming sites. Lots of curated music playlists are helpful, but something seems to be missing. Apple's intention on launch day was clear. The buzz surrounded Beats 1. What was Zane Lowe saying? Who was he playing? What are other people thinking?
At first glance, Beats 1 would seem to be a highly unlikely candidate for being the new iPod. How is a radio station with a preprogrammed schedule pushing content to listeners considered hip and cool in 2015?
However, Beats 1 is trying to do much more than be a radio station. Instead of just pushing songs to our iPhones, Beats 1 aims to make us live and breathe music. The modern era of music streaming with millions of songs at our disposal has led us to think of music simply by genre. How else would one sort through millions of songs? As we rely more on the algorithm to control our music listening experience, we are left with a product that is lacking emotion and passion. We remain tied to what we think we know and enjoy. Music discovery is never allowed to materialize. Beats 1 is trying to get us to appreciate and discover music again.
Trent Reznor, one of the masterminds behind Apple Music, explained Apple's motivation to Pitchfork :
"Personally, one of the things that interests me in this space as a fan is that consumption of music is radically different from when I was a kid. You had to make a choice of what you wanted to invest in. There were some good things about that. I listened to some records that I didn’t necessarily like at first, but I listened to them because it was all I had. It shaped the way I think about things. And now that access is ubiquitous and everybody has access, to me, that puts the burden on the service to make music enticing—different portals and entryways and rabbit holes. And what if that experience could be one that turns more people on to great music? I think that’s exciting."
Similar to how Apple relied on celebrities to market the iPod, the company is once again adding a new modern twist to the equation with Beats 1, placing Zane Lowe as the face of Apple Music. While he may not be a household name, his ability to discover talent and appreciate the art of music has not been lost. Apple is investing in other personalities along with Lowe, each with a slightly different take and style. But at the end of the day, Beats 1 is Zane Lowe. Notice during the Apple Music launch how Apple executives, many of whom have been quite active on Twitter recently, were quiet. There was not one tweet or message about Apple Music. Instead, it was all Zane Lowe.
Beats Brand Lives On
Even the name of Beats 1 is quite telling. Apple's $3 billion acquisition of Beats last year included branding and people. The Beats brand carries a young, cool and hip connotation while iTunes brings up thoughts of slowness, bloatware, and oldness. I have a difficult time seeing "iTunes 1" having the same kind of impact as Beats 1.
Beats 1 Gives Apple a Fighting Chance
The iPod was a risk. In reality, nearly everything that has turned out successful for Apple was at one time considered to be a big risk. That is not to suggest that everything Apple touches turns into gold, but rather that risk is needed to really change the status quo. Beats 1 is Apple's latest bet. It may not work. People may be turned off by the variety of music and simply not value Zane Lowe's or the other DJ's personality or musical acumen. Radio was mostly declared dead and reimagined as Pandora. Will the world be willing to think again about what radio can be? Trent Reznor summed it up well:
"I’m surrounded by enthusiasm and support and a company that’s ready to take risks and allow, what I think, is risky good taste to be a fundamental part of what they’re trying to do. It’s pretty cool that the biggest company in the world feels that way."
Apple is not starting Beats 1 to appeal to the masses but rather to add something new to the music discussion. After being on the market for years and experiencing refined product and pricing strategy, the iPod changed the game. Beats 1 represents Apple's most likely path toward taking back the music industry. Using a radio station in 2015 to take back music culture - now that is thinking differently.
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