Apple's Plan to Own the Entire Music Industry

Apple's ambition in music continues to be misunderstood. Most of the focus remains on the battle between Apple Music and Spotify for paid music streaming subscribers. However, the much more interesting development relates to Apple's desire to grab music mind share. Apple is aiming to leverage its strong balance sheet to control the music narrative, and in the process, remove all of the oxygen from the music streaming industry. 

Music Is in Apple's DNA

Music not only served as inspiration for the iPod, but also justified Apple's first major foray beyond hardware and software. Apple got into the messy business of distributing and selling digital music because it believed hardware and software expertise gave the company advantages that other companies lacked. Apple saw the increasing amount of chaos in the music industry as an opportunity to package and sell a superior customer experience. The one thing that Apple was missing: access to songs. 

To make the case that Apple should have access to music catalogs, Steve Jobs explained to the big five record labels, BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal, and Warner, how Apple would control the entire music experience. Everything from running the store that would sell the songs all the way to selling the device used to listen to those songs would go through Apple. The goal was to impress the labels and have them see how no one was better positioned than Apple to offer a superior customer experience. Since the iTunes store was initially sold as being available only on a Mac, if things turned out negatively for the labels, the Mac's low market share meant the mistake would be contained.

The sales pitch worked, and the world quickly embraced Apple's model of buying single songs for $0.99. A million tracks were downloaded in the first six days. Over the next few years, the iTunes store became the go-to place to buy music, and more importantly, it grabbed a significant amount of music mindshare. Eventually, the first thing that came to mind when talking about music was either iTunes or iPod. Apple had captured the music industry. 

The Beats Acquisition

The iTunes juggernaut remained relatively unscathed for more than a decade. During this time, Apple held nearly complete control over the changing music landscape. However, behind the shiny facade, cracks were appearing. Start-ups focused on music streaming were gaining traction. By early 2014, Spotify had amassed 55M users, Pandora was flying high on Wall Street, and YouTube was the most popular destination for listening to free music. While the iTunes cash cow of paid song downloads was still growing, it was clear that change was in the air. For the first time in years, Apple wasn't the one selling that change.  

Acquiring Beats in 2014 for $3 billion, nearly five times more than it spent on its previous most expensive acquisition, was an admission from Apple that iTunes was in trouble. While management never officially positioned the acquisition as such, the fact that Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine was selling a "solution" to Apple was a clear giveaway that something was indeed broken and required a solution in the first place. 

Strategy to Own the Music Industry

Following the Beats acquisition, I see Apple striving to take back the music narrative with the goal of eventually owning the entire music industry. There are four distinct steps to Apple's strategy. 

  1. Pivot into paid music streaming.
  2. Leverage a strong balance sheet to control the music narrative.
  3. Remove oxygen from the music streaming industry by grabbing revenue share.
  4. Create an environment for independent artist sustainability.

Although each step becomes progressively more difficult, ultimately, the four are interrelated.  

Step 1: Pivot into paid music streaming. Apple's first step in owning the music industry is the most straightforward: work with music rights holders to successfully pivot from paid downloads to paid music streaming. The paid music streaming industry is still in its infancy with approximately 90 million people paying for some kind of music streaming. This number will undoubtedly rise over the coming years. In 2015, revenue from paid music streaming outpaced revenue from paid downloads in the U.S. for the first time. It's clear Apple had no other choice but to make the jump into streaming. 

Apple's entrance into paid music streaming last year will be remembered as a mixed bag. For users with iTunes playlists, Apple Music was hit or mess as Apple oversold its ability to seamlessly combine streaming with legacy iTunes. However, for mainstream users living firmly in streaming, Apple Music was much better received. Last month at WWDC, Apple unveiled an improved Apple Music that addresses some of the larger friction points that came to light over the past year. 

When judging Apple's performance in paid music streaming, the primary metric to monitor has been the number of paid subscribers. Accordingly, much attention has been given to the feud between Apple and Spotify, the current leader in paid music streaming. With more than 30 million subscribers, Spotify has nearly twice the number of paid subscribers as Apple Music with their 15 million. However, Apple Music has shown much promise as it took less than a year to reach that 15 million paid subscriber benchmark. It took Spotify six years to reach the same number of paid subscribers.

Despite a few missteps, Apple has successfully accomplished the first step in its mission to eventually own the entire music industry. In just a year, the company has the second most popular paid music streaming product in the world with Apple Music. 

As seen in Exhibit 1, Apple Music's subscriber growth trajectory has ramped much faster than Spotify's. Apple was able to take advantage of its vibrant mobile ecosystem, a broad geographic reach, and a much more mature music streaming market. 

Exhibit 1: Apple Music vs. Spotify Paid Subscribers

Looking at recent subscriber trends, things become trickier to analyze. There is evidence that Spotify is moving the goalposts as its paid subscriber count is becoming diluted due to increased use of price discounts and promotions. These offers are inflating Spotify's paid subscriber numbers. Since Spotify has nearly 70M subscribers on its free tier, the company is likely trying to capitalize on this large user base by dangling discounts and promotions to entice upgrades. Apple Music has not seen this same level of price promotion. This means that the Apple versus Spotify battle will need to be judged along new metrics in the coming months. 

In terms of other paid music streaming competitors, the industry remains disjointed. Riding on the back of big exclusives, Jay Z's Tidal has positioned itself as the third-largest paid streaming service with more than four million subscribers. Deezer, Rhapsody, and Pandora are close behind in terms of the number of paid subscribers. Meanwhile, SoundCloud's recent move into paid music streaming has not caused much of a stir.

Step 2: Leverage a strong balance sheet to control the music narrative. Apple's next step to own the music industry is to leverage its strong balance sheet in order to better position itself against the largest streaming players. Apple will use a portion of its $234 billion of cash to accomplish three things:

  • Obtain music exclusives. Apple is betting big on music exclusives. By working closely with top music artists, Apple believes exclusives won't just help sell Apple Music subscriptions, but also go a long way in placing Apple Music in the center of the music discussion. Exclusives help drive buzz and press. As an example of how powerful exclusives can be, most of Tidal's 4.2M subscribers are a result of album exclusives from Beyoncé, Kayne West, and Rihanna. Meanwhile, Apple has seen exclusives from Drake, Future, and Chance the Rapper. 
  • Create original content. Instead of focusing just on exclusive songs and albums, Apple has shown a desire to work with labels and music artists to produce other forms of original content including feature-length movies (the Taylor Swift concert documentary), Beats 1 programming, and even scripted television series (Dr. Dre's "Vital Signs"). All of this exclusive content demonstrates how "winning" in the music industry is no longer just about having access to music. Music and video are becoming intertwined. 
  • Fund artists. Apple is increasingly looking and acting like a record label these days. While the company isn't exactly forthcoming in disclosing the extent of its involvement, we know Apple is bankrolling a number of artists when it comes to marketing expenses. Apple has produced a handful of music videos for Drake, M.I.A., The Weeknd, and Eminem. 

Apple's goal with these three items is to place Apple Music in the center of the music discussion. If something big happens in the music scene, Apple wants it to occur within Apple Music. The key ingredients to accomplishing this step include lots of cash and the right kind of industry relationships. The Drake exclusive reportedly cost $19 million. It's clear this is where the battle is being fought for subscribers in music streaming. Spotify recently hired Troy Carter as global head of creator services and getting exclusives is a top priority. 

Step 3: Remove oxygen from the music streaming industry by grabbing revenue share. With a successful pivot into paid music streaming, and now a focus on getting exclusives and building music relationships, Apple's next step toward owning the music industry is coming into focus. Apple will look to gain music streaming revenue share in order to form stronger relationships with music rights owners. In the process, Apple hopes to remove much of the oxygen in the streaming space.

The ultimate goal is to create a feedback loop in the music industry. If Apple Music is the top revenue source, the belief is this would lead to stronger relationships with music rights holders. In turn, stronger relationships would lead to a better Apple Music service with more exclusive content and additional access to artists. The better content will then drive additional paying subscribers and a larger piece of industry revenue share. Completing the loop, the higher revenue share will give music rights holders an even greater incentive to work with Apple. It was this goal to get close with music rights owners by going after industry revenue share that led Apple to bypass a free tier to Apple Music. This continues to be regarded as a controversial move given how Spotify has shown the ability to use its free tier as a tool to grow its paid tier. 

By seeking to control much of the revenue in music streaming, Apple would be looking to make the streaming market that much less attractive for competitors. Removing the oxygen from the room would add further strain to music streaming companies' balance sheets. This is where Apple's rumored interest in Tidal comes into play. Any deal for Tidal would not be about getting access to the service's 4.2 million subscribers. Instead, Apple would be interesting in gaining access to Jay Z and friends. Losing out on Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kanye West album exclusives over the past year irked Apple. While Apple Music eventually got access to most of the exclusive content, the amount of attention and breathing room that Tidal received was obviously not something Apple enjoyed. Acquiring Tidal and bringing Jay Z on board Apple Music will be a way for Apple to make Apple Music more attractive and capable of getting additional revenue share. (My complete analysis on the Apple/Tidal acquisition talks, including my thoughts on Tidal's current price tag, is available here.)

Step 4: Create an environment for independent artist sustainability. The last step for owning the music industry is arguably the most difficult but also the most intriguing. Up to now, we have largely focused on Apple attempting to gain control of the music industry by appealing to the top one percent of music artists, those who hold the most power in the industry. These artists are the ones that go on tour and are overall able to do things capable of shaking the boat when it comes to deals and news. In essence, these are the artists that are not relying on music streaming to find sustainability. 

Missing from this strategy are indie artists, the musicians trying to find a way to not just reach their fans, but also find sustainability. I am not optimistic that paid music streaming is the answer for these artists. Something else is needed. This is where a platform that makes it possible for smaller artists to connect with their fans and then monetize their art can go a long way in adding sustainability to the music industry. If Apple is successful in acquiring the most valued music listeners, the company has a fighting chance to own such an indie platform given greater odds that people will spend money. However, as seen with the growing troubles surrounding the App Store and independent developer sustainability, it's clear that this step is still some distance from fruition. 

The combination of owning a significant portion of the music industry's revenue share and having a platform that offers sustainability to all musicians would give Apple much of the available power in the music industry. By consolidating power, Apple would hold the strings to the entire music industry. 

Potential Problems and Risks

With each step, Apple faces challenges and risks in its quest to own the music industry. Spotify continues to demonstrate skill and talent when it comes to understanding how consumers listen to music. The company should not be underestimated. 

When it comes to exclusives, music rights owners have an incentive to make their music available to as many people as possible, potentially complicating Apple's strategy to bet big on exclusives. In addition, exclusives spread out across a number of streaming services are not user friendly, especially when viewed in light of the era of music exclusives found with brick-and-mortar retailers. An extensive expansion of music streaming exclusives may lead to a rise in music piracy. 

For acquiring streaming revenue share, any friction in terms of Apple Music's design or user interface decisions may impact Apple's ability to sell the experience to customers. Finally, for independent artist sustainability, the biggest risk Apple faces is not dedicating enough resources to the cause. In addition, social will end up playing a key role in how artists find sustainability, potentially complicating Apple's efforts in this area. 

Future Implications

If Apple is successful in terms of gaining control of the music industry for the second time in 15 years, there are quite a few significant implications. Apple would be able to pivot from legacy technology (paid music downloads) and win at a new business model (music streaming), despite being a few years late to the game.

Apple would utilize its user platform to establish a beachhead in a new technology and then leverage its balance sheet to find a more competitive position by grabbing revenue share. This strategy provides a framework for how Apple will look at its next content realm: video. While one can argue the music industry has certain qualities that make it much more friendly for a company like Apple to control compared to video, there are qualities both music and video share that Apple will look to exploit. 

Apple's primary lesson from the early iTunes and iPod years was that a focus on the customer experience had an outsized impact on an industry that was undergoing significant change. It was much easier for Apple to offer a superior experience that customers valued when there was much chaos and unknown in the air. Apple's master plan to own the music industry involves adding chaos into the music industry by leveraging its $233 billion of cash. Apple continues to think big with its music ambitions. 

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