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Apple wants to own every level of how you do music

Apple wants to own every level of how you do music

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Right before he introduced the new, revamped Apple Music, Tim Cook rolled another classic inspirational Apple film. It was meant to illustrate how their new service fits into the history of humans and our relationship to music — from the good old days when we all gathered ‘round the victrola to listen to the latest ragtime joint, to modern times when we all gather round the DJ booth to hop up and down to the latest bleep bloops. And that's where Apple Music comes in!

Apple Music wants to be your one-stop-shop for every level of your musical consumption — whether that's discovering music via trusted curators (BeatsOne radio), getting it directly from artists you already like (Connect), or through algorithms that figure out what you want to listen to so you don't have to. Gone are the days when you have to toggle awkwardly between a Spotify playlist and your personal collection of music files. Now, ostensibly, they will all be a part of the same app, and not just any app — an app connected to the most dominant, effortless music store on the planet. The barrier between streaming and purchasing will be lower than ever. If you have an iPhone and are already a paid Spotify user, I can't think of a single reason why you would stick with the service after June 30th.

iTunes was the first digital Case Logic binder

Jimmy Iovine, Eddy Cue, or Drake didn't say anything today about buying albums, and the notion that streaming services serve any kind of sizeable "try before you buy" function has long since been debunked. We can assume that the iTunes Store isn't going anywhere, but the innovation of Apple Music — and any of the competitors it's now jumping into the ring with — is not to have to choose which albums you own and don't own. If nothing else, it's evidence of Apple's adaptability, because the original iTunes application started out as a kind of digital intermediary between the era of lovingly organizing your record collection along the wall, and downloading literally every album you could think of off Napster. You could scroll through your friend's iTunes library and the experience was an obvious analog (perhaps that's not the best word) to flipping through their giant 208-disc Case Logic binder.

If you grew up with that idea of personal collection and curation, you knew how pivotal it could be for building your personal identity. Everyone had a music collection — whether in files or on vinyl — and the size and nature of it said something important about you. I remember staring with dissatisfaction at my modest CD collection (music was expensive back then! Much more than $9.99 a month) at various stages throughout my adolescence, thinking it was alternately "too pop," "too rock," "too novelty," or the unbearable "too mainstream." Later into college it frequently risked being "too pirated" — I preferred having that original album art to slide into each sleeve, rather than an ugly Memorex CD-R with some Sharpie writing on it, but sometimes convenience won out.

This isn't another piece about how it feels so good to put a needle on a record and hold an album in your hands and feel Jack White or whoever's beating heart through the warmth of the vinyl. When I got my first iPod (which had my entire music library on its 60 GB, and which definitely was "too pirated") I still took pride in spinning through that impossibly huge artist list and feeling a sense of pride at my vast yet still somehow specific musical taste. This is about the idea of owning the things you like and taking care of them and investing some part of your identity in them.

Buying records was a very brief obsession in the history of humans and music

Because if you grew up with that idea of collection and curation, you were actually a part of a very brief era in how humans do music. As much as we like to think of them as some vital part of our heritage, record stores really only enjoyed a heyday of about a half a century. Prior to that, music was less a market of things to acquire and more a substance that flowed out of every car speaker and jukebox. And before that, it was something you played with friends after dinner, in the parlor or around the campfire. Our oldest musical traditions, like sacred and folk music, were important because they were an experience people could share, not a way to differentiate one's self. When all we had was hymns, you weren't going to turn up your nose at a song because everyone else was singing it; you were just stoked because everyone else knew the same song you knew and you weren't alone in the universe. Individual taste has been around as long as we've had our five senses, but it didn't manifest itself as choice-based consumer activity until about halfway through the 20th century.

Which brings me back to the Inspirational Apple Promo: in a way, the shot of the millennials raging at the EDM show has more in common with dust bowlers gathering 'round for some radio time than it does with the guys blasting the latest track out of their souped-up subwoofers. People who pay hundreds of dollars to attend one of an ever-growing number of big electronic music festivals aren't going so much for a predetermined song or artist or moment so much as to be submerged in a kind of music, a kind of activity, for an extended period of time, and with people who are all having the same experience at the same time. Fans like this are as likely to build a playlist of their favorite dance anthems as to just search YouTube for one of many thousands of three-hour "Trance megamixes." Music as a substance: open the spigot and get your fill. And hopefully, feel less alone.

So perhaps Apple Music's egoless combo is more timeless than it seems on the surface, give or take some modern conveniences: We'll have access to everything, but it will be curated and filtered by third parties and algorithms and our own personal playlists so as not to overwhelm our poor little info-saturated brains. (I've said it before and I'll say it again: radio will never die, and Apple making such an investment in BeatsOne seems like further evidence of that — some deep down part of us LOVES the simplicity of being told what to listen to!) The question of what you own will be taken out of the equation; all we really have to do is some arranging and prioritizing to optimize the flow of content. We won't define ourselves by our music, because everyone will be varying flavors of musical omnivore.

Apple has created a self-contained musical Truman Show

The only place where I really pause then, is the notion of all of it — every level of our music experience — being chaperoned by a single company. With Connect essentially asking musicians to move all their social media and marketing content to the same platform they sell music on, the legwork of being a fan — of a specific artist or a genre — has been reduced to zero. And all the while, our patterns of consumption are all being fed back to Apple HQ. Apple's asking us to consolidate everything about how we do music to a kind of self-contained Truman Show, where we have everything we could ever want and the freedom to integrate it into our lives in a way that feels specific and personal. But if we ever so much as think about trying to operate past the confines of its dome, it will immediately be apparent how reliant we are on them for everything.

It might be really good for us in the long run to revert to a more global, holistic approach to how we do music, as nostalgic as I am for my old CD towers. But then the collection fetish has just moved upstairs — from the customers, to the corporate bodies that gather them up like so many stacks of used discs. Maybe the nostalgia we feel won't be so much for the records and files themselves, but for the diversity of experiences that brought them to us.