7 February 2013
Apple Is Building a Social Music Network

By Matt Kiser | @Matt_Kiser

There’s a lot of talk about how Apple is building a whiz-bang, streaming Internet radio app to kill Pandora. In 2013, Internet radio seems really shortsighted for Apple. It can’t possibly be the only thing they’re up to in the music space.

Let’s explore this further: 1) Apple has sold something like 300 million total iOS devices, 2) Apple won patents recently called “iGroups” and one about “ad hoc networking based on content and location,” 3) Apple has punted on social to date, 4) Apple has largely failed to innovate their music products since iTunes and the iPod, and 5) Let’s not forget, Apple doesn’t like to lose.

So what does this mean? I think Apple is building a social music experience based on ad hoc networking, where multiple devices wirelessly connect to each other for a specific, temporary purpose. Instead of creating playlists and sharing them with people on Spotify or Rdio, or sending an MP3 to a friend, or huddling around a stereo listening to music, you’re going to be able to quickly spin up a group of neighboring iOS devices, and share music amongst them.

It’s a reflection on how we natively consume music. And one that plays to Apple’s strength as a closed ecosystem. This service will be primarily mobile and tablet-based, through you and your friend’s iOS devices, kind of like iTunes meets AirDrop. I sincerely doubt co-listening will even available. Humans have a very private and intimate relationship with music. We tend to listen to music individually, digest and internalize it, and later on we engage in meaningful discourse about it. Steve Jobs knew this.

One of the great things about ad hoc networking is that it enables groups to be quickly created and quickly dissolved. Cult of Mac explains it as “permanent social networks with temporary transits of members.” Read that again: Permanent networks. Temporary members. That’s exactly how we consume music. For instance, I don’t read Pitchfork every day. I go there, stock up on some recommendations, go away and listen to them, make my own decisions, tell some friends, and then come back to Pitchfork and stock up, again. In other words, you can come and go as you please, but you’re still part of the same loose ecosystem.

This kind of on-demand social music network is one based on the proximity of devices and, likely, centered on common interests and experiences. From Cult of Mac:

"Apple’s social service would no doubt give people the opportunity to establish lasting connections, but the default will likely be to erase connections and dissolve the networks when everyone leaves… Apple could achieve what Ping never could, which is to give people the means to share and socially discover music and other content, always with the added benefit of offering a path to purchase that content."

That last point was glossed over, but it’s important. So let’s consider a few things further: 1) An ad hoc group only exists when participating devices are in close proximity to each other, they’re temporary, and they automatically dissolve after the devices move away from each other, 2) A group is defined as one or more devices that are in transmission range of each other for a period of time, referred to as “contact time,” and 3) Users could be matched based on the common interests and experiences. In this case, music. I’ve previously contended that Apple will reward ownership of large libraries of music, and I think this is one example of where they’re heading with that.

Let’s imagine that iCloud and iTunes Match deliver on the promise of “access your music from all your devices and listen to your entire library, wherever you are.” And let’s imagine that you can spin up these ad hoc social networks as easily as you send files with Apple’s AirDrop utility. If two or more music libraries can be temporarily joined together, the contents shared, with some permanence saved into iCloud, you could build a very compelling music discovery experience. I’m looking at you, iCloud-powered collaborative iTunes Genius Mixes.

By building collaborative Genius Mixes, Apple will be able to build a full and rich experience previously incapable of for all users involved. In particular, Genius Mixes were suppose to provide a mix of both familiarity and discovery. However, when your library of available songs rarely increases or there is a limited amount to pull from, the mixes become stale and uninteresting. By incorporating additional libraries, and thus expanding the amount and diversity of available songs for a Genius Mix, you’re delivering on the promise of highly interesting and personalized playlists that also contain unexpectedly relevant and new (to you) music. That sounds vaguely familiar to Apple’s own language explaining Genius as a mix of surprise and delight: “to continually build and refine a sophisticated map of musical affinities which it can then use to help you notice other music you might like.”

This also starts to creep into the territory that Pandora has been successful at: programmed experiences. When confronted with near unlimited choice (think: Spotify), people are paralyzed by the selection. However, if you give people a starting point (think: Pandora station), you’ve quelled chaos with order. Songza’s entire business is this idea of programmed, situational listening. And it’s awesome.

For some nominal yearly fee, you’ll be able to create these groups with one or more friends (same as with Photo Streams) to directly share music that authorizes the temporary usage of that content, even after the group has dissolved and moved on. Obviously, this kind of service will have to come with some restrictions, such as a limit on the number of songs you can share at a time, as well as the shared songs gracefully becoming inactive after some specified amount of time.

You probably won’t be able to reshare the music either. And the original sharer can probably only share a limited amount of music before they have to unshare some (think: Apple Home Sharing and the maximum number of connected devices). This introduces a layer of sharing music that drives people to temporarily try lots of music for free from trusted sources (i.e. friends), but purchase what they want to keep forever. By creating this framework for music discovery, Apple is able to straddle the line between access and ownership models. It would also achieve what iTunes Match does, which is provide additional incremental royalty payments for music that is already owned — also known as residual revenue.

With all of this in mind, a social music product like the one I described above largely makes sense because it rewards ownership, supports artists, drives people to explore new music with their friends, and seamlessly pushes people to purchase the music they want to keep. It also insulates iTunes from the threat of labels pulling their catalogs, which is something Spotify and Rdio are constantly in danger of. This sounds like a win-win for everyone, especially the consumer.

Matt Kiser (@Matt_Kiser) is the Senior Manager, Editorial Operations at Forbes Magazine. As a digital media professional, he’s shaping the future of music and media through innovation and technology. Previously, he was the digital product manager at SPIN Magazine. 

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