“I started this curation conversation six years ago, and everyone thought I was talking about The Force, like it was an ancient religion,” says Jimmy Iovine, 62, a legendary producer, Interscope and Beats co-founder and latterly, since Beats Electronics‘ $3.2 billion (£2 billion) Apple buyout in 2014, a creative force behind Apple Music, the company’s new streaming service.
“But now that’s all people talk about. Of course [music] needs curation. Curation was supposedly not hip — that’s bullshit. Curation is a big thing to us, and no one is going to be able to catch us or do it better.”
Apple has had curation tools before; the Shuffle button, the Genius algorithm and the iTunes Store itself were all efforts in helping users navigate content, with varying degrees of randomness and intelligence. But now, with Apple Music, curation is pretty much Apple’s entire music product. Made up of three big elements, the service is intended — as Iovine stated at WWDC — to be “one complete thought around music”: a straightforward but streamlined library of 30 million on-demand tracks and playlists, a social-media stream of exclusive artist updates (‘Connect’), and curated radio stations, including the Zane Lowe-helmed global flagship Beats 1.
“What we built is a little more complicated than a basic utility,” Iovine tells WIRED. “But it’s meant to work together. It’s meant to entertain people, it’s meant to help them find music, discover music. When they want to do it on their own they can, and when they want help they can as well. To do that properly takes a lot of real creative people.”
Though it was launched in late June of this year, Apple Music was built on the foundations of Beats Music, the lesser-known digital element of co-founders Dr Dre and Iovine’s headphones empire. That service was relatively light in users compared to Spotify, Google Play and other competitors, but was noted for its commitment to customised, edited playlists with genuine heart and specificity. In Apple Music that DNA of curation was combined with Cupertino’s design expertise, its vast number of iTunes and iPhone customers, and the company’s deep knowledge of their music preferences, to create a service with greater nuance that you might expect.
The result is a growing sense that Apple Music is more than the sum of its parts. While the service’s universal three-month free trial means no one has actually paid the £9.99 monthly subscription fee (or £14.99 for families), more than 11 million people signed up for the trial in the first month. Apple — and the record industry — is now waiting for the critical transition of free trialists to paid subscribers. Happily, thanks to Taylor Swift, artists are being paid, both before and after.
For Jimmy Iovine, the question of success is more interesting, and difficult, than subscriber stats. Neither does he think about Apple Music as a utility, or as a dumb store of music with access sold at a standardised cost, even though the industry seems increasingly willing to think about all media that way. Instead he thinks of Apple Music as a tool to put meaning back into musical culture.
“I’m very happy with the content that’s forming, and what it is, and the image of it, and the vibe of what we’re trying to do is getting out there. So it’s easy for me to say I like it — but there’s a lot of work to do,” he tells WIRED, sitting back on a couch in an upscale London hotel, dressed in his consistent attire of T-shirt, hoodie and jeans and assessing the service’s first month. “When you’re in something like this you’re not really taking victory laps. But I think we’re finding our voice quicker than I thought we would.”
‘Voice’ is another word for curation, the process by which millions of units of media (whether music, movies, TV or social-media updates) are packaged, re-presented, suggested or promoted in order to get users engaged. It’s a trendy word for an old idea; there isn’t a broadcaster, publisher or medieval chronicler that hasn’t also faced the same puzzle of sorting vast amounts of information into manageable, interesting chunks. And while the tech world has occasionally heralded the death of human editors, to be replaced by content-shifting algorithms or self-organising complexity, the truth is that curation has never been an either/or choice between machine learning or human taste. Virtually everyone involved in curation of any kind — from Amazon to, well, WIRED.co.uk — uses both humans and technology to improve their product.
Apple Music is positioned towards the human end of that scale, but not entirely, Iovine says. The suggested albums and playlists you see when you open the Music app might be initially sorted based on traditional genre preferences you put into the service when you sign up (“our radio station is genre-free, it’s research-free… genres are just names…”), and your past listening trends (“we also have your iTunes library so we know what’s in there. And that’s put into the formula…”). But much of the actual content — for this author an ‘Intro To Jimi Hendrix’ playlist, a collection of ‘Dark Disco’ and an ‘Indie Day At The Beach’ collection featuring the Apples In Stereo, Toots & The Maytals and Blondie — might be put together by one of “hundreds” of human editors.
“When I met a lot of our competitors in the field the first thing they said to me was, ‘Look we don’t have anything to do with music, we’re a utility’” Iovine says. “[But] no matter how you shake it, when you listen to a radio station that was programmed purely by an algorithm you will go comfortably numb.”
Apple’s advantage, Iovine says, is one of scale: the scale of the resources it can put into human curation, and the scale of its ambition to do curation properly.
“Algorithms are great but they’re very limited in what they can do as far as playing songs and playing a mood… And a lot of these companies they just go and hire somebody who used to work in the record business 25 years ago. Well, great. You have one person. We have hundreds… We have one of the great tech companies of all time building what we need.”