42 years after breaking into the music industry as an assistant sound engineer on John Lennon’s fifth solo album, Walls and Bridges, Jimmy Iovine took on arguably his most difficult role of all: becoming the head of nascent streaming service Apple Music.
By taking on the job, he was accepting a challenge: to try and “fix” the music industry by turning the service into a profitable enterprise that works for both the artist and the accountants in Silicon Valley.
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Iovine – the subject of Netflix’s new documentary The Defiant Ones, which charts the creation of his Beats empire alongside business partner Dr Dre – is set to leave his role in the summer, and the job isn’t quite complete.
Though Apple’s paid subscriber base (currently at a reported 36 million) has grown substantially during his tenure – they’re on track to surpass Spotify as the number one streaming service in the US later this year – there are still flaws in the system.
Artists continue to complain that the slice of the cake they receive from streaming sites is not a fair representation of their work. On top of this, neither Apple Music nor Spotify have yet turned a profit.
What, then, are the greatest remaining barriers to streaming service success?
“Right now, music streaming is a utility,” Iovine says. “All the services are exactly the same, they do the same trick. If one of them lowered their price the rest are toast, because there’s no unique offering.”
He suggests that Apple Music will have to look at the frontrunner in the film and TV streaming game, Netflix, and try to replicate its model in order to scale in any meaningful way.
“Netflix has tons of original catalogue, six billion dollars worth of original content every year. That’s a value. All of the [music] streaming services have exactly the same catalogue and exactly the same music. And that’s partially due to the labels; they want it that way. But it’s not smart, and it will show in the end. Unless the streaming services become platforms and have something unique about them, they will not scale. Period.”
Apple has secured ‘original’ content from artists in the past – their USP is a slew of Beats Radio shows hosted by superstars such as Drake, Elton John and St Vincent – but they have lost the battle to retain exclusivity deals with artists. Chart toppers Drake, Taylor Swift and Adele, who at one stage had kept their major releases off Spotify, have since relented.
Yet Iovine insists that the streaming service which is able to present a unique offering will become dominant, and suggests that Apple Music will continue in the same vein, even after he is gone.
“We are fighting the fight. I’m going to stay on as a consultant and work with them, and if they want to do that [then] that’s what I want. I want it to become a very unique platform that differentiates itself from everything else.”
With album sales dropping significantly year-on-year, streaming has become the dominant force in music consumption. But even Spotify’s head of creator services conceded last year that artists are not being paid enough by streaming services.
Iovine, having moved from producer to record company founder to streaming service boss, is in a unique position to comment on the changes in the industry.
“When Shawn Fanning started [music sharing site] Napster, he said, ‘I want to trade songs’,” Iovine says. “He didn’t say, ‘I want to destroy the record business’. So, right now, what engineers are saying – because I work with a lot of them – they’re saying, ‘This bit of communication between artist and audience is still flawed.”
In order to thrive, upcoming artists have had to find new ways to earn money: extensive touring, a heavy lean into merchandising, and, for those who have managed to build a substantial following online, skipping the medium of a record label altogether.
Iovine suggests that artist empowerment is the only way forward, citing the success of Dr Dre’s protégé and eminent rap star Anderson Paak who, though signed to Dre’s Aftermath label, has yet to release an album through formal channels.
“I went to see Anderson Paak last night,” Iovine says. “He never put a record out through a major label or anything, [but] 2500 people know every word of his songs in Brixton.
“That’s crazy. That’s because his team knows how to communicate with an online audience, and when that happens the artist gets more power. The more power the artist gets, the better the music will get. So my thing is, empower the artist, get them as much much power as they can, and get the music out there through technology.”
The Defiant Ones arrives on Netflix UK on Friday 23rd March