Price Hikes, Media Companies and Everything in Circles
It’s interesting to observe how all media content platforms begin to struggle. They appeared on the scene to do what the big media companies were (and still are) institutionally incapable of doing: offering an attractive and convenient way to legally consume the content people want. To provide a simple and pleasant product experience.
Now, as the disruptors of days past become content producers themselves, they employ the same tactics they once helped to streamline away.
A couple of says ago, I received a notification about Apple raising their price for the Apple One subscription, going from 14,95 EUR to 16,95 EUR. No new features, no new value delivered, just more expensive. That’s a price hike of a bit short of 14 percent for the same service. No explanation, no justification, nothing. It’s probably related to inflation. By not explaining themselves, they don’t open themselves up for criticism. Remember, this is brought to you by the most valuable company in human history, the one that literally has 200 billion dollars at their disposal — in cash.
I re-evaluated what I actually need. 50 GB iCloud storage, check. Otherwise, automated device backups won’t work at all. The rest? Of Arcade, TV and Music, I was mainly using Music anyway. An Apple Music subscription alone will go from 9.99 EUR to 11.99 EUR in December — a 20 percent price hike right there. Again, no value added, just more expensive.
“Do I actually need Apple Music?” I thought to myself, considering an active Spotify family subscription I have been a member of for some time now. After all, the content is largely the same. Or so I thought. I was in for quite a surprise.
After painstakingly transferring some playlists, I gave Spotify a thorough try. I got the impression that everything on Spotify sounds more, well, “flat” than what I was used to on Apple Music. Jacking up the audio quality to its highest setting, I compared the sound quality several times, using speakers and a selection of headphones.
The differences are not huge but they are noticeable. Spotify music sounds flat and sometimes even compressed. If you listen to music radio and like how that sounds, Spotify will undoubtedly be for you. If you like dynamic range, it may not. For me, after doing A/B tests for some time, I started to notice the flaws more and more. I consider Spotify as probably “good enough” for general use, but I don’t enjoy listening. Apple Music is plain “good” and should be the baseline for digital music distribution. Remember, that’s all with the lossy, compressed default audio. Apple offers lossless audio for a portion of its catalog — whenever a publisher has uploaded a lossless copy that is.
Just to give Apple the middle finger for once, I would have been willing to adapt. I would have been willing to forego seamless1 music syncing to my Apple Watch.2 I would have been fine with having to delegate my iPad as a streaming machine because my HomePods can only work on their own with an active Apple Music subscription. I would have been fine with the irritating UI of Spotify. I would have reluctantly been kind of okay with manually marking all of my playlists “private”, since Spotify stubbornly insists on sharing as much of my private information with the world as possible. I would even have been fine with Spotify’s repeated needless grandstanding against Apple’s platform restrictions. Occasionally, they even have a valid point or two to make.
You know what I’m not okay with? Podcasts in my music app.
To be clear: I like podcasts. Certain ones. The kind done by actual journalists and people of note, the ones that deliver factual information and quality content in an entertaining way. The ones I choose for myself, via different venues. I’m decidedly not interested in a “hipster’s opinion on organic tomato sauce”, as user ufo2 put it so well:
I want podcasts tucked away in their own section, or better yet: a dedicated app. You know, like every other service does. I don’t want to mix podcasts with music. Why would I? It’s a stupid and useless idea, contrary to a good user experience. It makes no sense at all. Unless you examine it through the lens of the almighty measure of “engagement”.
Spotify spent ridiculous amounts of money on securing exclusive podcasting shows, in a bet to position themselves at the centre of the trend. Now they want to see a return of investment and push hard for engagement with this content. It’s on my home screen and I cannot get rid of it — half of the screen filled with stuff I don’t want to know or care about. The more I’m subjected to content against my wishes, the more I begin to actively despise it. Everyone loses.
There’s a community vote for the option to disable podcasts entirely:
At the time of writing there are almost 6000 votes for doing so. The post is also more than three years old. The latest update happened more than 17 months ago. There’s clearly no interest at Spotify for implementing this and even less to communicate their reasoning. They want to drive adoption and engagement to in turn drive the value of their platform for advertisers and partners. The user’s priorities are tertiary at best. If they fessed up to it — in clear, plain language — there would be a mass exodus. Dishonesty, deflection and deferral are the default modes of business operation today. You cannot, you must not reveal the universal lie we all tell ourselves.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Apple’s Music app is a train wreck in itself that needs a major overhaul. Of course, this is not going to happen any time soon. It serves Apple’s priorities, not the user’s.
If it did, I would be able to adjust the “Browse” tab for example. I would be able to customise it or entirely remove it. Early iOS versions offered the ability to change an app’s layout to some degree. As is, the section is entirely useless to me. It’s aggressively filled with German rap, German pop, dance, electronic and all kinds of other music that I — despite living in Germany — am not the slightest bit interested in. There’s even kid’s music sprinkled in.
No amount of “Suggest Less Like This” changes the layout for me. The suggestions there are actually filled with entries I marked as not interested in. I can tell because when I try to mark them, the option presented to me is “Undo Suggest Less Like This”. Apple know that I don’t want to see this, yet still decide present me with it. This unwanted content is reliably pushed to the top of the page. I have never even listened to anything even remotely in the suggested genres. Without hearing from other subscribers, there’s not way to know if this is a widespread issue. All I know is, that for me, that entire page is a lost cause.
Music apps should be considered personal space. I want to be able to set it up in a way I need, not the company providing it. When I spend a night in a hotel room, I’m not going to redecorate. If I’m about to spend a significant part of my life in that room, I absolutely will.
The same companies that initially prided themselves on putting the user’s needs front and centre are now bowing to the same economic incentives and inflexibilities the behemoths of yesterday did. They have become behemoths themselves. What’s different this time is that there are no challengers on the horizon.
In the end, I will probably stay with Apple Music. Until the next price hike. At one point, I may consider building a personal digital music library again, under my own control. That would also solve the disappearing tracks and albums I’ve encountered several times. Imagine having a significant memory tied to a song you can no longer access.
I know I’m going to miss exploring new music of a wide variety at the tap of a finger. What I won’t miss is the rent-seeking.
Well, once you’ve turned off Bluetooth on your iPhone to compensate for iOS’s seemingly random buggy behaviour of insisting to transfer large media files to Apple Watch via Bluetooth instead of WiFi. This is highly unstable and takes about as long as it would making a real-time recording. ↩︎
Spotify compresses music even more when uploading it to an Apple Watch. It sounds horrible to my ears. There’s no way to adjust the bitrate or quality setting to sacrifice duration for quality. As far as I can tell, Apple always syncs 256 kBit/s AAC files by default. ↩︎