Steven Levy: With Beats Music service, Apple’s Tim Cook goes against the wisdom of Steve Jobs

“Steve Jobs always hated the idea of music subscriptions,” Steven Levy writes for Wired. “More than once, I tried to convince him that it was the way of the future. But he would mock me, citing the pathetic track record of the companies hawking subscriptions of unlimited music that go away when you stopped paying. People want to own music, he’d insist.”

“I looked forward to the day when Apple would finally announce an iTunes subscription service. I often envisioned the conversation we would have after the Stevenote that unrolled such a product. ‘Uh, Steve,’ I’d say. ‘You always told me Apple would never do a streaming service,'” Levy writes. “He’d smile, not even bothering to be annoyed at my reminder. ‘We finally figured out how to do it right,’ he’d say.”

“Obviously, that conversation never happened. And it’s impossible to say what Steve Jobs would have done had he lived. But as of Wednesday, with the confirmation of its worst kept secret, Apple is indeed doing a streaming music subscription service,” Levy writes. “It’s spending $3 billion to buy Beats, and it intends to keep running the earphone company’s Beats Music service, at least at first. As almost everyone has pointed out, this is a very un-Apple-like acquisition. It’s not as if Apple is gaining any special technology – Beats headphones are widely seen as a triumph of marketing as opposed to groundbreaking acoustic magic – and then you have Steve’s long-held aversion to subscription services. But Steve’s successor, Tim Cook, sees Beats as an ideal fit.”

Much more in the full article – recommended as usual – here.

MacDailyNews Take: What we wrote three weeks ago, we repeat today:

Beats. A triumph of marketing over sound quality.

Hopefully, if the deal goes through, some part of Beats’ Music subscription service will be worth it. — Apple in talks to buy Beats Electronics for $3.2 billionMacDailyNews Take, May 8, 2014

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46 Comments

  1. The sharks are jumping in the South San Francisco Bay and off the coast as they are saying “Cupertino Tim Made Me Do It”.

    Steve was an audiophile and Beats is the exact opposite of what any audiophile would buy.

    1. The vast majority of music listeners aren’t audiophiles. They want to hear a particular song ASAP. They don’t care about having the highest quality or owning the music.

      1. I AM an audiophile, and sometimes even I don’t care about having the highest quality or owning the music. Instead, I simply use the best tool for the job. “Best” is different for every person and situation.

        When I’m at home, I listen to my large CD collection encoded to Apple Lossless, on good headphones, and in my dedicated theater and listening room. When I’m on the go, I listen to Spotify because for $120/year, I can listen to almost anything I want, with surprisingly decent sound quality, in the car, the office, or wherever I am, and I don’t have to “manage my music” and decide before I leave on my trip what I’m going to want to listen to a week later. Perhaps Beats Music is (or will be) even better. I have to admit I haven’t even looked!

        I think the Beats acquisition wasn’t about the headphones; it was about Beats Music, Iovine and Dre, their relationships in the music industry, and the brand equity (cool factor) with the younger generation, aka many of Apple’s customers in the years to come.

        I certainly wasn’t a fan of Beats – either the brand or the product. But, then I haven’t even ever bothered to pick up a Beats product, let alone evaluate them. Of course, I’m also 44 years old, so probably not exactly in their target demographic.

        Even with my years of experience in several different industries including consumer electronics, I think the jury is out on this acquisition. I’m actually starting to see how it could be a good thing. I’m certainly not willing to say it’s stupid or that it’s Apple or Tim Clark.

        BTW Darwin, there would be no reason for sharks to be jumping, The meme is “jumping the shark” because Fonzie famously jumped over a shark-filled enclosure on water skis.

      1. To be fair, 128k AAC isn’t that bad, and wasn’t inappropriate for circa-early-2000’s internet bandwidth. The questionable-quality products from Apple don’t’ stop there, though.

        My wife’s plastic MacBook enclosure was complete crap, most certainly not up to Apple’s typical quality standards. Until the EarPods came along, Apple’s headphones all sucked beyond comprehension. They were perfectly acceptable $5 headphones, but nothing more. Certainly not up to inclusion with the industry’s highest-end, most advanced touch-based smartphone. The EarPods are pretty decent now, but they’re certainly nothing to write home about.

        People who shop in glass Apple Stores shouldn’t throw stones.

        1. Maybe 128 aac was needed 10 years ago due to bandwidth, but I will respectfully disagree that 128 aac isn’t that bad, it is horrid and I’m nowhere near an audiophile.

          I REALLY like the sound of Apple EarPods. I just wish they wouldn’t jostle around in my ear with the slightest move.

          1. Wow, 128kbps AAC is “horrid”? That’s interesting, because I did actual A-B listening tests back when iTunes Plus 256kbs came about, and to my experienced ears, 128kbps AAC and AIFF or ALAC weren’t that far apart, while 256kbps was essentially transparent. I tested a variety of tracks on both mid-range headphones, and on a mid-fi two-channel system in a treated listening room.

            What were you comparing? Direct rips? Purchased store tracks versus CD? What was the system like that you used for your comparisons?

            I’m actually an advocate for the best/highest quality possible, including high-resolution and surround formats, and I don’t even buy compressed music, so I’m not suggesting we go backwards or anything. But, I don’t think it was nearly as bad as you’re suggesting.

    2. Audiophile? I thought audiophiles only listened to vinyl? The question is, will subscriptions be mandatory, ala Adobe and Microsoft? Then I’ll be upset. And let’s be real- you can make copies of anything and “own” it.

      1. No, subscriptions won’t be mandatory. Apple is building a two-pronged music business: iTunes for owning music, and Beats Music for radio-like subscriptions and music discovery, which can then be easily purchased on iTunes.

        People seem to forget that radio has been around for more than a century, and it is fundamentally no different than streaming music like Beats or Spotify or Pandora (other than radio is free, but so is Pandora or iTunes Music with ads).

        And this is where Steve Jobs was wrong. Streaming music has its place, because people like to be able to hear new stuff, or occasionally hear things they like but don’t want to buy. It’s great for playing while lounging at the pool or BBQ, while doing housework, or working on a project in the garage or on your iMac. Apple is simply acknowledging that the streaming music market is important and Apple needs to be a big player in it.

      2. An Audiophile certainly doesn’t stream music, with 128 gig iPads, and 64 gig iPhones why would you stream if you care about quality? Makes no sense, also wireless never sounds as good as a hardwired headphone or speaker system, and the same applies to streaming vs having the file on directly on your device.

      3. Vinyl has one advantage in that it is a true analog signal. By its nature digital music will never capture all the nuance of analog. Whether a human ear can discern that difference is an argument for another day.

        The downside is that music on vinyl is compressed. It has to be otherwise the needle will skip. (And optical laser needles convert to digital so you lose the benefits of analog.) Of course, it all depends on the dynamic range of the original recording, which would determine the amount of compression required. Actual mileage will vary.

        The rub is that the true audiophiles I know have little but distain for heavily compressed music. I’m going to be provocative and say that most vinyl listeners are audiophile posers.

  2. Different times, different paradigms.

    Streaming music didn’t make sense when the iPhone came out in 2007, because cell data and speeds were still iffy.

    It makes more sense now, with 4G and LTE, but streaming still isn’t always the answer because carriers have caught on and charge more for data. And of course sometimes you’re simply out of range of good cell data connection.

  3. I definitely don’t want to own music and love my Spotify subscription. I also didn’t like Pandora or Apple radio because the curation/playlist is crap. $10/month for Spotify is very reasonable and they have a great library I like. Works for me.

    1. Yeah, well, I guess if you never go anywhere that hasn’t got a cellphone signal, you’re ok, but it’s worth pointing out that you don’t live in the rest of the world, where there are vast areas with barely any voice coverage, let alone any sort of meaningful data, so I can imagine how pissed you’d be spending a couple of weeks with no phone, no music, no YouTube, unless you could track down a wifi hotspot that actually works.
      I guess you don’t really like music very much anyway, so don’t really care that the $120/year you’re spending means you’re only renting the music, and if Spotify ever collapsed, you’d be left with nothing.
      It would buy me a dozen albums, which are mine, and can be played anywhere with a player, or ripped so can be played anywhere my phone/pod is.
      And yes, I know that tracks can be downloaded from Spotify, but what happens if you stop paying the subscription?
      All the previous streaming systems that used subscription meant that you lost the music when you stopped paying.
      Bugger that!

  4. Am I the only one who is experiencing some serious déjà vu here? I could have sworn Apple released something similar last year…iTunes Radio. Why does Apple need Beats anyway? Their headphones are very overrated, and less expensive options have better sound quality. Not knocking on Cook, but this seems like an unusual business decision.

    1. I use iTunes radio everyday. I gave up Pandora because I am a rather Apple fan. However, iTunes Radio is a poor product and has had many glitches (that are getting better).

      Apple simply not good at marketing a service (stream Music is not a product). Apple needs different group to focus on marketing and improving streaming services and that includes AppleTv. I have Netflix and often I see movies on iTunes for $3.99 where the same movie is available for free on and available on the Same AppleTv for the cost of a few clicks.

      Apple is great at creating products and market them as long as they are low touch point. iPhone, Mac, iPad, etc.. they all just work. Content requires curation and Apple has finally admitted that it is not good at that and they are bringing a whole new team (not just the figure heads) to take on the Spotify and hopefully more than just Streaming music, I like them to also improve their Video streaming.

      I hope this team will be involved with the upcoming AppleTv.

    2. I have found iTunes Radio to be rather limited. It tends to repeat songs frequently and I’m not too thrilled with the curation.

      I tried Beats Music after hearing about this acquisition (didn’t know about Beats before that). I really like the curation and app UI. From what I have read about its curation process, it relies on people rather than some algorithm, and I think that pays off in spades. I also have been disappointed with iTunes Radio’s performance (actually lack thereof) on my AppleTV.

    3. The real problem with rating headphones is that everyone not only hears slightly differently, but everyone has their own personal preferences about what they like to hear in music. Some people like a lot of bass, others little bass, some want to hear the guitars cleanly, others the vocals. Do you use them lying on the couch, jogging, working at your computer, or doing housework? It’s too subjective to say, “The______________ headphones are the best!” But that’s why there are a lot of companies making a lot of headphones in a lot of styles.

  5. MDN keeps saying that Beats headphones sound like crap yet they don’t off any suggestions on a better set of headphones that cost less than $500. What are the best headphones?

    1. The thing is, most people think only of the cheap, bottom-end Beats; the Solo HD ‘phones have dual drivers, better construction, and a cleaner sound, although still too bassy, so I’d do what I do with my various earphones; use an app called EQu, which allows the creation of custom curves across the frequency range, so bass can be tailored. My Etymotic ER6i’s finally have decent bass now, something that was previously almost non-existent, even with $100 custom eartips.
      I’m currently following several sets of Solo HD Beats on eBay, trying to get a good cheap pair; I like the way the look, the neat way they fold, and the fact that the cables are easily replaced just by unplugging them.
      Hopefully, Apple with take the design and tweak the sound for more average, neutral music tastes, they need higher-end ‘phones for people like me.

      1. If you remove the bass from Beats, they will lose their character and caché among the young crowd. That’s what they like in their music players, LOTS of bass!

    2. Under $500? Anything by Sennheiser, except the very top of their range. Grado makes great headphones too. So does Audio Technica, for the matter of that. There’s a lot to choose from that sound better than beats.

  6. That was then, this is now, people can assume forever that they think they’d know what Steve Job’s would do now, and could be completely wrong. Even if they were right, and Job’s would hate this, if it ultimately proves to be a good deal, then what are they going to say.. Steve is gone unfortunately and no amount of assumption is going to bring him back, Not to mention, I think he changed his mind on things over the course of time as well…

  7. This guy is a tool. That’s not what Steve Jobs hated. By referring to subscription services back then he was referring to those services that allowed you to download all the songs you wanted for a monthly fee. He hated the idea of not owning the music you had on your computer or on your music player.

    Today’s music streaming services are not even close to that model. They’re more like radio stations that allow the listener to customize and personalize the playlists to their tastes by just picking a genre or specific group/act.

    It was a tedious experience to search through those huge libraries, then download the music only to have all that music stop playing once the subscription ended.

  8. What if this was similar to the Angela Ahrendt’s hiring. That is, she was hired to oversee retail, already established, but she bringing with her the sensibilities of today’s fashion and it’s culture. Maybe Apple is creating a new division for entertainment in the same spirit.

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