U2?! How the push of Steve Jobs’ playlist undermines trust in Apple as a future music curator and cloud-based service

I am astounded and surprised by Apple’s choice to push U2's latest album to all users, instead of following their usual path: making a gift an optional download we may or may not redeem. This is a terrible idea for seemingly obvious reasons. That Apple does not get this is really, really troubling for the future. Here is why this is more than annoying and astounding.

What NOT to play, that is the question

Decades of popular music research as well and commons sense knowledge about how music works, shows that music is closely associated with identity and personal choice, and with differentiating yourself from other listeners. In music, one size does simply NOT fit all. And, as everyone working with radio formatting knows, choosing what NOT to play is even more important than selecting the perfect song or artist within a particular format or segment, because listeners get turned off – and loose trust in future choices a radio makes, if they are presented with songs they hate.

Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine, Ian Rogers vs. Steve Jobs as DJ

In an earlier post, I discussed and applauded Apple’s acquisition of Beats Music, heralding smart choices when it comes to future music streaming, and bringing a deep and needed understanding of music and curation to Apple. If they signed off on U2 for all, my trust in their ability to make good calls on behalf of music listeners just evaporated. If Apple went ahead with the launch despite their objections, it is just as bad, since this indicates that they have little to say in strengthening Apple’s position in music, and remaining relevant in the changing soundscape with competitors like Spotify, Deezer or WiMP Music (soon to be Tidal HiFI in the US/UK). With the U2 campaign, it seems as if the Steve Jobs (rest his soul) is still Apple’s main tastemaker in music. I think it’s fairly uncontroversial stating that his genius lay more in being an entrepreneur, salesman and CEO – not a DJ.

Human curation vs. Algorithms for the people

Interviewing people about music listening and streaming, reflecting on my own reactions towards human curation and algorithmic recommendations, mixed with a basic understanding of human communication, has brought me to believe that when a human tastemaker (on radio, a newspaper, a blog) recommends me something to listen to that I hate, I am more forgiving than when a machine or algorithm does the same. I take the former as a point-of-view, a statement, from the ‘sender’ in a communication process based on good (or bad) intentions, but that doesn’t reflect back on me as a recipient, or who I am. Because the human tastemaker does not know me intimately, I’m not as offended as when (for instance) Spotify believes I want to listen to an artist I hate based on my earlier choices, gender, age or location. So far, neither human nor algorithm are perfect in understanding my heterogeneous taste, and that my choices vary according to context, motivation, life stage, temper, whatnot. But humans do a better job of not pissing me off, because of the way human communication works.

The devil is in the default

I’m happy to know that a streaming provider or iTunes having U2 or any other artist in their catalog. And I’m quite happy with Apple presenting me with an occasional gift I may accept or decline (such as a free app during 12 days of Christmas). But when a human tries to push something on me whether I like it or not, or an algorithm as a default starts making musical decisions for me and all other users, I do not just not like it; It creeps me out, and I start screaming Big Brother.

If really puzzles me that the people over at Apple, who recently have made a big deal of NOT collecting personal data in their push for Apple Pay and their other cloud based services, do not see the paradox in pushing content to all without explicit asking for consent. In my mind this is undermining their credibility in this area, and makes me doubt their future choices.

Of course, making decisions that influence all happens all the time for basic aesthetic choices, such as for the GUI, what you can do with software, or how a phone is designed. Whether I like skeuomorphic or flat design, I’m stuck with Apple’s choices. But pushing content to all is another animal altogether. Especially music, that separates humans through taste, as much as it unites us.

This undermines trust in Apple, not to impose aesthetical content choices on users, their judgment not to invade privacy, and the trust in the human curation they are likely to depend on (combined with algorithms) in a future music streaming service. And trust is a basic and underestimated factor for success in music streaming and cloud-based services in general.

Regaining trust

In order for Apple to regain my trust, they must therefore:

  1. Bring out the whip and acknowledge that it was a bad idea to push U2 to everyone without asking consent (no matter how smart the choice will turn our to be in strictly monetary terms).
  2. Make this ‘gift’ easy to delete for everyone who cringes by the idea of having U2 show up in his or her shuffled streams (and – please – re-introduce the possibility to delete whole albums and artists with a swipe, not just individual tracks).
  3. Don’t do it again, and show through future actions that the recent talk of privacy and security is more than spin to differentiate them from Google and Facebook.

Bad news for a future hybrid model?

I believe a likely future model of music (and video) is a hybrid between local storage and cloud-based streaming, and that Apple is uniquely positioned to be the major player here. More concretely: Given the penetration of iPhones along with the massive iTunes catalog – combined with the growing challenges of transferring everything in the cloud via mobile networks or cable – once local storage shrinks (in price and size), it makes sense for Apple to sell iPhones (or Apple Watches) preloaded with a large basic catalog of music and video, combined with a cloud-based service where you can search and access both new releases or the deep catalog. Until today, I have used the black special edition 5. generation iPod preloaded with 7.5000 U2 songs, as a not very successful example of the preloaded part of this scenario. Today I dread that this could be closer to the truth than I imagined even in my darkest dreams.

If Apple pre-loads a future phone with Steve Jobs’ playlist – and I cannot easily opt out or delete what I do not like – I would rather keep getting annoyed by the not-so-smart algorithms of Spotify, or by the well intended misses by people in the editorial teams of curated streaming services.