Honey App: Beats Music and the Great UI Swindle

Apple just paid $3 billion for a Winamp skin.


Ian Rogers’ CV reads like the script of Almost Famous, and there is nothing cheap or cutesy about this comparison. Plucked from the back room of World Domination by Beastie Boys’ manager John Silva in 1993, Rogers lived out the decade as a hybrid digital hipster, parlaying his double-threat reputation as a web designer and music industry insider into a lucrative if fruitless position at Yahoo! in the early 2000s. Honing an innate talent for concept-evangelism, Rogers absorbed the slick, bulletproof jargon of his peers in digital marketing, and set out on his own, joining the newly-formed Topspin Media in 2008 [correction: this article originally misidentified Ian as a co-founder].

With a handful of big-name musicians and industry veterans backing him—if only in reputation—Rogers contributed to Topspin from the start, marketing the same D2C initiatives everyone else was slinging. Exclusive “fan experiences” and discount bundles compounded the noise around an artist or event, but in reality, changed nothing. One of the company’s brighter ideas was to firewall ticket sales for a 2010 Pixies show behind a Topspin-regulated “fans-only” e-list. It took them a week to sell 6000 tickets. Why anyone would issue a press release around such a mediocre campaign is beyond me.

In marketing, success is rewarded with access, and Rogers’ reach into the digital space grew as John Silva’s connections drew board members like Marc Geiger, Ryan MacIntyre, and musician-turned-techie Nathan Hubbard. Topspin also shares a board member with Artist Growth, a company that as far as I can tell does the exact same thing. If you want to understand how these people think you should think about music, Geiger’s recent keynote at the MIDEM conference lays out their strategy.

“Totally.”

This is peak cynicism, and arrogance. Note the melodramatic, rosy assumptions about future returns, and market consolidation; the familiar and misplaced analogy to search engines; the condescending view of content providers as limited, soon-to-be-absorbed cogs; and the apparently daring conclusion that “files are OVER!” (try telling that to Dropbox).

Geiger frames a variety of unrelated companies as players in the race to a unified curation and delivery platform, a race he wants to see run on his terms, because he has a few horses in it. The reality is that web publishers like Pitchfork would be subsumed by the model Geiger and Rogers are pursuing, despite the fact that Geiger—WME—represents Pitchfork. Marc struck a very different tone on these issues, and on Pitchfork, a few years back, in an interview I expect he would rather not have available in 2014.

“A 45-year-old who grew up with Depeche Mode wouldn’t even know what Pitchfork is.” — Marc Geiger, 2009

Photo credit | Billboard.com

Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine saw a like-minded, younger player in Ian Rogers, seeking to take on distribution as he had consumer electronics. Both complained about the state of things, bemoaning the absence of two apparently crucial aspects to digital music distribution: trust, and curation. This is wedge marketing, poisoning the Apple tree, whatever you want to call it: by harping on features other platforms lacked, Rogers and Iovine tried to sell us on their necessity, then marketed them right back to us. “Catalog cleanliness?” “My God, Harriet—my catalog is filthy!”

The suggestion is that you are a more informed consumer, with a more refined, feature-rich platform to interact with music. Drowning in data overload, you don’t have time to buy songs click after click. It’s the attention economy, it’s the war for our eyeballs.

This adversarial mentality permeates Beats Music, a re-badged relaunch of MOG Music, which Beats purchased for $14 million in 2012. Beats Music built a fine if feature-thin mobile app for MOG, and threw a fresh coat of paint on a shaky web interface that still doesn’t allow fully interactive playlists. No matter: Beats paid Ellen Degeneres Seinfeld money for a Super Bowl launch, got its media profile up accordingly, and despite persistent questions over its adoption rate, built up enough brand recognition that Apple is buying the entire company (including the still-performing headphone lines). It is arguably the greatest takeout in the history of technology hysteria, going on ratio of time and effort.


Iovine hired Ian Rogers in January 2013. Under his direction, Beats spent one frantic year building a mobile front-end with technology and knowledge gleaned from their former 50.1% owner, HTC. Fortuitously, foundering HTC sold its shares back to Beats for an $85 million profit in 2013, desperate for quarterly-results cash. Had they maintained their original stake, it would have netted them over $1.25 billion today. Apple would be loath to cut that check—nay, lifeboat—to one of its bitterest rivals, and there is certainly whispering this week about whether Beats was the aggressor in disgorging themselves of HTC, though the opposite appeared to be the case.

The real peach is that Beats Music bought Ian Rogers’ old company just two months ago with “funding” (cash) from Access Industries, who split their time managing the largest foreign position any company holds in the Russian oil industry, and Warner Music Group, which it bought for $3.3 billion in 2011. Details of Beats’ Topspin acquisition have not been announced, but since Topspin was primarily funded by Redpoint, who are also massive investors in MySpace, Spin Media, Sonos, Netflix, and a dozen other content and media delivery concerns, expect things to change very little. Unless of course you have a topspinmedia.com email account, in which case, pro tip: Fisker Karmas are a bargain these days.


Gizmodo wrote the book on Beats Electronics pre-Beats Music, covering its expert ouster of Monster. Their headphones and tchotchkes model has been a massive success, doubling returns year over year to the tune of half a billion dollars. Yet it’s been a classic brick-and-mortar grind, a marketing and endorsement masterclass dependent on Dre and Iovine’s existing celebrity and net worth. Beats by Dre has a shelf-life, like any consumer electronics fad, but Apple is not so late to the table; they should be able to sustain the badge for a period of years before its inevitable decline. Beats Music is a different situation entirely. It is a technological honey trap.

Recognizing that Spotify would never deal with Apple, Beats purchased MOG as an extremely affordable chip in the streaming music game. Through MOG they acquired a handful of thin trademarks and copyright patents, but no real technology. The importance of their patents was their origination date: buying MOG allowed Beats to back-date the technology behind their service to March 2008, which made it impossible for Spotify, which launched in October of that year, to contend with Beats on an intellectual-property level. On the spectrum of poor judgment in its dealings with Beats Music, MOG is at the opposite extreme from Apple. Its patents were technologically insignificant, but legally, should have been valued at par with Spotify—i.e., the entire company.

Apple believes it is paying for peace of mind, as it did in 1997 by taking out Power Computing Corporation, and strengthening its position against Spotify. The Beats Music UI is light, responsive and very intuitive, but the cleanliness of its interface is more than overridden by the incessant and obnoxious recommendations it makes in the name of “curation.”

Despite its good looks, Beats does a worse job of not irritating me than Spotify, and so I’ve dumped it. Just last week, Spotify released a sleeker UI, which closed the only major gap between the services, apart from celebrity endorsements. These companies are fronting the same content, the same music libraries; we’re really talking about interface and marketing at this point, as Geiger correctly states in his keynote above. Like so many start-ups before—and who knows how many to come—Beats Music is a positional app.

The ultimate problem for Apple, Beats and any other media distributor is that people want to experience art for themselves. These marketers speak in terms of data, simplification, and “music discovery,” an asinine formalization of “turning on the radio.” It’s not about discovery, the “user experience,” or their “trust” in your brand: it’s about finding a way we can arrive at music, on our own terms, without hype, advertisements, PR chicanery, and the editorial bias you’re offering. We’re not paying you to tell us what to like: we’re paying you to provide us an easy listening platform.

Shut up and take our money.