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Apple Music will get a makeover, but it needs much more

A $10-a-month music service is a $10-a-month music service.

Tim Cook and Apple media boss Eddy Cue introducing Apple Music in 2015.
Justin Sullivan / Getty
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Last year, Apple finally got into the subscription music business. Time to try it again.

Apple is expected to roll out an overhaul for its Apple Music service at its WWDC event Monday, aimed at making "it more intuitive to use."

That’s good, because Apple Music needs some help: Its first effort was surprisingly confused — especially from a company that famously waits for other people to take a stab at something, then shows up with a much better version.

But even if Apple Music gets much, much better, there’s no reason to think Apple Music’s trajectory will get any better.

Because even if Apple offers a service that’s as good as Spotify, or better, it’s still going to be selling the same thing: All the music you can stream, for $10 a month.

Which is what everyone who sells music subscriptions sells.

Apple, Spotify and every other subscription service are trying to distinguish themselves from each other with tweaks like robot-generated playlists and (generally) short-term exclusives.

If you pay a lot of attention to this stuff, you will know that Apple has a Drake deal, and that Tidal has one with Beyonce, and Spotify doesn't really have any but will probably try to get some soon.

But that’s all window dressing. At this point the main difference between Spotify and Apple Music is that Spotify has 30 million paying subscribers and Apple has 13 million.

Apple will argue in public that 13 million is not too shabby for a service that didn’t exist a year ago; privately, music label executives who talk to Apple executives report that the Apple guys are disappointed.

The one way to set a music service apart from the others would be to really change the offer, and put forward a different value proposition. Spotify does this to a degree with its freemium structure, though it’s under pressure to modify that.

For a while, Apple wanted to stand out by cutting the price of a monthly subscription. At one point, Apple was pushing for $5 a month in the hope of getting to $8 a month. It couldn’t get the label guys on board at either price.

And even if Apple did get a price change, the labels would have had to offer it to the other guys, which means we’d be back to where we started.

So it’s good that Apple is taking another crack at something they didn't nail the first time. It’s just too bad they can’t reinvent it completely.

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