How Apple Music can turn users into subscribers

A million subscribers here, a million subscribers there—pretty soon you're talking about real money.

apple music primary
Credit: Apple

According to industry sources, Apple Music has racked up 10 million users in its first month. That’s a pretty good number, as the far more established Spotify boasts somewhere in the realm of 20 million paid subscribers.

Of course, we’re also just a month into a three-month free trial period, and it’s pretty easy to get people to sign up for your service when it doesn’t cost them a dime. So when September 30 rolls around and users have to decide whether Apple Music is worth $10 a month to them, what’s Apple going to have to do to convince them to stick around?

Clean up the interface

Much as Apple prides itself on great design and user experience, its music-streaming service has been a bit of a mixed bag. Some features have felt kind of hidden; others have seemed to function inconsistently. Overall, there’s a distinct impression that functionality has been bolted on to an existing framework in imperfect ways.


Apple Music in the current iOS 9 beta (right) cleans up some of the clutter in the original version (left), but there’s still a ways to go.

There are indications that Apple’s moving to tweak some of those issues. A look at the iOS 9 beta shows a streamlined and refined interface where a few of the more egregious design choices are concerned, but I think Apple still has more improvements to make. For example, I’d love to be able to disable Connect without resorting to parental controls, have some sort of Handoff support, and see Apple pep up the intelligent music curation a bit—where is that soundtrack bubble?

And then there’s iTunes. Developer Marco Arment recently appropriated a Tim Cook turn of phrase—originally used in reference to Android’s fragmented security situation—to describe the bloated, overburdened state of the app. I’ve already advocated breaking up iTunes, but really, we’re at the stage where it should be razed to the ground. And if you’re trying to sell users on a new streaming service, a new redesigned app seems like a good place to start.

Root out the bugs

Every new service has its growing pains, and Apple Music is no exception. The benefit of a three-month trial is that at least most people don’t feel like they’re being charged for a product that doesn’t work right. But that doesn’t excuse most issues, especially when they interfere with something as personal as one’s music collection.

The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple was vociferous about his problems with Apple Music, describing it as “a nightmare,” and while Apple attempted to address the issues he encountered, most users aren’t going to get personal attention from Apple when they run into problems like their music disappearing.

apple music phish wrong

Macworld executive editor Susie Ochs found a live Phish show replaced by the album versions of each song. 

Given Jim’s experience and my own wariness over Apple’s history with services, I’ve been exceptionally slow to adopt Apple Music’s integration with my iTunes Library, a feature that my colleague Jason Snell has lauded as the service’s “killer feature.” The idea of mixing music I own and music I’m renting is anathema to me—like filing books I’ve borrowed from the library on my own bookshelves. I understand the convenience, but I want a dividing line. In the meantime, I’ve been searching out music to stream, as I used to do on Spotify, and making liberal use of the For You playlists to discover new music, both of which I find work fine for the most part.

Apple doesn’t have to sell everybody on library integration, but it should do something to combat the worry that we’re all going to end up in a mess should we decide to leave the Apple Music family at some point down the road.

The Androids you’re looking for

There’s one shoe left to drop in the subscriber game, however, and that’s Android. Apple’s promised an app for that other smartphone OS “this fall,” though that could mean anything from September to December, knowing Apple’s broad interpretation of the seasons.

gs5vshtcone 1 Michael Homnick

We have plenty of Android-using friends, but will they abandon Spotify, Rdio, Google Play Music All Access, and the rest, to jump on board with Apple Music?

This is Apple’s first really big play into the Android market—and into acknowledging that Android users are potential customers, too. And, à la the old “halo effect” of the iPod, those customers might eventually be swayed to the Apple ecosystem if they like what they see.

I’d be surprised if Apple didn’t offer at least some free trial time to Android users, too—in part to get them to really get accustomed to the service, and in part to work out any kinks that might arise in the Android implementation. (Although it’s tempting to say the Android app might be buggier compared to the rollout on iOS and OS X—platforms that Apple controls absolutely—I wonder if it might actually be smoother, given that the lack of deep integration will make the apps much less ambitious, and thus more solid.)

But Apple’s spent so much time targeting Android as its competitor that it makes wonder just what the reception will be. More than a few Android users are there because they specifically don’t want to buy into Apple’s ecosystem, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll be eager to sign up for an Apple Music subscription. (At least they stopped short of pitching Apple Music for Android as “a glass of ice water for somebody in hell,” as Steve Jobs once pitched iTunes for Windows.)

That said, if the Android app is compelling enough, it could be a big potential influx of new subscribers to Apple Music.

Trial by fire

The three-month trial period has been a clever move on Apple’s part. A month isn’t really sufficient to ingrain a service like this into your life, but three months might be long enough to get people to start treating Apple Music as more than something they’re just checking out.

Retaining users is always a challenge for a subscription service. In the case of Apple Music, the cost analysis seems straightforward: If you’re buying eight or nine songs, or an album or more, every month, Apple Music seems like a solid deal. But it doesn’t take into account how much Apple customers have been inculcated with the idea that one should own their music, not simply rent it. Not everybody makes their subscription decisions based on rational cost analyses, either.

But if Apple has indeed acquired 10 million subscribers, and manages to hold on to even half of those, that will be a pretty solid start for the service—especially if it can add some Android users into the mix later this fall. But it’ll still have a ways to go before it can catch up to competitors like Spotify.

In the end, though, it may not be a big deal, because unlike Spotify, for whom streaming is bread and butter, Apple’s got its irons in plenty of fires. While the success of Apple Music might add another profitable revenue stream (pardon the expression), its underperformance hardly stands to capsize the company.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter