The Industry

Why Apple Music Is Starting to Win Spotify’s Game

Because it’s going after serious music fans while Spotify targets low-effort listeners.

Photo illustration: headphones on top of the Apple logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Apple.

Too many years after iTunes became buggy to the point of being barely usable, Apple appears to finally be reclaiming its perch as the leading tech company in music. Last Thursday, Digital Music News reported that Apple Music overtook Spotify in paying subscribers in the United States. While there were no exact numbers—both companies prefer to talk in global, not regional, terms about subscribers—the news followed reports from earlier in the year by Billboard and the Wall Street Journal that Apple Music was about to catch up with Spotify in the U.S., its biggest market. The good news for Apple Music didn’t stop there—and perhaps weirdly, it came in the form of the new Drake album.

On June 30, the Canadian rapper released the double album Scorpion and proceeded to break a number of streaming records, with Billboard reporting more than 1 billion global streams and 746 million streams in the United States alone. Spotify received criticism for its aggressive Drake marketing push, in which the rapper’s face and music was plastered across playlists covering ground as divergent as gospel and pop. Even with such an aggressive promotional campaign, Drake still got more listens on Apple Music by more than 30 million streams on the album’s opening day.

Taken together, all of this tells us a lot about how Spotify become such a behemoth in music streaming—and how Apple caught up so quickly. With its endless, algorithmically assembled playlists, Spotify is the music service of low-effort listeners. And Apple Music is becoming the platform of choice for more serious music fans.

Why do the stans prefer Apple Music? Because for fans who already know what they want, it has that in droves. Apple has leaned heavily on its Beats 1 radio shows (molded in the images of artists) and well-timed album exclusives; that the company has a massive potential audience of iPhone users has helped it mount a serious bid to reclaim its old spot as music’s No. 1 distribution node. The company’s previous success with iTunes showed that it could guide the music industry into a new digital waters, but in the digital-downloads era Apple didn’t face a competitor like Spotify. With its free tier, Spotify’s global user base comes to more than 170 million users with 75 million subscribers, so at least globally, the Swedish company remains on top. Last year, as Spotify ramped up to go public, the company doubled down on its signature playlists by announcing live concerts named after its most successful playlists, RapCaviar and ¡Viva Latino!

Despite Spotify’s successful public debut and steadily rising stock price, Apple Music’s growth isn’t just in subscribers but in engagement—and it shows why its approach may have even more potential. Music Business Worldwide observed that when North Carolina rapper J. Cole released his latest album KOD in May, the album in the first day hit 64.5 million streams in the United States on Apple Music compared to only 36.7 million streams on Spotify—a nearly 30 million gap between the two platforms, despite Spotify’s overall user-base advantage. Managers and label sources have told me this gulf in engagement repeats across the genre: Rap acts consistently overperform on Apple Music compared to Spotify.

That’s a great sign for Apple Music, because according a recent Nielsen report, 36.2 percent of all music streaming is from “Hip-Hop/R&B.” The acts who continue to break streaming records (Drake, Post Malone, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar) are all rappers, while traditional pop stars (Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, Ariana Grande) continue to find more success on radio. The world of pop music is skewing heavily toward rap, which at the moment is the area where Apple Music is seeing the most success. Perhaps one advantage of securing a partnership with Drake, the world’s most popular rapper, is that the platform was quickly adopted by the genre’s most passionate fans. (Tidal, despite offering exclusive music from co-owners like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, isn’t big enough to be part of this conversation.)

Just as Apple has committed to serious listeners, Spotify has focused on less serious ones. When Spotify submitted its F1 filling before going to public, the company boasted that in 2017 30 percent of its plays originated from its own curated or algorithmically generated playlists. Pandora pioneered this type of lean-back listening in the 2000s, but Spotify built upon the idea of appealing to consumers who just want to press play and enjoy the music. The power of its playlists can influence taste, but as Apple and Spotify get closer in listenership, it raises the question of which audience is more desirable: engaged or disengaged? Each new streaming milestone Drake breaks first on Apple Music makes a strong argument for pushing toward engaged listeners.

The relationship between Drake and Apple Music benefited both parties. Apple Music got first dibs on Drake’s record-breaking 2016 album Views, while the rapper is now the avatar for the paid music streaming era. An often overlooked part of Apple Music’s library is Beats 1 radio, which in the case of Drake, who has his own OVO Radio show named after his recording imprint, means his fans have a reason to hold onto their subscription even if no new album on the horizon. Artists like Bad Bunny, Pharrell, Deadmau5, Elton John, Charli XCX, and Frank Ocean all have their own Beats 1 shows, reaching dedicated fans who’d rather connect with their favorite musician than trust an algorithm for song recommendations.

With Apple catching up with Spotify, the industry now has reason to question whether the prevailing metric in streaming ought to be total subscriber numbers. Artists and labels may start to get to more discerning about what platforms to favor, because seeking out the service where fans are most engaged might be more profitable in the end. Spotify built an impressive music platform, but by courting music’s more passive listeners; Apple Music is happily reaching—and billing—music’s most dedicated fans.