Monday February 29, 2016

• Connection Failed

Imagine a social network where you can’t see how many followers you have, can’t contact any of them directly, can’t tell how effective your posts are, can’t easily follow others, and can’t even change your avatar.

Welcome to Apple Music Connect.

I first wrote about my experiences with Connect last year:

Someone asked why I believed that Connect would ever be better than Ping, Apple’s previous attempt at socialifying iTunes. Ping’s mistake was that it tried to connect listeners to each other, as a way of discovering new music. Apple Music has re-thought that problem in some very interesting ways, and early indications are that the new approach works. For the social component, Connect wants to be about connecting artists with their listeners, but at the moment, it falls short.

These are early days, and there’s hope.

The morning after I posted this I awoke to an email from Trent Reznor. He had spoken to Eddy Cue and the team about my concerns, and wanted to assure me that they were being addressed.

Apple has had eight months to get their shit together. Have they?

A Barren Wasteland

Opening up the Connect tab of iTunes makes me sad. I see two or three weeks-old posts from Weezer and Panic! at the Disco, and not much else. I understand that the posts you see are a function of who you’re following, which leads me to my next concern: I don’t know how to follow bands.

I don’t see a follow button on iTunes artist pages. Maybe this is an Apple Music thing, and I can’t get to it because I don’t subscribe. On the Connect tab I might expect to see some kind of discovery mechanism, but no. Maybe I’m missing something.

As a fan I don’t feel “connected” to anything. I feel sad. Even a post from Weezer only got 13 comments, and they all looked like this:

Kewl sog.

Hardly an engaged, connected community.

The Artist Experience

I’m the lead singer and guitarist for an indie rock band called Airplane Mode. Here’s what embedding songs from our new record looks like on Connect versus SoundCloud and Spotify:

Embedded views of Connect posts are still not directly available via Connect’s share feature; you have to visit Linkmaker and set your media type to “Connect”.

SoundCloud is clearly designed for sharing and embedding, with multiple style options for artists and listeners available directly from the track page.

Embedding Spotify is almost as easy, plus we get paid. They offer a separate tool for building custom embedded players.

We were posting on Connect fairly regularly with links to our podcast, photos from gigs, and demos of songs. There’s no way for us to know how many followers we really have, but let’s assume it’s fewer than Weezer. Over time, I could look at the likes and comments on posts to try to guess how well we were doing. At the very least, I enjoyed using it as a time capsule.

(Note that Spotify tells you how many followers you have, and SoundCloud goes a step further by showing the number of plays on each track.)

Early on we ran into a problem where our Connect profile avatar was replaced with a photo of a rapper who had briefly tried to use the name “Airplane Mode” before realizing it was taken. We got things squared away with the name, but their photo remained.

The resemblance is uncanny.

(Not a photo of us.)
I emailed Apple Music Connect support—an address I tracked down through a search path so laborious that I can’t remember how I did it—who promised to take a look.

A month later, I wrote again to follow up. They assured me it would be taken care of, but it might take a few days. They said I should write again if the problem isn’t resolved in a week. A week later, I wrote again.

Two weeks ago I got an email stating that I had been granted access to the Connect profile for Airplane Mode. I thought this was odd, since I already had access, so I took a look. Rather than swap out images, the Connect support folks created a new profile for us with the correct photo (which we still can’t change, by the way).

The frustration would end here if not for one little side-effect: we lost all of our posts and all of our followers. Worse yet, those posts and followers are still attached to a now-unmanned “Airplane Mode” profile, so not only do we not have any way of telling our fans to follow the new profile, they have no way of even knowing that we relocated. Anyone who was following us can now assume that we’ve just stopped making new things.

How many followers did we lose? No idea. How do we get them back? We can’t.

This experience is probably rare. Most artists will likely not lose all of their followers and data. But it only happened because of the cascade of design failures we encountered while attempting to do something any 1.0 service should offer. Every service in the world allows you to change your profile photo. Every service in the world shows you how many followers you have and gives you ways to contact them. These aren’t optional features, even for something brand new. Seven months later—from a company the size of Apple—this isn’t just unacceptable, it’s pathetic.

Who is This For?

If Connect is a social network, it fails miserably. There’s nothing inherently social about the experience, which feels more like a local bulletin board than a way for artists to engage with fans.

It’s also not a very good broadcast medium. Sure, I can post to Connect and share out to Twitter and whatnot, but why? There’s nothing unique or powerful about Apple’s system that makes it a good hub. Because I have no idea how many followers we have, I can’t even make a numerical argument for Connect-first posting. And since we can’t even invite people from other places to follow us on Connect, there’s no incentive to try.

As a fan, it’s a confusing mess. As an artist, it’s a black hole. All media, no social.

But here lies Connect’s one strength: you can post lots of different types of things. A song, a snippet of a song, a demo, a photo, a video. Sure, you can do those things in other places (and let’s be honest, you still should regardless), but with Connect you get access to the Apple Music audience by virtue of showing up in search results.

I mean probably. Who the hell knows how any of this shit works?

I do know that the video for our song “I Said So!” (and the song itself) ended up being featured on the Apple Music front page for a little while. Because everything Apple does is a mysterious black box, we have no way of knowing why or how that happened. Since the song and video were shared via our Connect posts and not the tracks we have on Apple Music, we’ll never know how many people clicked through, and we’ll never see a penny for it. (And because our account was reset, any followers we gained are now lost.)

The Future

From my piece last year:

These are early days, and there’s hope. I don’t like complain-y posts where designers pick something apart and either offer no meaningful ideas or, worse, presumptuously redesign someone else’s work. So instead I’m going to break the fourth wall and make a simple suggestion to Apple: consult with independent musicians. Talk to bands who have succeeded on social media and see what worked for them. Talk to bands who have made great YouTube videos and find out how they get their audience to share stuff. Talk to bands who haven’t made it yet and ask what tools they might need to get there.

As far as I can tell, there have been no changes to Connect since it launched. I haven’t heard any murmurs from behind the scenes about interesting things happening. Aside from my support emails the last I’ve seen or heard from anyone about Connect was that email from Reznor. Apple Music Connect feels abandoned.

The world of sharing music is comically fractured right now: We can post songs to SoundCloud the minute they’re ready, but we get paid nothing. We can submit songs for digital distribution and get onto Spotify and iTunes, but we have no way of engaging with our audience. We can talk to fans on Twitter, but any media we share has to be hosted someplace else. Apple is in a unique position to unify and democratize the music business. Connect could be that platform.

I don’t want to give up hope, even now. But man, something has to change and soon. My previous post concluded with an offer to help. That offer still stands.