Friday July 3, 2015

• Disconnect

[Update: I got an email from Trent Reznor this afternoon. Apple is aware of the growing pains and is working to address them.]

When Apple announced Connect at WWDC last month, I was excited. Some folks in the development community joked about Jimmy Iovine, Drake, or Eddy Cue’s dancing. There were complaints that the whole thing felt out of place at a developer event. But as a member of another community — independent musicians — I thought the music portion of the event was, if anything, overdue. I saw Connect as a chance for Apple to give to musicians what it’s long been providing for app developers: an even playing field. I even wrote a letter to my friend Taylor about it.

For a musician, there are two paths to selling music on the world’s largest music store. The first way is the reigning champion: find a record company to distribute your music for you. You’ll be giving up most of the money and most of the rights to your music in the process, but you’ll stand a very slightly better chance of your music being promoted. The second way is to go through a service like CD Baby or TuneCore.

These services act as sort of a proxy record label. They behave as distributors, meaning that Apple has a single point of contact. When you consider how Apple deals with the big labels, you can see why this would be attractive; one company manages the files and artist entries for tons of artists. And it seems like everyone wins. Musicians get placement on the iTunes Music Store, the rights to their own music, and the lion’s share of the money.

Except that those independent artists still don’t get the most amazing placement on the store. You can say that services like CD Baby and TuneCore democratize iTunes a little, but the truth is that the major labels must love this setup because they still hold the power. The big names always get the banners.

For app developers, it’s easy to overlook everything we get. We get to keep most of the money our apps make, we give up none of our creative rights as part of the distribution deal, and we have access to things like Developer Relations, partnership managers, and evangelism. There are whole teams — plural! — of people working to keep developers happy. It’s not perfect, but compared to what musicians get, it’s goddamned amazing.

Connect, I had hoped, would bring us one step closer to the App Store model. By giving musicians any control at all over their brand identity on the iTunes Music Store, Apple would level the playing field slightly, and pave the way for artists to get direct access to uploading their songs. As a musician, this is a dream. I would love to maintain my band’s catalog of music directly. I would love to reject uploads or replace songs that had some kind of problem. I’d love to bundle songs together. I’d love to control my pricing directly. I’d love to know who to call when I have a problem. For example, another band has been posting songs to iTunes using our name. I’ve filed complaints and contacted support, but so far I’ve gotten zero response.

Today my band tried a little experiment: we debuted a new track on iTunes Connect. It’s a new approach to an older song of ours, and represents where we’re headed musically. Exciting stuff to share. A full release of this song is coming later, as part of a much bigger and more ambitious project that I’ll post about soon, but we thought this would be a fun way to test the waters and get people talking.

To embed a Connect song, you must first know to read the Apple Music for Artists how-to, then go to Link Maker and track your song down:

[Hat tip to Guatam Arya for finding this]

SoundCloud offers an embed option directly from the song’s share icon:

There’s no reason not to let fans embed the player. The feature shouldn’t be so well-hidden.

Uploading a song in the Music app is clunky. In order to get the song to post, it has to be available in My Music. Which means that I need to import the track to iTunes on my Mac, convince it to sync with my iPhone (a process that took about 12 hours and restoring my phone from a backup), and then go searching for it in a list that doesn’t immediately present with a search field.

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From there I’m given the ability to edit song artwork and track details, but the “Done” button never lit up for me. I backed out and tried again. Same thing. I made sure all fields were filled in correctly. Maybe my account just didn’t have song posting permissions. Who knows?

Turns out there was a simple answer: I had to edit the artist name, add a space, and then remove the space. Then I could post the song. Of course.

Funny thing, though: it’s not immediately obvious how one might go about deleting a Connect post, should there be a mistake. After some trial and error I discovered that it’s possible to tap into a single-post view, which offers a “Delete” button. I guess the entire post is treated as a tappable cell, but it’s not obvious.

On the Mac, things aren’t much better. Connect’s mobile-first approach is painfully apparent, with inclusion on the Mac feeling so much like an afterthought that I wonder if it would have been better to just leave it out entirely.

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But the worst offense of all is this: I can see no way to invite people to follow us on Connect. I can share the link. I can even tweet about it. Yet there’s no way to know how many followers we have, encourage people to follow us, or directly engage with anyone who hasn’t already purchased a song from us on iTunes. That feels broken. Somehow people were able to comment, which is great, but it makes me sad that I feel no sense of… well, connection. And I really, really want that connection.

Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook win by encouraging connections between users. We can joke about engaging with brands, but the truth is that the good social platforms really do let us do that. On Twitter, I feel like I have a direct line to my favorite developers, musicians, TV personalities, services, and products. I can mention my cable company and get a human who pretends to be interested in my problems. I can ask the most powerful man in the world for his thoughts on guacamole. It doesn’t matter if anyone is paying attention. What matters is that I feel like someone is.

As an artist, I want people to listen to my music. In the short term, Connect’s one and only job is to make my audience feel like I’m listening back.

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. 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.

Or, maybe talk to a rock band from New York that happens to be made entirely out of iOS designers. We’d love to help.