Will Apple and Facebook sing same tune over social music?

16 Sep 2010

Music by its very nature is a social activity. People share their favourite music with each other and form connections with others based on what sort of music they like.

Even before Facebook, Bebo and MySpace, music was a huge part of internet use, back when Napster dominated the file-sharing world.

It seems like a natural progression to offer music-based social-networking services. Apple has recently released an update of iTunes, which, most notably, contains Ping. This new service allows users to follow musicians to see what they’re up to and to see what music their friends have listened to or rate highly. The service saw 1 million users join within 48 hours after its launch. While this is a formidable figure, it will be interesting to see if this momentum can continue. Apple is hoping that Ping will be the next big thing in social media, but how enduring will it be?

Music and social networking

It’s worth mentioning that social networking based around music is not new. Last.fm and Songbird offer similar services, allowing users to find music and share it with friends. MySpace has also been a strong contender in the online music world. Even with its dwindling popularity, it still remains a popular choice for both signed and unsigned musicians to promote their music.

However, Apple is a strong brand. Its user base is huge and incredibly loyal, so integrating Ping with iTunes means it already has an audience. With 160 million users using credit cards on it, there is huge potential for take up.

There are some challenges to this, however. The service is currently unable to import followers from Twitter, Facebook or Gmail, limiting the means of finding friends to a search engine or by emailing them, asking them to join. Facebook integration was going to be a part of Ping, with references to the current king of social networking appearing in its documentation. This seems to have fallen through, with Apple CEO Steve Jobs reported as saying that Facebook’s terms were “onerous”.

It would be wise for Apple to come to an agreement with Facebook in this regard. While Ping’s potential 160 million-strong user base is impressive, Facebook has passed the 500-million mark. Should Facebook ever consider bringing in a similar service to its network, Ping could be in trouble.

Indeed, the proprietary based nature of Apple could also be another challenge to Ping becoming a contender in the online social world. Right now, Ping seems less focused on generating a true social network than it is on driving sales for its iTunes store.

Users are only able to like songs from the iTunes store and not within their own library. Clicking on albums that users like gives you the ability to purchase them from the iTunes store there and then. In fact, the only way you can even get to this service is to download the latest iTunes software.

Apple’s not the only game in town

Regardless of the company’s popularity, not everyone owns Apple products. Google’s competing Android operating system is gaining popularity in the mobile market, so a social network service focused on promoting music on the iTunes store won’t be for those users. Perhaps Ping should be considered as a highly innovative commercial project as opposed to a truly social one. Indeed, rather than making music more sociable online, it’s making shopping for music more sociable online instead.

Rather than making solo decisions to purchase songs on the iTunes store, you now have access to a network of friends who can show you what they’ve bought and what they recommend. Ping takes the experience of going music shopping with a friend and brings it online. And just as shopping in real life with a friend can introduce you to new music, so too can an online version.

The ability to follow musicians on this service can also bring new promotional opportunities. While Twitter already has plenty of artists tweeting their everyday activities, Apple brings this within close proximity of an online store with the artist’s music. What better way for a musician to promote their new album than by keeping their fans up to date of their releases when their fans are but a click away from buying them?

However, it is early days yet. Whatever the intentions of the new service, it will ultimately be the users who will decide on the direction of the medium. They are the ones who decide to join or not and they are the ones who will maintain its community. More resources are being put into attracting artists to join the service. More music lovers are joining and posting content to their profiles. Only time will tell how Ping’s focus will evolve.