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The company wants to turn its music app into a one-stop shop for pop culture.
by Lucas Shaw and Alex Webb
Will.i.am was shopping a reality show to TV networks when he met Apple Music guru Jimmy Iovine on the office terrace where Iovine likes to do his biggest deals alfresco. The two go way back; Iovine signed the musician when he was running Interscope Records. The music legend loved will.i.am’s idea, a Shark Tank-style competition for new apps, and before long he’d persuaded him and TV producer Ben Silverman to pitch it to Eddy Cue, who runs Apple Inc.’s services business and is the company’s conduit to Hollywood.
Will.i.am bailed on a meeting with a TV network and headed for Cupertino, Calif., where he met Cue and soon after agreed to make the program for Apple Music, the tech giant’s two-year-old streaming service and an increasingly important part of the Apple universe. With iTunes sales in decline and streaming services such as Spotify on the rise, Apple wants to see if it can turn its music app into a one-stop shop for pop culture—and keep customers tethered to their iPhones.
“A music service needs to be more than a bunch of songs and a few playlists,” says Iovine, 64. “I’m trying to help Apple Music be an overall movement in popular culture, everything from unsigned bands to video. We have a lot of plans.” Apple Music’s foray into video programming could be a temporary dalliance, but if Iovine succeeds, the world’s wealthiest company could increase its investment, routinely competing for top projects. “We have the freedom, because it’s Apple, to make one show, three shows, see what works, see what doesn’t work until it feels good,” Iovine says.
In the coming months, Apple Music plans to start streaming Carpool Karaoke, a spinoff of James Corden’s popular celebrity singalong segment; one episode will see John Legend and Alicia Keys driving around and belting out their hits. Apple Music could release as many as 10 original series by the end of the year, including will.i.am’s Planet of the Apps and several documentaries. Iovine won’t say what they are, but people familiar with the matter say two are about the legendary hip-hop labels Bad Boy Records and Cash Money Records while another is about music impresario Clive Davis.
“For a music streaming service,” Iovine says, “we’re building a very decent slate.”
For the moment, he’s mostly focused on music-related video, including a possible sequel to R. Kelly’s rap opera Trapped in the Closet. Iovine has had talks with Warner Bros. Television and is developing another show loosely based on the life of his longtime business partner Dr. Dre.
Eventually he plans to go beyond music and has discussed possible ideas with his friend Brian Grazer, producer of Empire and Genius, and director J.J. Abrams. “Apple Music is nowhere near complete in my head,” he says. The service, with more than 20 million subscribers, is the second most popular after Spotify, with more than 50 million premium members.
Sitting on a couch beneath a photo of John Lennon and a letter from rapper Tupac Shakur, Iovine says he’s determined to move deliberately. “We’re gonna grow slowly no matter what,” he says. “I don’t know how to do it fast.” He likens the approach to his founding of Interscope in 1989, which got some attention for Ecuadorean rapper and one-hit wonder Gerardo and went on to become one of the world’s most successful labels.
Iovine is right that turning Apple Music into a viewing destination will take time. Video production is slow and labor-intensive. “Making original content isn’t easy,” says Brian Blau, a Gartner Inc. analyst. “It’s as difficult as making any great piece of hardware.” Plus, getting people to watch video on a music streaming service will require a sustained marketing campaign.
When Apple introduces the next version of its smartphone software iOS later this year, the company plans to unveil a new edition of the Music app that better showcases video.
Like many tech companies, Apple long resisted getting into the content game, opting instead to sell other people’s music, TV shows, and movies and making money flogging hardware. Then Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. started producing award-winning television, and Silicon Valley smelled opportunity. Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube is funding dozens of TV shows for a subscription service and has built production facilities around the world. Facebook Inc. is starting to fund original video series.
Even Twitter Inc. is buying the rights to sporting events. The tech companies mostly see entertainment as a good way to sell other products, whether toilet paper on Amazon or ads on Google.
Apple was among the first to use content to sell hardware. Steve Jobs, a passionate music fan, sold 99¢ songs to popularize first the iPod, then the iPhone. Yet his initial bet that consumers wanted to own the music and video they paid for was wrong; turns out people are fine just streaming it. So in 2014, Apple paid $3 billion for Beats Electronics, the headphones-and-streaming service company co-founded by Iovine and Dr. Dre. The goal wasn’t just to become less reliant on the iPhone, which generates almost $2 of every $3 of the company’s profits, but to make customers even more dependent on Apple gadgetry. The combination of iTunes, Apple Music, and a new TV app makes it harder for people to trade an iPhone for a Google Pixel or an Apple TV for Amazon’s Fire TV.
Before selling Beats Music to Apple, Iovine spoke with Netflix. He’d seen firsthand how much it would cost for his music service to keep the lights on (let alone actually make money), and he would have had to raise money and dilute his share in the business. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told Iovine the company wasn’t ready for music, but Iovine didn’t surrender his belief that music and video are now inextricably linked.
In recent years, several musicians, including Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, have made movies, or “visual albums.” Apple recently made a short movie with the British singer Sampha and in 2015 released a tour documentary by Taylor Swift. Iovine employs 300 people from the entertainment business to satisfy every artist’s desire. That, he says, will be the service’s edge over its peers.
Spotify has commissioned at least a dozen series and hired a former TV executive to oversee its video business. Yet those shows have come and gone with little fanfare. The Spotify app doesn’t display video prominently. While company executives have said for more than a year that will change, nothing has happened yet. Apple won’t make that same mistake. “We’re going to market it like it’s a TV show,” Iovine says. “You’re going to know this is out.” Apple bought a TV spot for Carpool Karaoke during the Grammys. But plans to release the first program on April 24 have been postponed indefinitely because the show is still unfinished.
Iovine fidgets when he talks. As his mind wanders, he takes his jacket off, then puts it back on. He frequently clutches his legs, contorting himself into a ball. He’s a font of ideas with industry contacts to help execute every one of them. He turned to Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani for help picking the model for Beats headphones. He’s just returned from Apple designer Jony Ive’s birthday celebration in the U.K., which included a side trip to Venice for a Damien Hirst installation.
Some ideas get Iovine into trouble. He’s taken meetings with artists and made arrangements to release music without telling anyone in advance, frustrating colleagues. He’s persuaded artists to release music exclusively with Apple, frustrating record labels. But no one doubts his knack for bringing people together. He met Corden at a party at music manager Guy Oseary’s house. Iovine expressed his admiration and asked the late-night comedian to stay in touch.
Soon enough, Corden and producer Ben Winston were over at Iovine’s house for breakfast. Iovine expressed interest in working together even though Apple wasn’t making TV shows at the time.
When Carpool Karaoke took off on YouTube—it’s been watched more than a billion times—Winston and Corden contemplated a spinoff. So CBS Corp. called Apple, and Winston called Jimmy.
“If I call LeBron James and I name five networks or cable channels or even different online platforms, I’m not convinced he agrees to sit in a car,” Winston says. “If you say you’re doing a new show for Apple, people get excited.”