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Is Apple About to Teach Us the True Monetary Value of Music?

22/06/2015 11:48 BST | Updated 22/06/2016 10:59 BST

How much is one listen, of one song, by one pair of ears actually worth? If you're listening on Apple's soon-to-be-launched new streaming service during the three month free trial period, the answer is 'nothing'. Or was, until Super Swift swooped in this weekend and changed their minds.

The debate over the value of streamed music has raged in one form another for years. Whether it's the huge disparity in per-stream rates paid to repertoire owners by services like Spotify and Tidal, the challenge of computing album sales in a chart that now includes streams, or US internet radio giant Pandora's legal wrangling over broadcast vs. internet radio royalties, it has always been notoriously difficult to establish a level playing field.

How many streams equal one radio play? Or one download? What role does context play? Does it - should it - matter whether you choose the music or someone else chooses it for you?

Well, now there's an app for that. Apple Music, which launches next Tuesday, is a streaming service, radio station (called Beats 1) and download store (iTunes) in one, all operated by a single, very powerful player. It is, as Trent Reznor describes it using language probably best left in the boardroom, "One complete thought around music":

The announcement that Apple is entering linear radio, broadcasting globally 24 hours a day over the net in the form of Zane Lowe-fronted Beats 1, as well as getting into streaming with the launch of Apple Music, is the first time revenues from radio, streaming and downloads have all landed on the same balance sheet.

It's also the first time linear radio has gone 'full IP' (internet protocol), at least by a major player, and as such it represents a revolution in the measurability of radio listening.

Terrestrial radio in the UK is measured by RAJAR, using an outmoded diary method whereby listeners mark down their weekly listening habits using pen and paper. In the US, listening is captured using a 'Portable People Meter' - a device worn on the belt like a pager (remember those?) - which, though a little less dark ages, has done little to calm industry debate about ratings bias.

That's all about to change. Available for free to iPhone and iPad users, Beats 1 radio will generate the kind of listening data that true broadcast radio can only dream of. As listeners skip and favourite songs, change stations - even adjust the volume of their phone or unlock their screen - they are telling Apple a story about their listening. These billions of data points will enable Apple to measure how many people are listening, and for how long, more accurately than terrestrial radio could ever hope to.

Then there's remunerating the artists. Unlike terrestrial radio, which pays performance royalties to collection societies who negotiate and distribute those payments on behalf of artists and songwriters, Apple has direct licensing deals (as far as we know) across all of its three properties. It negotiates with - and directly remunerates - the same repertoire owners for radio plays, streams and downloads.

So Apple will know, with a level of accuracy and granularity previously unheard of in radio, exactly how many people have heard each play of every song played on Beats 1 radio. It will also know the number of streams those same songs receive on Apple Music.

Imagine Beats 1 radio reaches an audience of 10m. Does one play of Taylor Swift's Bad Blood on Beats 1, heard by 10m people, generate the same revenue as 10m individual streams of the same song on Apple Music? What's the download equivalent? Just ask Taylor.

Are we finally about to learn how many streams a radio play is worth? And whether it makes a difference if you choose to stream a song or someone else streams it for you? Are we, in short, about to discover the true monetary value of recorded music?