Jimmy Iovine argues curating music playlists is niche behavior. But this critique applies more broadly.


Though not yet official, it looks like “Apple is buying Beats—a headphones juggernaut with a promising but unpopular streaming service—for $3.2 billion (2.3% of its cash), its biggest acquisition ever. ” Given how few details have leaked, as Benedict Evans mentioned “The Beats deal is a tech Rorschach Blot: no-one can see what it is so everyone projects their own view of Apple onto it.” Catching up on the back story, via Ben Thompson I watched this excellent Walt Mossberg interview with Jimmy Iovine, who cofounded Beats with Dr. Dre. What jumped out at me was Jimmy Iovine’s take on music playlist curation as a pain point. From memory, when Mossberg asked what differentiated Beats Music from other competing services, Iovine replied “curation.” Saying “we’re going to have a mathematical and human solution. And make them work together.” And “when you wake up in the morning to go to the gym, there’s going to be a list for you. If you have to search, we failed you.” Strong words. Search is failure. Iovine argues most people don’t want to bother curating song lists. Completely agree. Though to be clear I think curation remains absolutely essential for power users. And I should know since I’m one of them. Unfortunately power users versus casual is a huge software design problem. And it goes beyond music. It’s a problem for all types of media. So while we wait to learn more about Apple buying Beats, let’s talk list curation.

The first thing to point out is the internet is drowning us in content. And as software eats the world, more and more sectors of the economy are joining in. Note I’m using “content” here in its broadest possible sense.

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Of course the internet didn’t invent this problem. It just accelerated the trend, which goes all the way back to the invention of capitalism itself. Recently deceased economist Gary Becker pointed out in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “the most fundamental constraint is limited time….. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not.” That is, the richer each generation gets, the more valuable time and attention become. Don’t get me wrong. Time scarcity and too many choices are great first world problems to have! But the flipside implication is curating the internet’s tsunami of content has become a large and growing business opportunity.

Let’s break out curation models as below:

  1. Old school bricks and mortar curation. Physical stores can only hold so much, so what’s selected to be in the store (or to fit on limited amounts of paper) is an old school type of curation. For example: print newspapers, CD music stores, blockbuster VCR rental movies, traditional book stores, consumer reports magazine.
  2. Manual curation. In this case you manually sift through content to manage your own list. Traditional music playlists, Twitter following lists, App Stores (the worst for finding stuff), RSS feeds, browser web site bookmarks, blog posts where people list links of stories to read. This is important and power users love it, but as mentioned regular people don’t want to bother. Twitter really suffers from this, so see my related post on a possible solution to Twitter’s curation problem here.
  3. Algorithmic curation. This is algorithmic personalized curation. Personalized, but automated. Pandora music like/dislike, Tivo like/dislike, Facebook feed tuning, Netflix movie ratings, Google search results. Works ok. A common and scalable model.
  4. Premium hybrid curation. This is a premium combination of #2 and #3. Computer algorithms do most of the work, but a human still adds value and personality. Beats Music (at least in Iovine’s vision of it), The Wirecutter (tech buying guide that selects best in category), Tabdump (excellent advertising supported tech news site), Daring Fireball (ad supported mix of commentary and links, but I’ll put it in this group), The Sweethome (home buying guide). I think there’s a lot of room for experimentation in this area, especially if coupled with social media. Premium curation with a human touch can really differentiate your product. We’ll see if Apple can make Beats work at scale.

Maybe it’s best to bring this back to music. When I was young I was happy to accumulate more and more music gear every year. Then the reverse started happening. First I shed my record player and vinyl. Then my cassettes. Then all of my CDs. Then once I had subscription music, I stopped buying mp3 files. So do I have anything left of value? Well, what’s funny is even though I threw out all my cassettes, I saved the mix tape cassette paper covers. Why? Those old covers have lovingly created and curated song lists. Premium value. And memories. The rest can be discarded.


Postscript: More on Apple and Beats. Because…. can’t help myself from commenting.

  • Personally I’m mixed on the acquisition. At first disappointed. But on reflection and doing some reading starting to understand why Apple wants to acquire the brand. And seeing how a premium streaming service could fit into Apple’s model. A lot depends on execution post acquisition, as is always the case.
  • Ben Thompson’s take is quite good as expected. I have fairly similar views.
  • Dave Troy making the argument that Apple is remaking itself as fashion company, which is one of Thompson’s points.
  • Chris Ott has an excellently snarky takedown of Beats and hating on their curation. Obviously coming from a power user perspective. Enjoyed it. Though I think it ironically proves my point about curation being for power users only.
  • Horace Dediu. From twitter: “Beats is the new iTunes. And the new iPod. It is a repositioning of the Apple Music franchise.” Yes. Attempting to take what now has little value (music), and reinventing it as a premium experience.
  • Om Malik is negative. And he links to this harsher but worth reading takedown.


By Nathan Taylor

I blog at http://praxtime.com on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


  1. Unfortunately, IMO you’ve missed the core issue here: free will and secret manipulation. That’s what people give up when #2 (as part of #4) is re-weighted somewhat by a few favors and bribes of the musicians most amicable to the big corps. That’s why Apple didn’t have choice but to at *any* price.

  2. Interesting.

    There was a flash web comic once, now gone from the web. It animated a zombie sticking a fork into his brain, yoinking it out of his skull and then eat his brain. Then it looped. The caption: “I was a zombie.”

  3. Great post. I read something on affordable luxuries generally. Got me wondering Is Cook recommissioning Apple from “computers for the rest of us” to “the best in tech for the rest of us”?

    The first mission statement has held up for thirty years. Altho’ Apple dropped the word computers from its name years ago, its mainstay products are still computers … traditional computers, with storage, processors, and screens.

    New tech might not have storage, processors, or screens. Just sensors (nearables) connected to servers (farables) through hubs (hubbles), that is, phones and tablets.

    The corollary would be “the best in tech for the rest of us … us including China.” Sounds like China is a big part of Apple-think these days.

    Not cheap tech. It’s about great tech. The best tech … for the rest. The purveyors of cheap tech did not and never would create the iPhone, the Mac, or the iPad. Cheap is a good thing too. But cheap doesn’t get you great, whereas as great engenders cheap.

    Ah. Here’s what’s in my gut: As we watch the world shift toward inequality and as the wealthy run the show more and more, great, simple, useful, and affordable tech is kinda subversive, yes? The iPhone proves that great does good all around.

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