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Why Apple Music's most playful feature may be its most crucial one

"Siri, play the top song from 1982." Apple Music's silliest element sets the new $10 subscription service apart from the pack -- but will it get you to pay?

Apple exec Eddy Cue had difficulty holding back his joy when he demonstrated Apple Music features like Siri integration. James Martin/CNET

Apple is late to the subscription music party, but it is bringing Siri along to have a little fun.

On Tuesday, the electronics giant launched Apple Music, its long-anticipated foray into the burgeoning world of tunes available to stream for a $10-a-month subscription. Similar to rivals such as Spotify, Tidal, Rdio and Rhapsody, the service offers tens of millions of tracks to play on demand and collections of tunes tailored to your personal tastes.

Unlike those other services, Apple added the element of voice commands with its Siri virtual assistant. Voice commands like "play the top 10 alternative songs now" and "play the top song from 1982" automatically retrieve those tracks.

Listeners who experiment with Siri's chops as their personal music helper may find it to be the most playful part of Apple Music. Asking it to play the No. 1 song on the day you were born or the most popular song on the soundtrack to your favorite movie can be a fun rabbit hole to tumble down. But it's more important than just party tricks: Most subscription music services offer the same fundamental proposition, and a unique element like Siri may help Apple Music stand apart. But will it be enough to get people to switch from Spotify or realize that music is something worth $120 a year?

It's important for Apple to get consumers to answer yes. The popularity of the subscription format is new but growing quickly. Worldwide revenue from digital subscriptions jumped 39 percent last year while physical sales and downloads both dropped about 8 percent, and in the last four years the number of paying subscribers has increased more than fivefold to 41 million, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, a global trade group for the music business.

The same core service

As much as subscription music services like to play up what they do differently than their rivals, there is little variation between them.

"Services are fairly similar along a lot of the core dimensions," said Andrew Lipsman, vice president of marketing and insights at researcher ComScore.

Apple recruited hip-hop star Drake as an Apple Music cheerleader at its unveiling. James Martin/CNET

The music catalog doesn't really matter. Subscription music services including Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody and Apple Music all tout catalogs of tens of millions of songs. Though some, like Jay Z's Tidal, like to highlight their access to exclusive tracks from hot artists, the presence or absence of certain artists or songs doesn't appear to matter much to consumers.

Take the example of Spotify and Taylor Swift. The pop star pulled her catalog off the Sweden-based music service in November in protest over payment standards. The period without the catalog of last year's biggest-selling artist was also when Spotify had its biggest growth spurt: it doubled its paying members to 20 million in about a year, and the majority of those additional 10 million subscribers joined after Swift's music went missing.

Curation doesn't really matter -- or rather, its something that every other service already offers in its own way. Apple Music was built upon a philosophy of human oversight to music recommendation that was a core tenet of Beats Music, and Beats Music had only 250,000 members by the time Apple agreed to buy it. Virtually all subscription music services make tailored music recommendations based on your past song choices, and many -- such as Google Play Music and Rhapsody -- have playlists finessed by music experts in some way.

And price doesn't really matter -- or rather, it has been taken out of the equation. The recording industry has held all services to the same $10 a month price for an all-you-can-eat, play-just-what-you-want subscription, and Apple Music is no different.

However, product features may start to matter more.

"Until relatively recently, there had not been a lot of marquee innovation in the subscription music space, in the features of the product," said Dan Cryan, analyst with IHS. With Spotify's introduction of an element that matches the beats per minute in the song to the cadence of your running, and with Apple integrating Siri, "we are starting to see more difference and some innovation on the user experience," he said.

What Apple is doing differently

Apple Music has three main features that set it apart from rival services.

One is Beats 1, a 24-hour live radio station. The other major streaming music services stick with what's known as asynchronous, tailored radio -- that is, the hip-hop station you play on Pandora will be different than the hip-hop station I'm listening to at the same time. Beats 1 will play the same music, with the same DJ commentary and curation, at the same time for everyone worldwide.

Apple Music differs from rivals by having a live worldwide radio station, a platform for artists to interact with fans and the ability to control the experience with voice commands. James Martin/CNET

The second is Connect. The section lets artists share lyrics, backstage photos, songs and videos directly with fans and get their feedback. Musicians and fans can interact -- listeners can comment and artists can respond, plus anything posted is shareable on Messages, Facebook, Twitter and email. Though other subscription services let artists use the platforms to reach fans, Connect is the most elaborate and dedicated platform so far.

The last is Siri integration. It's more consumer-focused than Connect, which holds the most appeal for artists as a way to reach fans, and it's more engaging than Beats 1, which is designed to be something you can play and just lean back to hear for a while.

Music voice commands aren't unique to Apple Music. Google Now, the voice recognition element to Google's Android mobile operating system, allows users to perform simple commands like playing the specific song or pausing a track, but won't respond to more conversational requests like "play the song from the movie 'Boyhood.'"

Amazon introduced its voice-activated, Internet-connected wireless speaker Echo last year, and it is shipping the device to consumers widely starting next month. It can play specific songs from the Prime Music service that is part of Amazon's $99-a-year membership program, and it will spin up stations you've created on Pandora or iHeart Radio if you link an account.

But Siri's range of commands appear to be more sophisticated. And Echo stays in your home, while Siri follows you on your smartphone. That's a key point since streaming music services routinely report that most of their listening is on mobile devices.

Getting better use out of Siri

"Inertia can be a powerful force," said Lipsman. An element like voice command may not be sufficient to convince people who already subscribe elsewhere to switch or persuade people who don't see value in a $10-a-month membership that it's a good deal. "Even if something [like Siri] presents a new utility, is it a great enough utility to overcome inertia? It might just take some time to make that habit."

In that respect, a three-month free trial works in Apple's -- and Siri's -- favor. Letting people experiment with the service, and Siri integration may give them the opportunity to make it part of their routine. Also working in Apple's favor: iPhone owners already use Siri for other simple tasks. About 42 percent of iPhone owners turn to Siri at least once a month, according to ComScore.

"People are already using Siri, people have already used Apple for music," said Lipsman. "That may reduce the friction of making that move" to subscribe.

However, the voice command element of Apple Music isn't promoted consistently in the app itself. Unless an iPhone owner watched the demonstration of Apple Music earlier this month at the company's keynote presentation at a developers' conference, and unless the company's tutorials for the service remind listeners how Siri can help, the voice commands could be overlooked.

"Seamless integration is something that Apple is very good at," said Dan Cryan, analyst with IHS. "Once people realize they can do something with Siri, like set a timer, it becomes pretty intuitive pretty fast."

While the first challenge is to ensure that consumers use Siri in Apple Music, the bigger challenge is that Siri does what it should.

"Like everything else, user experience will determine the ultimate fate of this feature. If the voice commands are not recognized, it could lead to frustration," Current Analysis senior analyst Deepa Karthikeyan said, adding she doubted someone will switch from an existing music service provider just for the voice feature.

Apple's demo of the service experienced a gaffe of this kind. During the presentation at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple executive Eddy Cue asked Siri to "play the song from 'Selma,'" aiming for the popular tune on the soundtrack to the film about civil rights marches in the 1960s. Instead, Siri thought Cue wanted to hear "Selene" by Imagine Dragons. (On its second try, Siri correctly retrieved "Glory" by Common and John Legend.)

Generally, virtual assistant and voice recognition capabilities have dramatically improved in the last few years, said Van Baker, a Gartner analyst. "That is going to be much more important going forward, as we move closer to conversational interactions with devices rather than having to pull them out and touch a button."

Music services with a head start on voice commands may have an advantage as consumer interaction with devices gravitates more toward conversation, he said.

And Apple has other advantages besides Siri -- its stockpile of more than 800 million iTunes accounts makes it easier for people to subscribe because the company already has payment details that consumers won't need to enter anew. Apple Music will be an automatic part of the Music app on iPhones and iPads, which have a massive base of users.

Will those factors help Apple Music make some noise, or will voice commands? It's a good question to ask Siri: "Play something that will convince me to pay Apple $10 a month?"

Updated on Thursday at 12:04 p.m. PT: To note that Apple Music has launched.