The focus of the music world seems to have turned of late to streaming services, but music downloading still has a few muscles to flex. On Friday morning, Beyoncé unleashed a surprise self-titled album--complete with videos for each song--exclusively on iTunes. Even without any advance hype, the album proved to be so popular it briefly shut down the service.
The release comes just days before Apple will reportedly release 59 previously obscure Beatles tracks, according to The Guardian. Until now those songs have been available to digital listeners only in bootleg form. While observers speculate Apple's hand is being forced because of copyright issues, the mass release seems to portend another good sales day for iTunes.
Add it all up, and there's still some life in the old download dog yet.
"It's still a fantastically good place to do album releases," said Seth Schachner, a former Sony and Microsoft executive who now analyzes the music and digital industries for Strat Americas in Miami. "Any artist, particularly an artist with major-label backing like Beyoncé, would look to that platform to do new and cool things."
Big events--such as the month-long iTunes Festival that was streamed to more than 100 countries--may also buy Apple some time, even as the industry is rapidly shifting towards a streaming music model represented by paid and "freemium" services like Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio.
Apple itself joined the fray this year with its nascent iTunes Radio offering, but six months in, it's still small relative to its competitors: CEO Tim Cook said in October the new service had streamed 1 billion songs to 20 million users--a fraction of the 51 billion total streams Nielsen recorded just during the first six months of 2013.
But Schachner said Apple is still well-positioned in the music industry--not least because it holds credit card information for more than 500 million iTunes Store accounts from around the world. "Eventually Apple will offer a model that offers [à la carte streaming] access as well," he said. "I think that's what iTunes Radio is about, eventually.
"Even with all that, Apple's still an enormous retailer, it's a huge and critical partner. They continue to spin out cool technology that makes for a meaningful music experience," Schachner said.
Indeed, Beyoncé's new effort is notable in that it's available only in album form--14 tracks, 18 videos, and a digital booklet describing the entire project.
"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it," the artist said in a released statement. "I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans."