It’s been three weeks since Apple Music’s release, and I’ve come to a decision: I’m canceling my Spotify Premium subscription and going with Apple Music as my paid streaming service of choice. The reason? It’s pretty simple:
(There—I said it. I’m not ashamed.)
On a service level, I feel pretty much exactly the same about Spotify and Apple Music. But Apple Music has Taylor, and she’s pretty much the only thing that got me through a very hungover roundtrip drive from New York to Maryland for a wedding two weekends ago. So, in my mind, Apple Music wins. And that got me thinking about what makes us value media most.
We can talk all day about advanced metrics, but there’s a pretty simple way to know if someone truly values your content: They pay for it. For instance, this is the media I value enough to pay for, and my reasons for doing so:
Very basic cable ($27/month): Exclusively for the NFL on Sundays during the fall; I keep it year-round because I’d rather waste $162 than deal with Time Warner Cable twice.
Apple Music (will be $9.99/month): Taylor Swift (and other artists). But mostly T-Swift.
Netflix ($9/month): Countless shows I can’t get on demand anywhere else.
[Redacted] ($99.99): An amazing site that streams every single NBA game in HD but isn’t exactly legal.
And then there are a few other media subscriptions I have access to but don’t personally pay for because, you know, parents. But I would pay for them if forced to:
HBO GO: Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Veep.
Watch ESPN: Monday Night Football. Various soccer games.
The New York Times: Incredible media coverage.
The New Yorker: The slim chance that David Sedaris publishes anything there.
After running through this checklist of content that I pay for (or would pay for), I came to an obvious conclusion: All of these companies are offering something that I can’t get anywhere else. Maybe it’s a single pop artist I love. Maybe it’s an addictive original series, or a sport that I’m absolutely addicted to (GO GIANTS! GO KNICKS! Praise #Kristaps!). Or maybe it’s a few writers—or even just one writer—who kicks total ass.
We’ve reached a point in the digital age where everyone is forced to regurgitate the same viral stories in hopes of juicing traffic numbers enough to stay in business. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t get you the thing you really want as a media company: loyal readers. Relentless advocates. People who will actually pay for your content, since giving away content for free is quickly proving to be a losing game.
If you want that, you need to offer something that your audience absolutely can’t live without.
Which brings me to branded content. While brands don’t have to worry about getting people to pay for their content, their goal should be to create something that people fall in love with so much that they would pay for it.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be premium content like Game of Thrones. There are a number of smaller sites that could easily shake me down for cash. The Awl may only get a hair over a million readers each month, but I’d absolutely pay for access to John Herrman’s thoughtful media analysis. Grantland has a fraction of ESPN’s audience (around 20 million a month), but I’d probably pay $100 a month if they threatened to take away my access to Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell’s whip-smart columns. I imagine a lot of their other readers appreciate this good work done by intelligent people in the same way.
If brands truly want to win at the publishing game, they shouldn’t look at traffic factories like Upworthy and Business Insider and ViralNova as models to emulate; instead, they should focus on creating at least one thing on a consistent basis that people just can’t do without. Maybe it’s an amazing column written by an amazing columnist, or maybe it’s an addictive web series. Or, hell, maybe it’s just a comic strip that knocks you on your ass laughing.
Whatever it is, brands need to find it—their very own T-Swift.