iTunes Radio Is Really About Buying Music, Not Streaming It

After an unpleasantly long stretch on the rumor mill--even by Apple standards--complicated by a hard-bargaining Sony Music, iTunes Radio finally exists. For the most part, the rumor mill got it right: It's a lot like Pandora, it has text and audio ads (which feel strange on an Apple product), and it's integrated with iTunes, Apple's streaming-beset music behemoth.

If they'd just ended up calling it "iRadio," which is destined to be the iTouch of garbled service names, the rumor sites would be justified in declaring themselves victorious over Apple's vaunted secret-keeping.

But the most surprising thing about iTunes Radio is something we should have guessed at all along: It's not a competitor of Pandora or Spotify so much as a backdoor attempt at keeping the iTunes Music Store relevant.

Some of that should have been obvious at the rumor-gestation stage, given how long tech blogs have been lovingly imagining it. The iTunes app it's connected to is dominated by the music store, and a Pandora-style streaming radio station wasn't going to change that.

So it should have been easier to guess at the tight purchasing integration throughout the radio feature--one of the few features that differentiate it from Pandora is its ability to remember the songs you've listened to and enjoyed, and give you the chance to add them to your library.

It also allows you to build a station around a song from your permanent collection, which is terrible news for impulse buyers.

But Apple's attempt at cracking the nobody-pays-for-streaming question is the most important part of yesterday's announcements: The ad-free version of iTunes Radio has been rolled into Apple's $25-a-year iTunes Match program, which stores all of your downloaded and ripped music on Apple's servers for use on any Apple device.

iTunes Match is an impressive product, but it's always felt a little like an evolutionary dead end: It's the last, most limber version of the huge-music-library concept that streaming services threatens to kill, but it's also a weird attempt to turn your huge music library into a streaming service.

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The resulting product has always felt more like the perfect answer to a question fewer people are asking than an attack on their freemium competitors. If you're committed to the library metaphor for your digital music (and you're a Mac/iOS user), iTunes Match is awesome; it turns all your crappy 128 kbps MP3s into tagged-and-artworked, uniform-quality AAC files, and it lets you stop worrying about where and whether your decade-old collection is backed up.

Read More: - Google Play Music All Access Is The Goofiest Sounding Spotify Competitor Ever - Will Pandora and Spotify and the Internet Ever Figure Out How to Pay Artists?

But if you're committed to the library metaphor for your digital music, and you're a Mac/iOS user, you were probably already using iTunes. The listeners Apple has lost--or the ones it doesn't have yet--have no reason to try Match in the first place.

But by bundling their streaming service with it, Apple is positioning iTunes Match for one last run at making people care about their personal music collection. If ad-free radio and high-quality versions of every CD you've ever ripped for $2 a month aren't enough to keep you, the Spotify-curious iTunes user, in gift cards, I'm not sure anything is.

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