Beats Music plays for now, but expect a rebrand sooner, not later

Rumor of Beats' demise restarts talk of Apple's plans for music streaming service

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Apple won't ditch Beats Music, but it will certainly remake it, rebrand it, an analyst said today.

"I think we might well see an 'iTunes Unlimited' or something similar," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, in an email reply to questions. "It remains to be seen whether iTunes will be in the name of the Beats successor, but I would expect it will."

Beats Music returned to the news this week first because of talk that Apple would pull its plug, then because Apple quickly denied that the streaming service it got as part of a $3.2 billion acquisition would disappear.

There was a certain irony that it took speculation of its demise to reignite conversation about Beats. Although Apple touted the service in May when it announced the acquisition of headphone maker Beats Electronics, it had barely mentioned Beats Music since. The service wasn't flaunted at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, held just days after the deal's announcement, nor highlighted at the Sept. 9 unveiling of the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

CEO Tim Cook did wax poetic about Beats Music in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, however, during which he said he was "one hundred percent sold on music subscription." But for the public, and Apple's customers, Beats Music had been shoved to a back burner.

That's why the dead-no-live talk about Beats was so interesting to analysts like Dawson.

"The first way to interpret this is that Apple is shuttering the Beats Music service as it currently exists in order to replace it with an Apple and/or iTunes-branded replacement using Apple's delivery technology, label relationships and so on rather than those developed by Beats," Dawson wrote on his blog Monday. "This was an entirely predictable development and one which everyone should have been expecting from the beginning."

The alternative, Dawson continued, was that Beats Music would vanish, with no replacement ready to step up. "That's patently incredibly unlikely, especially given Apple's assurances at the time of the acquisition," he wrote.

But if Dawson is right -- and he was far from alone in betting on Interpretation A -- what form would the Beats' substitute take?

"I do see Apple retaining iTunes Radio," said Dawson, answering a series of follow-up questions via email. "It is a fundamentally different kind of product, in that you don't get to choose exactly what you'll listen to, and as such it's not giving away specific music for free. So I expect that to remain as a free product."

Apple launched iTunes Radio a year ago alongside iOS 7. The free service -- customers can pay $25 annually for iTunes Match for a sans-ads experience -- is akin to the better known Pandora in that it offers pre-set and customized "stations" based on artists and genres.

Beats Music, on the other hand, has been compared to Spotify: Both offer millions of tracks, cost $10 monthly and let customers play what they want when they want.

But even with a Beats rebranding, or maybe because of it, don't two services, perhaps both flagged as "iTunes" in some way, invite customer confusion? Dawson didn't think so.

"Radio is clearly not listening to whatever you want to listen to, so that value proposition is pretty clear. I'd expect the new brand for the Beats replacement to be equally clear," Dawson said before offering up "iTunes Unlimited" as a potential nameplate.

Apple, as always, has been mum on plans for Beats Music, other than comments in May when it said the service would coexist alongside iTunes but without promising that that would be permanent. But guessing Apple's moves is a popular pastime, more than that, an industry in an of itself, and Dawson wasn't afraid to weigh in.

In his Monday analysis, Dawson offered up next month, when Apple will presumably host another product introduction press conference to reveal new iPads and launch OS X Yosemite. "It might make a good 'one more thing' at Apple's October event, if that happens," Dawson said.

Via email, Dawson argued that Apple should rebrand Beats Music soon. "I think Apple needs to do something sooner rather than later as the tide has really turned on iTunes music revenues," he said in the email. "[Revenues] are already in decline, and it's almost all down to streaming and subscription services, so it needs to get into that game directly as soon as possible and start promoting it heavily. I'd be really surprised if we didn't see something by the end of the year."

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