Apple Inc. is introducing a program to promote young musicians with a monthlong barrage of videos, playlists and new music, deepening the technology giant’s direct investment in artists through Apple Music.
The first performer to benefit from the Up Next program is 6lack, a 24-year-old Atlanta singer who released his debut album last fall. On Thursday, Apple released a short documentary about 6lack, as well as video of a live recording session taped in Atlanta and an interview on Beats 1, Apple Music’s radio station.
Beats 1 host Zane Lowe will introduce 6lack (pronounced “black”) on James Corden’s late-night talk show Thursday evening on CBS, and over the course of the next month, Apple will promote 6lack’s songs on Apple Music playlists, Beats 1 and the iTunes store. Similar promotions with other artists will follow in the months to come.
Apple executives hope the campaign will attract more artists and customers to its 2-year-old music service, which has signed up more than 20 million customers since June 2015. With rivals YouTube, Pandora Media Inc. and Spotify Ltd. all offering support to musicians, Cupertino, California-based Apple is eager to show artists it can help them become stars, and to lure fans with exclusive video and music.
“It’s hard if you are a new artist,” Lowe said in an interview. “That’s why they’ve all turned to digital platforms and social media.’”
Lowe spoke from Apple’s office in Culver City, a town nestled in the middle of Los Angeles, where the technology giant is building a greater presence as its entertainment ambitions grow. Lowe joined Apple a couple of years ago from the radio station BBC Radio 1, where he cultivated a reputation as an influential tastemaker and host. Apple, creator of iTunes and the iPod, had just spent $3 billion acquiring Beats Music to gain a foothold in the music business’s next area of growth: online streaming.
Streaming services have supplanted CDs and iTunes downloads as the dominant way the music business makes money. The growing number of people willing to pay a monthly fee for access to playlists and a large catalog of songs has boosted music industry sales two years in a row.
Now these services are remaking the industry by performing many of the functions once performed by music blogs, record labels and radio. Pandora offers musicians data on where their fans are, to inform their tour stops. YouTube has funded the production of music videos, and Spotify has hosted live recording sessions all over the U.S.
To be sure, Apple’s deal with 6lack is part of a wide-ranging promotional campaign by the artist’s label. Interscope Records, a division of Universal Music Group, signed 6lack last year and has been aggressively marketing his music on urban radio and the press, with coverage in magazines like XXL and GQ.
Interscope was co-founded by Jimmy Iovine, who now runs Apple Music. The streaming service has pitched itself as having a more human touch than its peers, which rely on algorithms to program radio stations and playlists. Iovine employs a cadre of music superfans and veteran industry executives who will pick which artists to showcase each month on Up Next.
Lowe devotes 90 percent of his daily show to new music, and routinely tweets out a list of younger artists he plans to showcase on any given day. “New music is consistently undervalued in the mainstream media,” Lowe said. “It gets the least rotation. It’s the thing that gets talked about the least in mainstream TV.”
6lack came to Apple’s attention courtesy of Carl Chery, a music journalist who joined Apple as the company prepared for the introduction of Apple Music. Chery identifies artists with the potential to be stars and champions them within Apple, pushing for their music to be featured on playlists, on the radio and in commercials.
Chery was instrumental in the success of Bryson Tiller and Chance the Rapper, two acts he met well before they gained mainstream success. Their rise to stardom earned Chery a promotion to oversee all artist curation at Apple Music.
“Carl got notoriety for what Apple Music did for Bryson,” recalled Tunde Balogun, 6lack’s manager and a leader of Atlanta music company LoveRenaissance. Balogun talks to Chery every week, and introduced him to 6lack with a copy of two singles, “Prblms” and “Bless Me.”
“Prblms” stuck out as an inevitable hit, so Chery placed the song on the Mood playlist. “Prblms” ranked as one of the 100 most popular songs on Apple Music within a couple days. “I’ve never seen anything that fast from someone no one knows,” Chery said.
The song would eventually spend 16 weeks on the Billboard charts. Balogun now considers Chery a member of 6lack’s team. With the promotion from Apple, this summer is shaping up to be the biggest moment of 6lack’s career. Next week, after the performance on Corden’s show, 6lack will go on tour with pop star The Weeknd and hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd. He will use data from Apple (and its rivals) to help decide when to release new music, and where to tour.
“Streaming services are where you discover music,” Balogun said. “They are a one-stop shop that gives you better tools to help your artists succeed.”