Apple Music was released a week ago today. I have spent the past week digging deep into it’s features. Below you will find my early impressions and links to all of the Apple Music research that I have found useful in understanding How Apple Music works, how it should best be understood, what it means for Apple’s future, and how to reconcile it’s use with other streaming solutions.
A different take on social
One of the primary questions I asked before starting my Apple Music free trial was “Will this replace Spotify?” Despite my power user needs, the bar is actually low for me. All Apple Music really needs to do is allow me to stream a majority of their library, for a reasonable price, and allow me to integrate it into my existing iTunes Library. In other words: Give me a reason to stop using two different music apps where I want to just use one. Apple Music accomplishes this. Using it feels like augmenting my existing library with practically everything on the iTunes Store. Using Spotify felt more like using one app for my personal library (iTunes) and another separate but magical app (Spotify) to funnel me into a realm of endless music.
Although Apple Music satisfies this basic need for me, there are a few features that I have come to like in Spotify. I think they do the social stuff just right. Just right for me, anyway. I like following my Facebook friends to see what they are listening to. I love the ease of publishing public playlists I have created from Spotify, knowing that anyone, even with a free account, can listen to that playlist from a desktop computer.
Apple’s take on social is a little different. The focus is less about consumer to consumer and more about musician to consumer. In theory, this is great, because with their message that Apple Music Connect (this is what they are calling their social feature) will more easily allow artists to connect with fans, they also claim that the barrier to entry is easy enough for anyone with a drum machine and a microphone to pass. In practice, I am not sure this is true. As a musician, I imagine I will want to start an Apple Music Connect account for artists some time. I tried this the other day and the process is a little more cumbersome than expected.
None the less, I am not sure that connect will really take off unless artists are actually using it. Apple says the motivation to do so is that it will give them one place to connect with fans instead of many (Facebook, Instagram, Sound Cloud, etc…) but in reality, it seems to just be adding one more thing.
From a consumer perspective, I would much rather Apple focus on the user. As mentioned above, I love shared playlists in Spotify. Some like minded musicians and I have a playlist we use to share music we are listening to with each other from each of our respective computers all over the country. It’s great. Perhaps my interest in these features has to do with the fact that I know what music I like. I am an archivist when it comes to data and a curator when it comes to music, a position that Apple has taken into their own control with Apple Music. More on that next.
Apple wants to decide everything for me
One of the strongest messages of Apple Music is as follows. All other third party services give you algorithmically determined discovery features by interpreting what you like and playing you more of it. Apple Music, by contrast, features a LOT of playlists curated by real people. Go to Apple Music and search for the word “curators” to see a list of all of them. The idea behind this is that music requires a little bit of the human touch. And I agree. And I am really convinced by some of the playlists they have recommended to me so far. Playlists like “As a Sideman: John Coltrane,” “Baroque: The Golden Age of the Trio Sonata,” and hip-hop series “Hipster’s Paradise” certainly reflect the human touch. They are all well conceived by experts and geeks who love those styles of music. Not only that, but each playlist has a logical flow from start to finish, much like the perfect mixed-tape from a musically inclined friend.
In addition to these playlists (which by the way are recommended to the user underneath the “For You” and “New” tab from within the app), Apple has launched a new radio service called Beats1. You can still listen to the old radio stations that are algorithmically curated à la Pandora but Beats1 features real live human djays “always on and worldwide.” Pretty cool concept. And although it plays mostly only pop and hip-hop whenever I have tuned in, I like it a lot more than what I hear on standard radio. I don’t have much more to say about this in terms of Apple’s philosophy. It is all part of the same message that human curation is the key to music discovery.
This is the reason that Apple appears to have purchased Beats rather than another streaming service like Rdio or Spotify. As a stand-alone service, Beats has had these curated playlists for a while. If the acquisition didn’t make sense then, it definitely does now. This music service is designed around the idea that Apple knows what is best for me and makes the decision for me. This is the most Apple-y thing about it. This is the same company that decided not to give users access to the file system on iOS devices because it would complicate the perfect experience of using the product in the way they have designed it to be used.
Fortunately, Apple Music mostly pulls off this experience effectively and with style. That being said, I fail to see how it will continue to set them apart from the competition. Gathering around music geeks to curate great playlists seems like an easy initiative for Spotify and others to throw money at and get similar results.
At the end of the day, I miss being able to collaborate on playlists, but I can’t imagine Apple is not planning on a feature like this down the road.
The good and the bad
One of the things I am enjoying the most about Apple Music is it’s integration into the system. Being able to take advantage of features like Siri is a big win. Being able to raise my wrist and say to my Apple Watch “play me hits from 1985” or “play me the new Snarky Puppy album” and get results on my phone instantly is a fantastic use case.
I have heard a lot of people complain about how complicated and cluttered it has made the iTunes user interface. To this I ask: could it really get any worse at this point? It is clear (to me at least) that Apple must be working on a bigger iTunes update down the road that will separate it into it’s separate functions, much like on iOS: one app for music, one app for video, one app for podcasts, etc… Until then, I don’t really think the new streaming features make it that much more difficult to use. Especially on mobile, I find it much easier to use than Spotify, though I do really hate the static list of text that appears when you click the “more button” while looking at the contents of an album. Too much information!
One of the major technical considerations I made in the weeks approaching the launch of Apple Music was what it was going to do to my existing iTunes Match account. If you didn’t know, iTunes Match was released a few years back as a way to upload all of your iTunes Library to the cloud for listening on any device. I have mixed feelings about how well it works, but it works well enough for the 25 dollars or so I spend on it every year, so I was naturally curious to see how Apple Music would impact it. This turned out to be a much more complicated issue than I thought, and so instead of spelling it out in detail, I encourage you to scroll to the bottom of this post to see links to some web articles that explain it way better than I could.
As I said, Apple Music is fulfilling my low expectations pretty well and also surprising me in some nice ways with curated playlists. Mixing songs from my personal iTunes Library with those from Apple Music in the same playlists is a dream. Although I still have a lot of questions, I will stop for now and leave you with these informative links.
If you read anyone of these links, read this: Apple Music FAQ: Everything you need to know | iMore. It is the most comprehensive and simple overview of the features of Apple Music.