Culture, Music, Technology, TV & Radio

Apple Music first impressions

Apple Music - sign-up, 01, AL (1366x729)The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, but its design, and the digital download store that followed it, revolutionised the music industry. Some 15 years later, the world’s richest tech company is looking to turn the tables once again with its newly launched maxi service: Apple Music.

Apple Music launched on June 30, 2015, to a customary media hubbub. After updating to iTunes 12.2 and signing up for the three-month trial of Apple Music, I thought I’d share some initial thoughts about the service: what it gets right, what it needs to improve and, most importantly for some, how it stacks up against well established alternatives, such as Spotify and Deezer.

Apple Music - sign-up, 02, genres, AL (1366x729)A music streaming service build for you?
Once you’ve accepted the usual T&Cs*, Apple Music presents you with a selection of genres (ie Rock, Jazz), eras (ie 60s) and concepts (ie Experimental, New Artists), and asks you to choose the ones you like or really like, and to remove any you aren’t interested in.

Based on the selections I made, I found its initial set of suggestions far from my core tastes (Biffy Clyro and Sean Paul? Really?). But after several rounds of clicking the ‘More Artists’ button, and deleting any acts I really wasn’t interested in, I settled on a group of artists that I felt should give Apple’s algorithms a good idea of the kind of music I favour, and the kind of music I’d like it to surface for me in future.

Apple Music - sign-up, 03, artists, edited, AL (1366x729)Next, greeted by the ‘For You’ page, the landing page for a selection of taste-tailored playlists and albums, I was pleasantly surprised by its very first suggestions. It offered me: a “moody electro-pop” playlist, featuring Banks and Lil Silva; an electronic workout playlist with Mr Scruff, Todd Terje and others; and a playlist of chill songs by female artists, entitled ‘Ladies First: Mellow Indie, Vol 1’. As for albums, it plucked out the Monkees’ Head, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sam & Dave’s Soul Men, the Temptations’ Psychedelic Shack and Caribou’s Our Love. Not too shabby at all, really.

(*be sure to switch off auto-renewal, if you don’t what to be charged after your three-month trial period is up.)

Design and functionality
Apple Music, like all of the Californian company’s hardware and software, has been designed beautifully. Moving between your own local iTunes library and online music streams via Apple Music is fast and, for the most part, hassle-free. The Up Next feature in iTunes 11, which allowed you to instruct iTunes to play any song before it automatically returned to the current playlist/album you were listening to, was a terrific feature. So the idea of being able to generate new playlists, dubbed ‘Stations’, simply based on an artist or even a song sounds promising. However, after several attempts, I couldn’t get iTunes to start playing anything via this new feature for some strange reason.

Apple Music - sign-up, 04, Apple Music playlists 01, AL (1366x729)Taking the needle off the record and ruining your library
Still, not being able to launch an algorithm-generated, custom playlist from a song or artist is a minor issue compared to what iTunes 12.2 has been doing to some users music libraries. Thanks to iCloud Music Library – a mandatory feature for those wanting to use their Apple Music favourites offline, as well as upload their own music library for use on the go – some users’ local libraries have been subject to mass renaming errors, lost metadata and straight deletions of songs.

I had to remove a dozen old iTunes Store purchases from my local library and switch off the iCloud Music Library feature before it ruined my library any further with duplicates and dodgy uploads. Currently, the only way to stop iCloud from ruining your library is to disable the feature. However, then you are unable to access offline features of Apple Music that require it. At the time of writing, I still haven’t found a way to view all my favourited songs, albums or artists. This seems like an obvious and poor omission by Apple, and its one area where Spotify remains ahead. Doubtless Apple will release a patch before long, but this error is yet another reminder why you should backup your music library before updating iTunes.

Apple Music - sign-up, 05, Apple Music playlists 02, AL (1366x729)Get yourself connected
Another area where Spotify has a strong lead on Apple is its community playlists and features. For all Apple’s talk about “building a home for music”, right now, Apple Music’s playlist functions appear light and highly robotic. The initial playlist selections shown to me (listed as being created by ‘Apple Music Alternative’ or ‘Apple Music Electronic’) were agreeable, but they lacked the human touch that the company’s poster child, Trent Reznor, has been so vocal about.

I don’t want every mix to be one hour, or even two. Sometimes I might want it to be balanced mix, sometimes I might want to have three incredible tracks from the same artist back-to-back. Although I’ve already come across some pre-made playlists that appeal to me (ie Intro to Danger Mouse), Apple Music really should surface the playlists of artists, curators and your friends more – something Spotify does already.

Although you may not be able to follow user-created playlists yet, you can follow artists as part of the third pillar of Apple Music, called Connect. This part of the service enables you to track artists, all of whom are able to upload text, audio and video on this combo of social network and fan page. The value of this service seems questionable. Most contemporary artists have some kind of presence on social media anyway, and they’ll often favour one service over the others. Bedroom musicians and fledgling artists may get some mileage out of it, but judging from what I’ve seen so far, it looks as though Connect will be just another also-ran media service for the marketing arms of the major labels to paste lifeless announcements.

Apple Music - sign-up, 06, Connect first look, AL (1366x729)Does Beats 1 have the radio magic?
Listening to Justin Webb on Tuesday morning’s Today programme, you might get the impression that Apple’s much hyped “24-hour radio station”, Beats 1, spells doom for the BBC’s new music stations and the edgier independent stations, such as NTS Radio and Rinse FM.

However, BBC Radio 1 controller, Ben Cooper, doesn’t see it that way – and neither do I. At the time of writing, I’ve not had the chance to tune into Beats 1 myself. I plan to as soon as possible, and will write some thoughts on it. What I can say for now is you’re unlikely to find the spirit of community present in the local radio stations and shows that have been broadcasting for years. Listening to BBC 6 Music and Radio 1, presenters such as Huey Morgan, Mary Anne Hobbs, Lauren Laverne, Liz Kershaw and Benji B make radio, a so-called outdated medium, come alive with a freshness and vibrance that attracts millions to tune in day and night.

For lack of a better term, the magic of radio isn’t something Apple can just buy. As much as I like the idea of Zane Lowe and Julie Adenuga broadcasting globally, what I suspect Beats 1 will lack is a true sense of community. On Beats 1, even with the big personalities and celebs Apple has lined up, you’re unlikely to get regular chat about what’s been happening in your local music scene – the concerts, the gossip and bands in town. You’re unlikely to hear the breadth of aural art on offer, which is actually something the BBC does extremely well, covering poetry, world music and generally exploring music in other formats outside of the usual tunes and chat combo. And you’re certainly not likely to get a much sought after shout-out on Beats 1 (by contrast, through only a handful of tweets a year, I’ve had live responses from BBC presenters on 6 Music, Radio 1 and Radio 3, as well as independents, including NTS Radio and Roundhouse Radio).

Beats 1 isn’t even available to stream via the web, wireless speaker systems (ie Sonos), or a standalone app. You have to go through iTunes (or your Music app on iOS devices; Android devices forthcoming). And, at present, there’s no way to listen to previous shows on-demand, as you can via BBC iPlayer or NPR. Apple has got big hitters, like Drake and Dr Dre, waiting in the wings, and they may attract a moderate number of listeners. And, of course, its current lack of on-demand options will change (Sonos support is on the way, for instance).But, ultimately, Beats 1 has to compete with engrained listening tastes for many millennials, who are already comfortable tuning into stations and shows with long-established formats and communities.

Sound starter
Still, for all my gripes – the library-breaking bug, the limited tracking features and underwhelming social components – the actual listening experience on Apple Music is a solid one. Using Spotify via Firefox, I regularly experience crashes and buffing errors. Apple Music simply works, which actually makes it much more recommendable in my estimation.

At the moment, the only things that would make me use Spotify over it are the community playlists from friends and brands, and music that I can’t find anyway where else – and, certainly, for the ardent music fan Apple Music is not the birth of the one and only music streaming service you’ll ever need.

If you already use Spotify or Deezer’s premium services, you’re unlikely to be swayed by Apple’s current offering (which costs the same a month, once the three-month trial period ends: £9.99/$9.99). But if you currently use the free offerings from these streaming services or others, Apple Music is certainly worth giving a go if you own iTunes or an iOS device (support for Android devices is promised to arrive this autumn). It’s not a revolution, but the elegantly designed interface and stable listening experience make Apple Music a sound start.

Images: Apple/Aaron Lee