Thoughts on Apple Music

Thoughts on Apple Music

A lot has been written about Apple Music in the form of reviews and punditry, but a majority of them were written within the first few days after the service was launched. I have been using Apple Music everyday since it launched at the end of June with the release of iOS 8.4. I believe that an extended period of usage is necessary and required to be able to offer any meaningful assessment of the service. So here are my thoughts and impressions after a month of usage. I subscribe to Google Play Music All Access so my opinions are based on how Apple Music compares to that. This therefore is not a full review, but rather, my thoughts on the service and whether you should pay $9.99 ( or $14.99 for a family of 6 users) after the free-trial ends.

From the start, it is evident that Apple Music is trying to do a lot - be a lot of services to a lot of people. You get the feeling that it was designed by committee, with many people offering different ideas but without anyone saying no to some of the ideas. As a result, the app is confusing to navigate and the service is not as easy to use as traditional Apple services. The app’s user interface and user experience are not the best Apple has shipped, and the on-boarding process is not intuitive. There are five tentpole segments to Apple Music, arranged on the bottom from left to right in this order: For You, New, Radio, Connect and My Music. As of this post, there is no way to rearrange the order of the tabs, though there is a way to replace Connect with Playlists. More on this in a separate post.

"For You" is a recommendation of music that Apple thinks you will like. “New” is where you can find new-release songs and videos, curated playlists from Apple and major music tastemakers and other popular music recommendation. The next tab is “Radio", home of Apple Music’s flagship 24/7 radio service that broadcasts worldwide from Los Angeles, New York, and London as well as a host of other “internet radio stations” (including ESPN, NPR, etc.). Then there is “Connect”, a social media-like platform where artists can share photos, videos, and behind the scenes content. This bring back memories of Ping, Apple’s failed attempt at launching a music-based social media platform. Only time will tell if Connect will succeed or go the way of the dodo bird. The last tab is "My Music", the place for all your music - the ones you have stored locally on the device as well as the ones you bought from iTunes and have stored on Apple’s cloud servers. 

So what’s it like to use the app? In one word, confusing. After I launched the app for the first time, I was greeted with a bunch of innocuous bubbles, with names of musicians and genres to select from. The selection would be used by Apple to tailor suggestions that suit my unique tastes. Unfortunately for me, the bubbles didn't have most of my favorite musicians. There is also the convoluted stars and heart ratings. There are differences between hearts and stars, obviously. Any song played that is played from Beats 1 radio or any station can be “liked” by tapping on the heart. Tapping the heart affects the "For You," section of Apple Music that's custom built with playlists, albums and songs tailored to your individual taste. "For You" also takes into account music you add to your library and full plays you listen to. 

Skips are not however taken into account, because not every skip is because of an actual and outright dislike that of the specific song. You could be skipping because  you just may not be in the mood for that song, especially in that playback order. So when do you “star” a song? When you create a “station” from an individual song by tapping on the menu button and selecting "Start Station, the heart is replaced by a star. Tapping the star serves up two options: "Play More Like This”, "Play Less Like This” or “ Add to iTunes Wish List". These options help tune a radio station to your particular taste or mood at that time without affecting your "For You" recommendations. These plus a host of other options like playlist creation and curation from within the selected playlist make for a confusing music listening experience. There are so many features that are not easily discovered or easily surfaced. A lot of Apple Music features, while great individually, feel confusing and unintuitive and out of place together. 

So why sign up for Apple Music over services like Spotify, Rdio, Google Play Music and even Pandora? After all  its not like Apple Music has a larger song catalog than the aforementioned services. They all have around the same number of songs — 30MM +. And didn’t Steve Jobs famously fight against Apple offering a streaming music service, as a result, costing them first-mover status to services like Spotify, Rdio and even Pandora? Years later, Apple had to acquire a service - Beats - in order to offer something that one would assume to be the natural and logical evolution of of the iTunes Music Store. To enter a crowded market, you have to offer something that is new, novel, or offer a better way of doing something. Apple’s ace in the hole, Live Radio (à La-terrestrial radio) and Human Curation. Oh, that, and a really generous 3-month free-trial. The service promises to offer a better music listening experience that is based on real humans curating the vs the algorithmic playlists of its competitors. So how well does Apple deliver on its key differentiators? Lets talk about Beats 1. 

I'm not sure how I feel about Beats 1. I used to like terrestrial radio. In a previous life, I worked on radio as a DJ. I l used to love the feeling of connectedness and the sense of community that radio offered.  I used to love listening to radio whenever I would travel, especially by car. I loved how random stations would fade in and out as I drove in and out of their broadcast signal radius. I even enjoyed the loud and obnoxious stings and station IDs. For a while, I even subscribed to Sirius satellite radio, but the sound quality Sirius radio was so atrocities that I canceled my subscription. Above all, I loved the music discovery aspect of radio. I however stopped listening to radio. Why? Because I got tired of listening to the same 10 songs being played in heavy rotation and the deluge of ads. I felt like there were more commercials than music in any given hour. And the device that killed terrestrial radio for me? the iPod. 

The iPod gave me the ability to listen to whatever song I wanted, whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, all without listening to a single commercial or radio sting. I no longer had to listen to commercials interrupted by brief musical interludes. I was in control of my music. Unlike traditional radio, if I didn’t like the song being played, I simply skipped it. iTunes and the iPod (later on, the iPhone) ushered in a new dawn of music consumption. As a result, there are entire generations that do not identify with and understand the format of traditional radio. For many of these people, their definition of radio is Pandora-like: pick a song or artist and let the service use its algorithm to determine what songs to play. Fine-tune and customize the music selection by giving songs and artists a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. For many of people, the concept of a tastemaker programming a station is very alien. 

Given the unique role Apple played in “killing" radio with the introduction of the iPod and the iTunes store, why would they then introduce a radio experience resembling terrestrial radio? Is it because Jimmy Iovine, the incredibly successful record label executive and now Apple Music executive believes that a live-radio format is critical to the success of Apple Music? Didn’t services like Pandora and Spotify decimate traditional radio as we knew it? Could he have pushed for beats 1 because at his core, he is and will always be a record label executive who believes that a traditional, live radio experience is necessary for music discovery and taste-making? And if so, how can one station cater to the myriad of genres and musical tastes of most music fans? Will Apple create sub-stations like a Beats 2, Beats 3 and more to cater to different music genres as well as non-music content like Sports and Talk? Maybe Apple knows something that we don’t know, but I see them facing those same challenges that terrestrial radio faces. Once the casual novelty wears off, it will be just like regular radio, meaning that just like traditional radio, if you do not like the song that's playing, you cannot skip it because it's live. And if you're not a fan of the genre of music being played, you have to turn it off, until the next program. Hopefully the music selection will suit your taste.

Time will tell, if Apple's Beats 1 experiment will succeed. And  should it succeed, what would prevent competitors from hiring their own DJs and tastemakers to curate their music. While I'm sure that Apple believes Zhane Lowe, Julie Adenuga and Ebro Darden to be the best in the business, there is no shortage of competent DJs and programmers. My guess is that Beats 1 will fail — in its current manifestation. That is, unless Apple makes some serious and fundamental changes, then it might flourish. Because as it stands today, Beats 1 faces the same challenges as terrestrial radio. Maybe over time, Apple will create stations to cater to more specific music genres and who knows, maybe talk and sports, think: Beats 2, Beats Sports, Beats Talk, e.t.c..

These are not the only issues and criticisms of the service. A lot of people have written about their dislikes and concerns about the service. Outside of specific issues like Jim Dalrymple’s disappearing songs which now seem to be mostly restored, a lot of the the criticisms I have read, while valid in some instances, are essentially an adjustment of the experience to to preconceived notions and opinions. Meaning that if I was of the original opinion that Apple Music is late to the party and doesn't offer any new and "innovative" features, my experience would confirm that bias. By all accounts, the iPod, iPhone and iPad were innovative and groundbreaking, even though they were not the first MP3 player, smartphone or tablet. No, they were innovative because they were fundamental shifts in the way music (and video) players, phones and tablets worked. And in the end, they became the standard and benchmark for which millions of other copy-cat products were compared to. 

Yet many people pretend that because these specific Apple products were and are not innovative simply because they were not the first in their specific categories and years later, competitors have “caught up” or offer a feature or two thats absent from the respective Apple product. The genius and innovation in these (insert specific Apple product here) is in its obviousness. By now, Internet Radio is old hat and there isn’t much innovation to be to be offered. But the addition of features like Connect (if done well) can freshen the experience and make things feel new and innovative. As it stands today, Connect feels unfinished and bolted-on. and almost Ping-like. I believe that Connect has the potential to become the breakout success of Apple Music. I have thought of a few things that can be done to improve the service:

  1. Greater interaction between users and the artists they follow (unreleased tracks, song lyrics, upcoming concerts, TV show appearances, etc.)
  2. Integration of Apple Pay in connect for things like merchandise purchase, concert tickets, etc..
  3. Prevent the auto-population of artists in connect. This can be overwhelming and confusing, especially if you like a specific song but do not care to know what the artist is up to.

By all accounts Spotify is the largest and most dominant music streaming service with some 75 million subscribers, of which 20 million are paid users. It therefore goes without saying that they have the most to lose (or gain), should Apple Music succeed (or fail). Interestingly, while both Apple and Spotify (and pretty much everyone in that industry) charge $9.99 for a single subscriber, Apple charges $14.99 for a family of 6 users. Spotify charges $4.99 for each additional user (up to 5 total), making a comparable subscription package on Spotify cost $35.00 a month (one less subscriber than Apple Music, compared to $14.99 a month on Apple Music. This makes Apple Music a no-brainer for a large family (or a group of friends). It should be noted that Spotify offers a 50% discount available to students. But unless you’re the only (student) subscriber to Spotify, you’d be better off (price-wise) with Apple Music.  

Granted Spotify is the current leader in streaming music, I do not use their service. I used their service briefly when it was introduced, but I switched to Google Play Music. I switched because Google allowed me to import all my songs into their cloud storage locker for free. So now I subscribe to Google Play Music All Access (what a long and terrible name). I signed up after its introduction at Google's I/O developer conference in 2011. There are few but specific differences between Apple Music and Google Play Music. They both offer a streaming music component  and online music storage/ locker service. The differences start with the subscription rates: All Access comes in two versions - Standard (free) and All Access (paid). Users with free accounts can upload up to 50,000 songs at no cost and playback on devices ranging from PCs (Mac and Windows) to mobile devices (iOS and Android).

All Access subscription costs $9.99 per month and gives paid users access to on-demand streaming of any song in the Google Play Music library, the ability to create custom radio stations, offline music storage and playback and ad-free music video streaming from YouTube. Apple charges $9.99 per month for a single user and $14.99 for a family of 6 users. There is no real free tier on Apple Music. That said, "free" (after the 3-month free trial) gives you access to Beats 1and other ad-supported Apple Music radio stations with limited song skips. Unlike Google Play Music, Apple does not offer any free cloud storage. To store and access your music (25,000 tracks today, 1000,000 after iOS 9 launches in the Fall), you need to either be a subscriber to iTunes Match which will set you back $25 a year. Subscription to Apple Music will also give you access to music storage, though those songs will be DRM’s and as a result be unplayable, in the event you cancel your subscription.

For the most part, my experience with the All Access has been positive. That said, the experience on iOS has not been that great. The app crashes constantly and there are high bitrate playback issues. And there is also the inability to purchase tracks, though that is due to Apple’s 30% tariff on all in-app purchase transactions. So when Apple Music launched with iOS 8.4, I decided to give it a try.

For the first few weeks, I kept both Apple Music and All Access, but later decided to suspend the latter. Unfortunately, I was unable to suspend my subscription to All Access, because Google doesn't allow suspension of its All Access service. You have to cancel your subscription whenever you decide you no longer want to pay for the service. As a result, I lost the $2.00 discount I had when I signed up for the service early on in its life. This means that should I decide to go back to All Access, I will have to pay the regular rate of $9.99.

Okay, enough punditry. How good is Apple Music? Do I like it, and will I pay for the service after the free-trial ends? I do, and Iwill! I like it - a lot actually. So how can I be critical of many of its features and still like it? Simple. I have unbundled the services offered in Apple Music into individual, almost separate and standalone services. I use and enjoy each service individually for different and specific purposes. I barely use Beats , but when I do, I use it for music discovery. For my “radio” needs, I use Apple’s curated playlists and I create my own playlists based on the songs I like and listen to. When I discover a song or album I like, I simply add it to my music. I create playlists (rarely) from the songs I listen to and I add recommended playlists from Apple and other taste masters from within the app constantly.

 The sound quality is very good, even though its not “ lossless” like Tidal’s (Jay Z’s streaming music service) or even 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis like Spotify's. Apple Music is streamed at 256Kbps in AAC format. One might thing that the higher number might make Spotify look better, but in reality the two compression formats aren't directly comparable by bit-rate alone. And 256Kbps AAC means that you get great sound even if you do not have the now extinct Unlimited data plan on your carrier, only use your device on a fairly strong Wi-Fi network or subscribe to T-Mobile. And it doesn’t take up as much space on your device (I’m looking at you, 16GB iPhone).

I have discovered that using the services individually makes for a less confusing experience. Sure, disappearing songs, duplicate songs, inconsistent and confusing UI remain an issue, but those will be fixed soon enough with updates. Some of the issues are related to the fact that Apple built the Music app on top of or into iTunes, and over the past 15 years ever since they acquired SoundJam and converted it to iTunes, the application has seen several changes, some major and some minor. Over the years, as the application gained features, it also gained cruft and complexity. This has led several Apple luminaries to suggest that Apple “nuke” iTunes and do a complete re-write of the application, almost like what they did to iPhoto on the Mac. Maybe Apple will do something like that, or even break up the services into individual, stand-alone applications. Until such a time when this happens, I will use Apple Music, albeit as separate and individual services.

Apple Music is a multitude of services: live radio broadcast, algorithmic based music streaming service, a storage locker  for your music (that you've acquired over the years from purchases through iTunes et al, cd ripping, Napster), on-demand access to all the world's music (30 million plus songs: if your musical taste is vaguely mainstream) a social media service/ platform that offers a way for fans and musicians to connect, a SoundHound-like service that allows musicians small and big, to upload music and media for sale and to share. Today, it is only available on iOS devices and on Windows PCs (via iTunes). Other than the iPod Touch, the service is not compatible with any other iPod (more to come in a separate post). In the fall, it will be available on Android devices (as a replacement for Beats Music). It has new and innovative features, it has a fairly large music catalog, it has great sound quality and it is being offered at a great bargain, especially if you factor in the generous 3-month free-trial and the industry-first (and only?) 6-person $14.99 family subscription.

In the end, the service will succeed, not because its good, which it is, but it will succeed because it will come built in al  the hundred of millions of iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices that will ship in the upcoming years, not to mention the millions of iOS devices that will be updated to iOS 8.4 and beyond. I like it. I will continue to use it till the end of my free-trial and I am going to pay for it after the free-trial ends, and I think you should too. I guess that means I’m not resuming my All Access subscription then. 

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