In Apple’s glory years, Steve Jobs turned simplicity into an art form.
“Being focused means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that are out there,” he once said. “You have to pick carefully. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
It’s starting to seem as though Apple no longer abides by that religion. The first two major post-Jobs initiatives from Apple are powerful and important, but they’re also bogged down by too many features and a confusing design. First, there was the Apple Watch — and today, there is Apple Music.
It seems Apple has forgotten how to say “No.”
What is Apple Music? Well, how much time do you have?
In its simplest form, Apple Music is an updated app on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, and a new version of iTunes on Mac or Windows; in the fall, it will be available for Android (Apple’s first Android app ever). Spend enough time in this app, though, and you’ll find out that Apple Music is a confusing stew of components:
- A new, $10-a-month streaming-music service, like Spotify, Tidal, Rdio, Google Music, Deezer, Rhapsody, and others
- Free customized “radio stations,” based on bands or songs you like, much like Pandora
- An Internet radio station, BeatsOne (which is not customized to your tastes)
- A “channel” of promotional extras from certain bands
- Apple Match (upload the song files you own for streaming to all your Apple machines)
- iTunes — or, in other words, your existing collection of music downloads
The good news is that all of this works flawlessly on day one. And with 800 million iTunes account holders in its pocket, Apple has a good chance of making this service a success.
But whatever gifts Apple brings to the table by entering the subscription-music game, simplicity isn’t among them.
Here’s a closer look at each of Apple Music’s parts.
Apple’s streaming-music service costs $10 a month, the same as paid plans from Spotify, Tidal, Rdio, Google Play Music, Xbox Music, and Rhapsody. For that, you can listen to any band, album, or song in the Apple Music library — on demand, no ads. It’s not like listening to a radio station, where someone else is programming the music; you program the music.
It’s not like Apple’s traditional music store, either, where you pay $1 per download and you own the song forever. If you ever stop paying Apple the $10 a month, the music stops. You’re left with nothing but memories. (Spotify, by contrast, offers a free version of the service, with ads.)
It’s amazing that Apple is offering a streaming-music service at all. In many interviews, Steve Jobs made clear that he hated the idea of paying for music as a service. “We think subscriptions are the wrong path,” he said in 2003. “We think people want to buy their music on the Internet by buying downloads just like they bought LPs, just like they bought cassettes, just like they bought CDs. When you own your music, it never goes away.”
In any case, sure enough, here is Apple’s Spotify. You can tap the magnifying-glass icon in the corner of the app to search for any band, song, album, or genre.
Here’s the best part: You can tell Siri things like, “Play the top songs of 2005” or “Play some good running music” or “Play some Taylor Swift.” (Yes, Apple Music is the only streaming service that offers Taylor.)
These voice commands are worth their weight in gold; they get you to the music much faster than if you had to tap your way to what you want. But it may take you some time to master the wording Siri expects. If you say “Let me hear some Taylor Swift,” for example, Siri responds, “That may be beyond my abilities at the moment.”
Nor are you obligated to do all your music programming manually. As with Spotify and other services, Apple Music comes equipped with ready-made playlists, prepared by human editors, in all kinds of categories. There are sets of starter songs by various singers (“Intro to Sarah McLachlan”), playlists by genre and era, and playlists for specific activities like Waking Up, Running, Getting It On, and even Breaking Up.
Apple’s team of editors creates these playlists; you don’t see playlists created by your fellow music lovers. As a result, there are far fewer of them (playlists, not music lovers). You won’t find delightful, super-nichey, audience-created playlists like “Romantic guitar fireplace music” or “Broadway dance music,” as you do on Spotify.
And how does the app suggest playlists you’ll like? When you first sign up for the service, you’re shown dancing red circles bearing music-genre names. You’re supposed to tap the ones you like, double-tap the ones you really like, and hold your finger down on the ones you don’t like.
It’s a strange, complicated, space-eating design for something as simple as specifying your musical preferences, made unnecessarily difficult by the fact that these bubbles are moving.
By the way, whereas 43 million songs will remain available for purchase on the iTunes Store, Apple Music offers only 30 million songs — a far smaller collection. Among the missing: The Beatles. You can’t stream them.
Two things make Apple’s take on streaming particularly attractive, though. First, as on Google Play Music, you can freely mix the songs you’re renting with the music you actually own — in playlists of your own, for example. In fact, you can’t tell which tunes you own and which ones you’re renting.
You can even download songs that you don’t own for playback when you have no Internet connection (as long as you’re still paying your $10 a month). Nice.
Second, Apple offers a $15-a-month family plan that’s unusually generous. It lets six of you use the service simultaneously, wherever you happen to be in the world. (Spotify and Rdio, for example, offer 50 percent off each additional member’s fee. So for a family of six, that would cost you $35 a month.)
iTunes Radio, which Apple introduced in 2013, lives on in the new app — and it’s still free, even if you don’t subscribe to Apple Music.
The idea is the same: You choose a “seed” song or singer, and then you sit back and listen as Apple’s software robots play one song after another that sound like your seed.
Because it’s crammed in with so many other features, though, it’s much harder to figure out. How, for example, do you create a new radio station, since there’s no longer a big, square + button staring you in the face?
Well, you find and start playing the seed song first, then tap the ellipsis button (…) to pop up a menu, then you tap Start Station. Not exactly self-explanatory.
Apple has launched a “global, 24-hour Internet radio station” called Beats 1, which is a weird description. First, because what Internet radio station isn’t global? And second, Beats 1 actually broadcasts live for only 12 hours a day, then repeats.
Listening to this station, too, is free, even to nonpayers.
What’s different about Apple’s radio station is that it has live DJs who introduce songs and comment on the singers, just as on FM radio stations. On opening day, celebrity DJ Zane Lowe hosted the station for two hours. His knowledge, enthusiasm, and hybrid New Zealand accent make him a compelling host, although perhaps a bit too much of that enthusiasm goes to promoting Beats One itself.
“It’s incredible!” he exclaims as a Jack Garratt tune fades out. “How can you not—? Jack Garratt gets it, Chance the Rapper gets it, Beats One gets it, now all of you have a chance to get it. Incredible!”
And at another break:
“We played AC/DC in the first hour, in honor of the fact that the all-time-greatest rock band who ever did it — and are still doing it — have finally put their music up for streaming on Apple Music.”
Of course, you have no input on the style of music you hear on Beats One, and you can’t pause, rewind, fast forward, or save anything you hear for later listening. It’s old-style radio, offering the magic of serendipity.
In 2010, Apple launched a social network for music lovers called iTunes Ping. It flopped; Apple shut it down two years later.
Apple’s at it again with an Instagram-like tab in the new Music app called Connect. Here, bands that Apple thinks you’ll like (or that you choose manually) can promote themselves by posting songs, videos, and other material. You can Like these posts, share them, or comment on them. Mercifully, your comments come tagged with your actual name; perhaps these discussion areas won’t turn into cesspools of hate like so many others.
At the moment, there isn’t much on Connect; very few performers are creating material for it so far.
iTunes Match, which dates back to 2011, is a cloud-based version of your iTunes library, available to any of your Apple devices. For $25 a year, you can stream Apple’s copies of any song files you actually own — ripped from CDs or even acquired illegally. The advantages: First, you save a lot of space on your phone. Second, you can play them on any Apple gadget you own. Third, the versions Apple plays are often of higher quality than your originals.
iTunes Match continues as a separate service for non-Apple Music subscribers (and this fall, the song limit will grow from 25,000 to 100,000 songs; if your library is larger than that, you can’t use the service). But if you do subscribe to Apple Music, in effect you get iTunes Match automatically.
Your existing music collection — whatever you’ve got on the phone or tablet — is now crammed into a single tab in the Music app called My Music. You can still see and create playlists or sort your collection by band, album, song name, genre, and so on; you’ll just have to do so using a much tinier, more collapsible set of tools.
The Apple Music app is absolutely stuffed with features, controls, and interface. Even the submenus have submenus. For example, one of the tabs at the bottom of the screen is called New, but it may as well be called Leftovers. It’s lists of lists.
Scroll down long enough, and you’ll find lists like New Music, Hot Tracks, Recent Releases, Top Songs, Hot Albums, Discovered on Connect (what does that mean?), Apple Music Editors, Activities, Curators, Recommended Music Videos, Summertime Playlists, New Artists, Spotlight on Sia, Alternative Essentials, and so on.
Quick: What’s the difference between New Music, Hot Albums, and Recent Releases? How is a Hot Track different from a Top Song, exactly?
Apple Music: The Infinite Menu
If you’ve never used a streaming service before, you’re in for a mind-blowing treat. Suddenly, it seems, you own every CD in the world, all ready for instant play at your command, legally and ad-free, anywhere, anytime. Find a routine, learn the ropes, maybe get a Bluetooth wireless speaker system, and you’ve brought a delicious enhancement to your life.
But Apple Music could be called Apple Kitchen Sink. It offers every possible way for you to get your music: traditional radio stations (you have no control), Pandora-style radio stations (you have some control), and Spotify-style streaming (you have total control). You can buy your songs outright or pay a monthly fee to rent them. You can listen to some things for free and some for a fee. Some you can pause and fast-forward, some you can’t. You can construct playlists of your own or listen to playlists created by experts.
In other words, the new philosophy at Apple — “We’ll make you happy by giving you every conceivable option” — is a radical departure from the old one: “We’ll make you happy by keeping the feature list simple and carefully chosen.”
You could argue about whether the new philosophy is better or worse than the old one. It does mean, though, that Apple is joining the ranks of the Microsofts, Googles, and Samsungs of the world, the ones that believe more is always better.
In any case, Apple Music is yours to try for three months, no charge; the billing begins after that. The world of 30 million songs awaits you — vast, rich, and barely corralled by this teeming and ambitious app.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech, and — full disclosure! — author of the upcoming “OS X El Capitan: The Missing Manual.” On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. He welcomes nontoxic comments in the Comments below.