(Courtesy of Apple)
This week Apple launched a new subscription-based streaming service named Apple Music. For $10 a month you’ll be able to stream any of the 26 million songs on iTunes and store them locally in your music library, so you can listen to them without an Internet connection. You’ll also be able to access playlists curated by real artists and other human beings, and listen to the Beats 1 radio station. For $15 a month you can share your subscription with up to five family members.
And to give you plenty of time to test out Apple Music, the company is letting iOS users try it free for their first three months, starting June 30. (An Android version will be available this fall.)
Is it any good? On Monday, I got an opportunity to play with the much-anticipated app in a shadowy room in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Though 30 minutes was by no means enough time to make or break my opinion of the service, I can say this: Apple Music isn’t unique enough to draw people away from its already well-established competitors. At the most, it’ll be a welcome enhancement for those who are holding on to their existing iTunes libraries for dear life.
Siri, play me a tune
The advantage to a phone manufacturer making its own custom music-streaming service is that it can integrate some nifty existing features into the mix, like Siri.
During the keynote presentation, we saw Apple VP Eddy Cue ask Siri to play the top song from 1982. A few seconds later, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” blared from the stage.
In practice, that feature mostly holds up. Though Siri stumbled when I asked for the top song from 1988, she was able to handle a few other questions, even when I didn’t give her specifics. I asked her to “play that song from that one Whitney Houston movie” (The Bodyguard), and she automatically brought up “I Will Always Love You.” When I asked for the top pop songs today, she gave me a playlist based on the iTunes Charts.
Either way, the Siri integration is a convenient feature. Searching for songs in music libraries can sometimes be arduous, especially if you don’t remember anything but the lyrics or that it was really popular in the summer of ’85. Honestly, this is one of the only real competitive advantages Apple Music has over other streaming services like Spotify and Rdio.
It’s all for you
As expected, Apple relied heavily on Beats’ existing app to determine your musical preferences. When you launch Apple Music, you arrive at a section named For You. Here a bunch of deep pink bubbles pops up, each branded with a different genre of music like “Jazz” or “Electronic.” You can tap a few or a lot, and then move on. Based on what you choose, another set of bubbles will populate before you, this time with artists from each of the categories you selected. Choose a couple of those, and that’s all Apple Music will need to start making recommendations.
(Photo: Deanne Fitzmaurice)
The For You page is filled with recommendations based on different genres with names like Apple Music Alternative, Apple Music Hip-Hop, and even Apple Musica Tropical. These stations are curated by actual human beings. You can tap on the play button to preview the playlist, or simply tap on the image and it’ll show you what songs it contains. The next tab at the bottom of the app, called New, alerts you to the latest releases from the musicians you’ve said you’re into. It’ll also likely exist as a platform to promote Apple-approved artists, as the company has done in the past.
The app has collections of playlists in every nook and cranny. Some of them are even based on activities, like exercising, cooking, or studying. But this is by no means new. In fact, Spotify just announced a feature that matches the music you’re listening to to the tempo of your run. Other services, like Songza, use the time of day and even the weather to determine what music is best to listen to.
Unlike Spotify, which has a very uniform look, Apple Music’s interface is dictated by the constantly updated content it plans to generate. Each playlist is its own separately designed entity, and as a result it’s a little busy. Very un-Apple, considering designer Jony Ive is known for his extreme minimalism.
When it comes to Beats 1 Radio, a 24/7 music station DJ’d by people around the country, I’m not impressed. Did anyone ask for old-school radio stations in a music library? Are these stations really worth listening to over, say, poking around on SoundCloud or Mixcloud? There’s a reason that Internet radio doesn’t have DJs narrating every song they play — it’s sort of pointless.
Anyway, this feature doesn’t seem like it’s up and running quite yet. When I tried to listen, it gave me the same audio that we heard onstage. So we’ll have to wait and see if it is indeed as special as Jimmy Iovine seems to think it is.
Connect with artists
The Connect feature, thoroughly endorsed during the Apple keynote by Drizzy, is a platform for artists to share snippets of their artistic process and glamorous lives with fans.
For instance, weirdo goddess FKA Twigs can post a video of a dance rehearsal, and anyone following her will be able to watch it. That stuff doesn’t have to be associated with new music, either. More established musicians can dig up song lyrics or photos from the past and tag them to specific albums. So when you search for say, an old Nine Inch Nails record, something from the early ’90s that Trent Reznor found and posted will pop up, too. The whole thing sounds a lot like the business plan for Jay Z’s Tidal Music, which has some of the biggest Top 40 artists on board today, and pretty much relies on exclusive music content to attract subscribers. Good luck with star power on this one, Apple.
This is also where artists will curate their own playlists. In practice I imagine it will be more like artists asking their assistants to curate playlists for them. Beyoncé’s got better things to do with her time.
Anyway, because this feature is still in the works, the only person of note who’s actually made a playlist is Pharrell, who also happens to be one of Cue’s favorite artists (sorry, Pharrell). Curating playlists and recommending songs already exists in certain forms via Spotify and SoundCloud artist profiles. So in reality, this is not very new.
Ultimately, the success of this feature really depends on which big-name stars Apple can persuade to participate. And considering that larger-than-life artists like Taylor Swift have made their names by posting photos, videos, notes, and music on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, a mass migration to Connect seems highly unlikely. I bet U2 will do it, though.