Apple’s imprint on the music industry is still being felt. iTunes helped change how the world consumed (and purchased) music, and it paved the way for CD aisles in superstores everywhere to vanish. In 2007, Steve Jobs famously pushed for the abolition of DRM, the software addition to music files that prevented ’em from being played universally across all devices. And then, a flurry of music streaming services splashed onto the scene while iTunes stood still.
Until now, that is. Just over a year after Apple acquired Beats Electronics for some $3 billion, Apple Music has launched. It’s a new service that attempts to wrap elements of iTunes, iTunes Match and iTunes Radio into a full-fledged music portal. It’s a little like Pandora, Spotify and Rdio, but is it any better? And is it worth switching to?
The Road to Here
I’ve been a proponent of music streaming services for years, but opted to skip the whole “digital music shopping” revolution that preceded the likes of Spotify and Pandora. When my only two options were to purchase a physical album or shop for the same album on iTunes, I’d choose the former. To me, there was little allure to buying digital. You miss out on the physical booklet, and a traditional album enabled me to rip the music precisely as I wanted and store it in a format that suited me. Essentially, the thought of buying songs on iTunes wasn’t a significant enough improvement over buying physical albums for me to switch.
Then came MOG. MOG was one of the first pure music streaming services, which allowed users to pony up $10 a month in order to stream nearly everything under the sun, create playlists and (vitally) store songs on one’s phone for offline playback. I went with MOG initially due to its integration with BMW Apps, but once it was acquired by Beats and effectively left for dead, I shifted to Spotify. (MOG had promised initial users a playlist migration tool to Beats’ competing streaming service, but when that failed to materialize, I jumped ship.)
I’m not alone. Spotify presently has over 75 million active users, with 20 million of those shelling out monthly for its premium features. I’ve been remarkably satisfied with Spotify, and maintain that its $10-per-month surcharge is well worth it. I’m able to test the waters on new albums and artists without paying extra, and I have an assortment of offline playlists that come in handy during flights and treks through America’s National Parks — places where mobile data is but a quaint notion.
The High Notes
Truthfully, Apple Music doesn’t offer much that isn’t already offered elsewhere. You can create your own playlists, save music offline (if you opt for the paid version), stream curated playlists and listen to genre-specific radio stations. In my time with the service, I have been intrigued by the playlists curated by actual humans (as opposed to algorithms), and have discovered a few new artists and songs that I suspect I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I’ve also enjoyed having playlists, genre-specific stations and Beats 1 radio within a single app. Given that I use an iPhone and Mac on a daily basis, the tight ecosystem integration is also a nice touch.
Beats 1 is perhaps the most unique feature of Apple Music. This is an Apple-designed-and-maintained radio station. As in, not just a continuous string of songs, but an honest-to-goodness radio station.
The aforementioned Beats 1 is perhaps the most unique feature of Apple Music. This is an Apple-designed-and-maintained radio station. As in, not just a continuous string of songs, but an honest-to-goodness radio station. The kind of thing that you used to listen to in the car through an FM radio. The kind of thing that many of today’s generation of children probably have little to no concept of.
It’s a valiant attempt to bring the charm and novelty of a hands-off radio station to today’s mobile audience, and there’s certainly twinges of nostalgia as you hear hosts talk about songs between breaks.
Finally, Apple Music offers a free three-month trial to everyone. You can opt for the Individual course ($9.99 per month) or the Family edition ($14.99 per month, supporting up to six devices). That’s a pretty generous trial, but it defaults to auto-renewal. Be sure to immediately visit your Account Settings once activated and flip that off unless you’re absolutely certain you’re going to stick with it.
Facing the Music
For as much as Apple Music tries to be, I found myself wondering if it wasn’t trying a bit too hard. And, arriving a bit too late. While the app’s interface is very Apple-y, it’s also tremendously busy. The “For You” screen has so many options that it’s tough to discern what’s actually tailored for me and what’s just sort-of, maybe for me. The “New” page seems to scroll on endlessly, and the “Connect” page feels like an unnecessary nod to Ping — a social network that Apple gave up on a few years ago. These days, I’m notified of updates from bands I care about using services that are already well ingrained: Twitter and Facebook. I suspect that most artists aren’t going to want to add yet another service to manage, and particularly not one that’s quite limited in reach due to the sparse amount of platforms it supports.
Speaking of platforms, it’s here where Apple Music really lost me. As a paying Spotify member, I’m able to dial up my playlists on my iPhone, my Mac, my Android tablet, my Sonos sound bar, my PlayStation 3, my pal’s Xbox, my Samsung HDTV and heaven knows what else. Spotify is as platform agnostic as they come, and because it behooves Spotify to be on as many platforms as possible, I’ve reason to believe that the company will continue porting itself to as many new devices as possible.
Why would I pay $10 a month to Apple for a platform that’s far, far less accessible than what I get from Spotify at the same price?
Apple Music, on the other hand, works on my iOS devices, my Mac and my Apple TV. An Android app is planned for release later this year, but I suspect that further expansion is unlikely. (For doubters, consider this: Apple still doesn’t include an Amazon Prime Instant Video app on Apple TV.) Why would I pay $10 a month to Apple for a platform that’s far, far less accessible than what I get from Spotify at the same price?
Back to Beats 1. It’s a streaming radio station, but because it’s completely managed elsewhere, you can’t actually skip songs. Which, as I soon found out, is incredibly annoying. Today’s music listeners are accustomed to being able to skip tracks that don’t suit them. We’re an on-demand society. This is why we’re willing to pay for Netflix and Hulu and are ditching programmed television en masse. Apple contends that being able to put a station on and leave it alone is a benefit, but I disagree. I’m now conditioned to hear music in the most efficient way possible, which includes the ability to skip a track as soon as I realize that it’s not for me. Sure, skipping tracks in a genre-specific playlist does indeed require a modicum of effort, but the payoff is obvious: less time wasted on tunes that don’t interest me.
Part of me hates to say it, but we’re beyond the point of appreciating a managed radio station. It’s 2015, and if you aren’t giving users the ability to instantly dictate what they’re listening to, you’re doing it wrong.
Granted, Apple’s genre-specific playlists do indeed include the ability to skip tracks, but this is no different than the likes of Spotify. To boot, Apple Music only streams at 256kbps, whereas most other premium services — Spotify included — stream at 320kbps. Most average citizens won’t notice the difference, but it’s not like Apple’s giving you a monthly break to accept a stream with less quality.
As of now, there’s no compelling reason to opt for Apple Music over Spotify.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the inability to share a playlist with the public. Part of Spotify’s magic has nothing to do with Spotify itself, but its users. Googling for playlists involving artists, decades, or genres will land you copious links of community-driven mixes. These are easy to generate, easy to share and easy to jump into from any platform. Many SiriusXM radio stations, for example, publish their most popular songs each week in the form of a Spotify playlist that can be grabbed by anyone. This practice simply isn’t supported on Apple Music.
A Little Flat
As of now, there’s no compelling reason to opt for Apple Music over Spotify. The interface is more convoluted, playlists are more restricted, the stream quality is lower, and there’s no pricing advantage to speak of. Yeah, Taylor Swift’s latest album is on Apple Music and not on Spotify, but let’s be honest — you’ll hear plenty of 1989 at all of the weddings you’ll crash this summer.
In all seriousness, your $10 a month goes much farther with Spotify, particularly if you take advantage of community-created playlists and you enjoy streaming your own playlists on a variety of devices that aren’t made by Apple. Moreover, Spotify’s iPhone and Mac apps are so well designed and tightly integrated that they feel as if they could’ve been built by Apple itself.
If Apple Music suddenly halved its monthly rate, I’d reconsider, but as of now it’s a track worth skipping.