Written by Chris Osifchin
Apple Music Set to Challenge Streaming Services the World Over
At long last, Apple’s entry into streaming music has arrived. I have to admit, I’ve always loved Pandora, but the ads feel intrusive at times and the format is quite similar to traditional radio. I’ve warmed to Spotify greatly in the last year or so, despite my reservations about the relatively low sums paid to artists for streams. The platform is quite easy to navigate, new releases are always easy to find (a boon for a budding music critic), and a simple search reveals almost any artist I can think of. It’s time to put Apple Music to the test.
Apple has almost always hit the mark when melding technology and the arts. The simple beauty of the early iPod and iTunes store gradually gave way to compelling, rich experiences that were imitated by many, but bested by none. It’s not surprise that the service looks and feels fantastic, smooth, and sleek. The navigation bar located at the top of the iTunes window is now heavily focused on Apple Music. The iTunes Store has its own button all the way to the right, My Music and Playlists are all the way on the right, and the four middle tabs are all Apple Music – For You, a recommendations pane, New, a pane similar to what you’ll see as the iTunes store homepage, or Spotify’s New Releases page, Radio, the home of Apple’s global radio station Beats 1, and Connect, a pane to follow bands and tastemakers. Overall, I like the organization. Simple and clean, as always.
The program introduces the user to the service by way of pink bubbles that hold the names of various genres. Pick as many genres as you’d like and then the bubbles return with names of artists in those genres. Do the same, and then Apple Music loads the For You section with recommendations. It’s cool, but also a bit perplexing. Why did the service guess that I liked disco? I don’t think I have even one disco song in my rather large collection of music saved in iTunes. The recommendations, however, were very good once I was able to see them. I liked this aspect of the service. The algorithm was much better at predicting what I would like than other streaming services.
The New section features a scrolling pane at the top and a section labeled Hot Tracks below that. I would prefer a section titled New to feature New Releases at the top, rather than music videos and singles, but iTunes has always been centered on single songs, rather than full length albums, so it fits with the company’s model to promote singles. Ads for playlists curated by Apple’s editors and tastemakers like Rolling Stone sit below, and New Releases (finally) sit below those. The section looks sleek and clean, but is a bit disorganized. Sections like New Music and Recent Releases sound very similar. Then there’s sections labeled Hot Tracks, Hot Albums, or Hot Playlists. It’s not completely clear what the criteria is for including a song in the Hot Tracks section over the Top Tracks section. An unusually busy and unorganized page, this is an area where Apple could benefit from a simplified approach.
While Apple Music provided a ton of different radio stations recommended for me, I listened to the much hyped “global” radio channel, Beats 1, to get a taste for Apple’s tastes. The station broadcasts from New York, Los Angeles and London and features live DJs. While personalization has been the name of the game in recent years, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who has been named as part of the braintrust behind Beats 1, wondered in a recent piece for the New York Times “if in today’s world there is still a place for monoculture. Can that still exist?” The idea could be revolutionary if it works. I have to admit, listening to DJs like Elton John play “music from unknown bands, so that you can hear them” on his show “The Rocket Hour” made me feel a little bit giddy. Yes, broadcast radio still exists in its native form, but the days of a cultural literacy that everyone shares have been waning. The story this painted in my mind felt similar to the ones told by the elder statesmen of rock and roll – listening to Alan Freed late at night, surrendering to the DJ, to the tastemaker playing these magical, surreal tunes from this unknown place.
It all felt new, exciting and different. There was an energy among all the DJs that was infectious. As the world integrates and blends due to the confluence of technology, the best thing Apple can do with this platform is use it to discover and back lesser known artists and DJs from around the world. If it’s limited to New York, Los Angeles and London, there might not be enough diversity to let the platform truly shine. The momentum of this launch is unmistakable, though, and should be enough to sustain the platform for the at least the remainder of 2015.
The final feature of Apple Music, Connect, turned out to be a little underwhelming. Maybe there aren’t many artists opted into the Connect feature yet, but the majority of Apple’s recommendations for me to follow were rappers. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the biggest fan of rap or hip-hop, but with the way the For You section worked, I assumed that there would be a large selection of my favorite rock artists to choose from. This was not the case, though I was able to find some of them eventually. The feature seems like it still has some kinks to work out, as I couldn’t view any posts from any of the artists I followed in the Connect pane. This is one portion of the service that probably could’ve (and maybe should’ve) been left out. By dipping their toes in social media, Apple is adding just another page for artists to manage. It would make more sense for the company to stick to what it knows best – getting the music to the people in rich and engaging ways.
The question now rears its head – is it too late for Apple to compete in this market? Spotify owns a huge chunk of the streaming services, but Apple has presented a true competitor with Apple Music. While it is not perfect, Apple’s streaming service was mostly well-organized and easy to navigate. It was as easy to find any song I wanted to listen to, even some strange ones by the likes of Captain Beefheart, as it is on other streaming platforms. The true differentiator for Apple is its Beats 1 radio station. If the station can capitalize on a truly global market, not only will it be a boon for the company in attracting listeners and tastemakers from all across this floating rock, but it will also attract advertisers – big names looking for big reach. Apple Music is gaining momentum, and while it remains to be seen if the platform will truly be a success, it is definitely roaring out of the gate.