For those new to me as a personality: alongside my love of fine art, design, and technology, I am an avid fan of music. I don’t care for genres, but I do have a penchant for intention, creativity, and connection. Besides recommending songs to friends and arranging playlists, I’ve hosted a music podcast and am a moderator for Genius, a multimedia annotation platform originally intended for explaining lyrics. Recently, we’ve seen the release of Apple Music, a service that aims to take the best of music streaming services, add a worldwide radio station and an easy social platform for artists, and integrate it all with Apple’s already existing infrastructure. Considering that services like Rdio, Pandora, and Spotify have been around for ages, it seems as if Apple arrived a bit late for this opportunity, yet this is not the first time they’ve entered a crowded marketplace and came out victorious.
Considering how I tend to rant about what I love, and that I mainly focus on Apple products due to their strict focus on the user experience, I have been asked for guidance on how to best use Apple Music, and to provide an opinion on how it compares to Spotify, specifically, since many of their features run parallel to each other. For this post I will be focusing on one particular aspect of both services: music discovery. I have a lot of thoughts on the details of these services, but in general:
Relevancy is king. The more relevant to my habits the options for discovering music are, the more likely I am to keep using them.
Those habits include reliable sources: Pitchfork has generally met my interests of taste, as does The Needle Drop’s YouTube channel and podcasts like NPR’s All Songs Considered and Sound Opinions; and interactive means like Shazam or all sorts of music-related apps. With this in mind, I’ll start by discussing Spotify’s options and how my current library factors in.
My music library consists of over 25,000 songs. I am a regular subscriber of iTunes Match, which lets my entire music library live “in the cloud” and ensures that my library is a 1:1 match on all of my Apple devices.
This information is important context because this means that I already have a huge library of music that doesn’t waste room on my computer. This also means that Spotify is unable to reference my collection since it can not connect to iTunes Match and there is nothing stored locally on my Mac. There are services that will allow me to convert my iTunes playlists to Spotify, four of which are endorsed by Spotify themselves, however all attempts at this failed. Either the services were down, were not updated to run with Spotify’s current version, required a file format I couldn’t supply (exporting to .m3u will not work because .m3u’s reference file locations which don’t exist with iTunes Match), and other problems pertaining to using middle-man web technologies. I even got a message from one service saying my library was too large. This being the case, any service that can properly suggest new music to me is inherently at a disadvantage since they don’t get the full scale of my listening habits, and I’m not exactly keen on switching to a new platform which forces me to start from scratch again.
Despite all of this, however, I have used Spotify on and off for years just to listen to music on demand, and I have connected it with last.fm which has a huge amount of data on my listening habits since 2004, so it does know something about me after all that time to the point which I feel comfortable using it for the purpose of this post. It bears repeating, though, that a disadvantage for Spotify is the inability to connect seamlessly to where my music truly lives. Clearly, this is Apple’s fault for making my library mostly inaccessible with anything third-party, but it is possible to execute some clever finagling to make it work if you’re in a similar situation.
Another disadvantage for Spotify: I’ll be perfectly honest, I did not even know Discover existed until it was mentioned by a friend — that’s terrible considering I’ve used Spotify plenty of times — though a reason for this is because I generally avoid “Browse” sections of any music service. When I walk into a record store I am looking for specific titles because I have already done my research. I don’t go buying whatever the store suggests (why do stores bother with this? You are there to take my money; don’t try to act like a friend), I don’t browse by cover, I don’t browse by genre; matter of fact, I don’t browse at all. This perfectly equates to the Browse of Spotify. When I open the application, I either want to listen to something I already know or something that’s been reviewed positively and has gotten good press. I justify all of this with practicality. Life’s too short and I don’t want to waste my time with just anything, especially new music that doesn’t gel with my taste at the moment.
So, with all of this in mind, and having a first-time perspective on this feature, here is what I observed:
What Spotify seems to do is give me generalizations such as, “You listened to Bonnie Raitt, therefore you should listen to this…” Yes, I did indeed listen to Bonnie Raitt recently, but not her older work of the 60s and 70s. I went right for the Nick of Time/Luck of the Draw era music, which I would consider more pop music than blues. So why am I being recommended old Rickie Lee Jones, J.J. Cale, and Leon Russell? These aren’t bad album choices, but they clearly saw the “who” of what I listened to and not the “why.” I also listened to early Suzanne Vega, Stevie Nicks and The Bangles; couldn’t this have factored in somehow? Also, take a look at my “Top Recommendations for You.”
I’ve heard of the bookend albums, for sure, but I have never heard of the middle four. What is my interest in listening to them? ZERO. The design of the interface here does not help to entice me. The text seems so arbitrarily placed, and what is it telling me? All I see is an artist and an album name. No genre, no year of release. Do you think I’m being too picky? Should this information matter? I believe it does matter; as a practical music enthusiast, I need context before I devote my time to a collection of songs. The more information, the better, in as small a space as possible. It’s clear they didn’t even try here.
In all, the main problem is there seems to be no real correlation between the data Spotify has on me and the suggestions it makes, and this may well be because an algorithm is doing all the work. Will your average casual listener blink an eye at this problem? No, they certainly won’t, but I shouldn’t have to feel as if I can’t make use of a section because I am the more informed participant.
I’d rather a service call me stupid and insult my taste than be irrelevant. That’s why I haven’t invested in these services before.
Don’t Tell Me What to Do
The Discover section of Spotify may have left me underwhelmed, but there is more to this Browse area to explore, so let’s take a step back and look at the Overview section:
The first thing that greets you here is, well, an ad, but besides that are suggested playlists. Many, many things here bother the crap out of me. First of all, I am weary of any service that uses arbitrary text in an effort to entice me. “Make it a perfect day?” That’s the best you can do? As relaxing as it sounds, a perfect day does not consist of me sitting at my computer listening to music all day, and trust me, that’s what most of us are doing because the mobile experience of Spotify has a lot to be desired.
Here’s another issue. Tell me, in full honesty, if you are enticed by this image. Do you feel compelled to listen to any of these playlists? I am using every ounce of my power to not be sarcastic about this and exclaim how excited I am to see what songs lie beneath this stock image of a girl leaning back with her feet through a railing, which is somehow related to “Afternoon Acoustic.” What does this image have to do with the music? I want to meet the person responsible for picking out an image for every single playlist they make. That has to be one boring job.
Why is this even being suggested to me? I’m looking at the playlist and I have absolutely no interest in John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, Hozier or Jason Mraz, amongst all these other names I’ve never heard of before. The fact of the matter is that I’m using you, Spotify, to find music I want to listen to, as are most people. The first thing I should see when I open you up is what I want to listen to, or where I left off from the last time I used you, not this irrelevant Browse section with its asinine Overview.
I say it again, a service based on catering to my experience should never be irrelevant.
I won’t even get into the Charts, Genres and New Releases section because I don’t discover music through trial and error anymore. I will, however, change my tone and give credit to the service for doing a couple of important things right.
As Fast as Thought
Searching is incredibly quick and incredibly easy. Like I said before, I want to hop in, find what I want, start listening, and that’s it. No matter where you are in Spotify, the search bar is always up there, and no matter where you enter it, you’ll get the result you want. That worked brilliantly when I heard Sufjan Stevens released an album this year that was highly acclaimed. Without thinking I jumped into Spotify, popped “Sufjan” into the search bar, and bam:
That’s fantastic. I didn’t have to think in any part of this process, which I feel is the real definition of “intuitive.”
One last feature that is a huge advantage with Spotify in terms of music discovery: the friends list. I absolutely adore this feature. People influence people, always have and always will, and if you hook Spotify up to Facebook you quickly get to see who of your friends is listening to what at that moment. It also constantly updates so you always know the exact moment someone listens to something new. I have used this a countless amount of times just to get a better sense of what my friends are listening to. I love talking about music and recommending songs to people, and when I see a friend listening to an artist that I love, I feel compelled to share something they might enjoy. I do it as a friendly gesture, and it has led to some incredible conversations and some really good suggestions on both sides. The messaging interface is quick to adapt to, and you can very easily see if the person has listened to your suggestion or not. Granted, I am not the easiest person to entice in this manner, but as a sharer, it’s on point.
Spotify: in Summary
Spotify will always be king in regards to getting you to the music you want to hear quickly and easily. It’s also got a killer feature to allow your friends to influence your listening habits. When it comes to using your data to recommend what you should listen to, however, it just does not go deep enough, and if it’s gonna take all this precious information and sell it to the highest bidder, it might as well use that money to build a better algorithm.
So now it’s Apple’s turn to enter the music streaming arena. The Needle Drop’s Anthony Fantano predicts that Apple Music will be the last major music streaming service to enter the marketplace. I generally agree with him on this one, even if it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many tech fans who believe it to be too little, too late. Let’s also consider that there have been so many purchases made to accomplish what has become Apple Music, all starting with CD trading/streaming service Lala in 2009, and culminating in 2014’s purchase of Beats Music.
Whets your appetite, doesn’t it; a large company buying up technologies and starting the marathon years behind everybody else? In a situation like this, I would absolutely be throwing my fist in the air, crying foul and boycotting the service as it is an obvious plea for relevancy. However, I don’t do that here. Call me Apple fanboy sheeple, but at the end of the day iOS 8.4 put this service on my phone, so I would be stupid to ignore it.
Besides installing itself in a software update, what’s another reason I don’t care about Apple being tardy to the party? Mainly the big reason why I stick with Apple even after leaving the company: integration. A big problem I had with Spotify was the lack of support for my existing library (again, not their fault, but still their disadvantage). Obviously Apple Music and iTunes Match are going to cooperate, but I did not anticipate how well it would integrate. My songs list has not changed in iTunes. Everything is as it was set, but now with a new column: the heart. This symbol is the key to Apple Music understanding your musical taste. I, thankfully, have taken the time to rate the music in my collection, so it took me no time to filter the songs to the best ones and mark them all with the heart. With that set, and after going through the initial setup of picking out my favorite genres and artists (which still seems arbitrary considering I could just heart whatever was in my library), I was ready to participate in Apple’s system for music discovery.
Better Than I Know Myself
Owning mostly Apple products, participating in most Apple services, and working eight years for Apple as a personal trainer didn’t alleviate my skepticism on how Apple could handle my taste in music considering Pandora, Spotify, even last.fm didn’t seem to “get” me at all. All these services want me to be very cut and dried. If I like Johnny Cash, I’m going to love Patsy Cline. If I like Taylor Swift, then I’m going to love Selena Gomez. Not only is that way too easy, but that’s incredibly insulting. More and more generations of music lovers are closing the gap between genres even as new genres are sprouting, and acting closed-minded is not going to work with me.
Having said all this, I am astounded by how successful Apple Music’s “For You” has been.
This is a little cluttered, but that initial hiccup doesn’t sidestep the fact that these selections are perfect! Every time I have opened up “For You” I have been astounded by how well they have picked not just albums I have heard and loved, but also recommending albums that fit right in line with my tastes, in conjunction with playlists that contain songs from albums I adore. No, I don’t play everything suggested here, but I certainly feel more compelled to try them!
Just look at how they handle playlists. No stupid stock photography, just the albums contained in this playlist with a small blurb providing the proper context. In comparing this section of Apple Music to the other platform, an analogy immediately came to mind:
Spotify treats music like beer advertising; it’s all about the attitude because the beer tastes like crap. The amount of respect Apple Music has for its content is apparent in every part of the service.
You also have to take into account how well the spotlight albums are selected. In that list there is jazz, alternative, dance, and electronic music. Sure, the genres are generalized, but that’s all I need to get a sense of what I’m about to jump into. It also intersperses new albums with ones I already adore. This may be a way of tricking me into thinking these albums work well together, or to guide me towards something new by placing it next to something amazing, as if to say “we understand, we think this album is amazing, too, and this other album is also amazing…” The consequence of this is the feeling that the music I love and the music I might try are not completely separate ideas. Instead, it’s music I love next to music I’m going to love. That’s brilliantly devious.
Another astounding feat here is that I know all of the albums suggested. I’ve seem them mentioned before as being amazing, or at least notable in various places. This isn’t merely a list of acts that match a genre with a high rating; they’re placed there because I’ve listened to a combination of artists that would most likely mean I would appreciate these as well. It is way more evident here that my tastes have attention paid to them, and that iTunes knows what I haven’t heard before, and uses that amalgamation of information to create a stellar list of suggestions. This alone could be all I need in terms of discovering music, but there’s more.
Return of the Stock
The New section of Apple Music would be just as pointless to me as the Charts, Genres and New Releases section of Spotify if it wasn’t for one nice touch:
All right, I hear it now, go ahead and insult me for not complaining about the stock photography. At least these images don’t change every couple of hours and represent songs that have nothing to do with them.
That wasn’t even the section I wanted to focus on. It’s the Curator Playlists that grabbed my attention. Browsing through here is a treat because while For You may suggest playlists made mostly by Apple Music staff, Curator Playlists are made by sources who have been acting as tastemakers for years. I am generally enjoying Pitchfork’s collection, and I’m hoping this becomes a serious outlet for professional tastemakers. It still seems like a rather downplayed feature, but I hope it gains traction and stays well-maintained, because I would not mind having all of my music blogs — the place where I tend to discover a lot of good new music — maintaining their playlists here, in the same place where I listen to everything else. Big potential for relevancy points here.
The Beats Go On
For the longest time I didn’t listen to terrestrial radio. There are many reasons for this: annoying radio personalities, terrible ads, modern-day payola tactics, and the same annoying songs over and over and over again. Discovering NPR stations alleviated some of my resistance to radio by playing more cutting-edge material, but I wasn’t tempted to listen to it once I was anywhere outside of my car.
Here comes Beats 1, a 24-hour radio station that claims to follow the genre of “great.” That alone got me interested. It also helped that within the first week, St. Vincent, Disclosure, Q-Tip and Run the Jewels had their own shows. Apart from all of that, Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga are a delight. I generally find myself wanting to listen to them because they are terrific personalities and they all come to the station with ideas that play with this limitless format. Beats 1 is a bit of an experiment, and while there are technical glitches and failures, they always stay focused on their number one goal: playing great music. I have discovered at least three artists from each DJ after maybe a day’s worth of listening, and I appreciate having the ability to see their setlists shortly after they air so I can listen to the tracks I may have missed when I wasn’t listening. The fact of the matter is that Beats 1 feels completely in tune with the Apple Music experience, and I am glad to have it become another reliable resource for discovering music.
Leaving a Sour Taste
Now, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the service. There are still plenty of bugs to work out (sharing a self-built playlist resulted in all but one song publishing and wiping out the rest… thankfully I had a backup to build from and it looks good now; check it out: A Mixture of The Books), some of the sections seem haphazard or don’t work at all, and you can clearly see places where improvements will need to be made. Here are some examples of that and some confusing parts that need clarification:
I Think I’ve Found What I’m Looking For… I Think…
Forget using Siri with Apple Music. Unless you want the Top 25 Billboard chart or listen to artists with names like “Tom Jones,” her interpretation of your music is like a kindergartner reading the Oxford English Dictionary. She knows the words but just never seems to get it right. It’s also at this point where I have to mention that I think Apple Music may not be integrated enough for my tastes. Take a look at what greets you when you go to perform a search.
Why is this a choice? I’m probably adding a bunch of stuff each day, so I’m not going to remember what’s actually in my list and what isn’t. If I’m subscribing to your service, then the whole point is for everything to feel unified. So, I shouldn’t need to make this choice. Instead, give me all the results and separate them into two lists. How hard is that?
While we’re on the topic of integration consider that at the same time some things might be too integrated; the iTunes Store is still available here. There’s no better way to explain this, but I feel weird having signed up for a subscription service to play whatever song I want, yet still have links all over the place to buy the song in iTunes. Didn’t I subscribe to Apple Music so I didn’t have to buy anything? And how come an album’s page in Apple Music is different from their page in the iTunes Store? Look at the two screenshots below and tell me if you feel there needed to be two different interfaces for these. Why couldn’t these two be combined to make one experience?
At the risk of falling into a rathole, all of these gripes comes back to an argument that pops up year after year after year:
iTunes is bloated.
It’s a point of contention with Apple fans, even with me, because while I can justify the capabilities of the app and continue to defend its incredible databasing power, it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s handling way too many kinds of media with nuances that don’t exactly coincide smoothly. So, integration with the music app on the phone makes sense, but integration into iTunes on the computer just complicates things further.
I digress, let’s get back on topic regarding discovering new music.
Missed Social Opportunities
There are two essential parts of Spotify that Apple Music could have adopted, didn’t, and probably should consider adding; however there’s one major disappointment that needs to be addressed first. While Connect tries desperately to act like a Twitter stream in a clunky interface, that’s mostly it when it comes to a social experience in Apple Music. I tend to see Apple’s take on free speech matching that of Nintendo’s. When you play a game on a Nintendo system that has multiplayer capabilities, you are not supplied with the means to communicate past three preset options which are things like “Way to go!” or “Better luck next time.” It’s that kind of Stepford-wife banality that just dampens the experience.
While you are able to comment freely on any post in “Connect,” you get the sole sensation that you’re just shouting at a brick wall.
The first much-missed feature of Spotify is the friends list. I have absolutely no way of seeing what someone is listening to besides going to Facebook or Twitter where someone shared a playlist they found or made themselves on Apple Music. The image that comes up from sharing a playlist isn’t exactly all that attractive, either.
That’s it? Are you serious? This looks exactly like 1984. I can’t communicate with anyone on Apple Music, either, which makes the experience feel very secluded. I guess it might not be a bad thing to leave this feature out of an already bloated app, considering that I can hop over to Facebook and message somebody, or just send a text or whatever else, but it would help in making my music experience feel more unified if it could all be done in one place. I know this is possible, too, because if you look closely at Apple’s other applications, they’ve done this strikingly well before. iPhoto and Aperture had the capability to link your comments and likes from Facebook into their own panel in those apps… so why is that not a feature here?
The other missing piece relates to user-made content. Let me be clear about one thing first: while the search process initially seems confusing, the search results are actually well organized, even better organized than the results from the iTunes Store (I’ve seen more organization in the foot traffic of Grand Central Terminal). When you go to search for an artist, the playlists in which they appear have their own section. This is a terrific way to discover music. However, the only curators who appear in this list are the Apple Music teams and the featured curators mentioned earlier, while user-created playlists are nowhere to be found. While I’m not exactly upset over this, I wouldn’t mind having the ability to see my friend’s profile and view what they’ve contributed to the service, whether it be a playlist or a comment on something in Connect. It would also be nice if I could create something for Apple Music and share it with my friends without having to be an artist.
My point is if you’re going to let me choose a username, then give me a good reason to have one.
Though I’m always hesitant to discuss price because, really, the benefits have to justify the price rather than vice versa, there’s a huge problem to consider if you take the free route with Apple Music. Spotify has a terrific library. Not as much as iTunes, but enough to keep most satisfied for no charge. You deal with ads, and you won’t bother using it on your phone (it’s simply infuriating), but otherwise you get a nice collection of music to listen to on your computer, on demand, with a good social experience. With Apple Music, if you don’t pay for it, the only thing you’re going to get is Beats 1 radio and the rest of the radio stations with ads and limited skipping (unless you have iTunes Match, then the ads go away). That’s it. The custom tailored “For You” is gone, the access to the iTunes library is gone, and you’re stuck with Connect, which really needs to step up its game.
Apple Music: In Summary
There may be missed opportunities to make Apple Music a true all-encompassing solution to digital music, but it hits hard where it has to, and that is with seamlessly integrating with existing libraries, making absolutely solid suggestions, and providing many different ways to encounter and create excitement for new music.
If you don’t pay for it, though, you might as well stick with Spotify.
Both Spotify and Apple Music have a price tag of $9.99/mo (with family plan options as well). I would absolutely recommend giving the Apple Music trial a shot, and I think you’ll agree it has the power to reinvigorate your love of music. If you are hugely adverse to paying the monthly charge, even after seeing what Apple Music can do, then Spotify is the no-brainer. Either way, don’t pay for Spotify, and don’t trust Apple Music to do anything good for free. This is a very well strategized balancing act which will let Apple survive in the marketplace for a while, and if they can expand it right, they’ll ultimately win again. Game on, Spotify.