At the end of my 3 month trial of Apple's new streaming service (Apple Music) I've now to decide whether to commit £10 a month.
I’m going to focus here on my experience of Apple Music’s implementation on desktop iTunes. Some of the features I mention may be better / worse / missing on iOS. My phone listening is almost exclusively to podcasts so I’ve hardly touched the iOS Music app.
First though - a preamble on my thoughts on streaming before Apple Music came along:
The Streaming / Ownership Dilemma
My views on streaming vs ownership have changed a lot over the years.
I remain uncomfortable that artists I want to support get significantly less money when I don't buy their music outright, but streaming's appeal has eventually won me over.
Before, I'd buy albums on the strength of a couple of singles. Often, I'd buy albums on the strength of that artist's previous albums. I'd often buy 2 or 3 a week. It's easy to see now that a lot of money was spent on music I didn't like that much, albums I'd be unlikely to listen to more than twice.
Streaming eliminates that risk. It doesn't feel as good as buying and nothing quite beats the excitement of holding a physical unheard album before playing it, but over time I've come to accept the trade off. It allows me to experiment, to discover, and take my mood anywhere it wants to go far more than buying a load of albums ever did.
I still buy music but I'm limiting it now to albums I find indispensable, that I would hate to lose if the artists did a Prince or Taylor Swift and pulled them from a service. I'm supporting the artists I want to this way and there will always be my insta-buys from some of the greatest artists to ever record popular music.
I used Spotify for a bit but it aggravated me. The UI is horrible and the focus on playlists just doesn't work for me.
Until Apple Music, Rdio has been my streaming service of choice. Although the desktop app is little more than a webview in a wrapper I like the simple UI.
It’s great at showing me new content but is hopeless at library or playlist management. You cannot bulk delete songs from playlists! Any attempt at 'library' management highlights that I'm dealing with a web service rather than a native database.
I’ve been using Rdio for discovery and iTunes for a library and it’s too much ‘work’. Using two services is irritating.
The promise of Apple Music is to relieve this. I can finally bring everything together. Having streaming tracks, purchased songs, old cd rips and bootleg live recordings 'all in one place' is excellent.
If it works.
Here are my thoughts on the last 3 months:
Onboarding process treats me like I’ve never used an Apple product before
When you start you get this bubbly interface where you have to select genres and then pick some artists. The latter list is pretty vanilla as far as I can tell. I couldn’t get it to show me anything like my favourite bands and I was forced to choose a bunch that I like but which are nowhere near my favourites. I ended up picking Pixies and Pet Shop Boys as they are from genres I like.
This is what the old Beats app used and it looks like nothing has changed.
What’s ridiculous about this business is doing it on desktop iTunes, an app with 10 years of play counts. This data can judge my taste and how it has evolved over a decade better than my memory. Apple Music seems to ignore it.
If this is an Apple privacy thing, I don’t care. Show a button where I give you permission to look at it. Use that data. Come up with some suggestions of new things from it.
Apple could take my listening data from last.fm and they would have my Spotify / Rdio history too. Apple doesn’t like to acknowledge that other services exist so I’m not expecting this bit but really, ignoring my iTunes library seems bizarre.
'My Music' and its full Apple Music integration as 'iCloud Music Library' is Apple's USP, the most noticeable implementation of the All of your music in one place bit.
There are aspects that pleasantly surprise me such as being able to adjust my local metadata on streaming tracks. It’s still very glitchy though.
The beachballs in Artists view when adding or deleting are maddening but I've got used to it with iTunes Match so it's nothing new. It seems to function a lot better in albums or songs view to be fair, better than it's been for some time.
My biggest issue with the Apple Music addition to iTunes is how it handles pre-releases.
The new CHVRCHES album was listed on Apple Music several weeks before its release last Friday. I added it to my library and other than 3 songs available as album teasers, the tracks were ‘greyed out’ pending release as you’d expect.
The problem came on release day. Nothing happened.
Searching for the album in ‘New’ showed all tracks were available yet they weren’t added to my library. They still showed an iCloud status of ‘Waiting’.
Forcing an ‘Update iCloud Music Library’ from the File Menu did nothing either.
I had to delete the ‘Waiting’ tracks from my library and manually add them again to get them available there.
This has been a consistent experience throughout the last 3 months. I’d estimate that ‘Waiting’ tracks updated automatically only 5% of the time.
It should happen immediately the songs are available in Apple Music. I should also have a notification about it.
(My partial workaround for the lack of notification is to have a smart playlist of recently added and unplayed tracks - so I can see if anything I’ve pre-“ordered” is now out. Again, this is frsutrating ‘work’ for me to do (and it’s no use if the tracks are still showing as ‘Waiting’)).
The 25,000 Song Limit
The iCloud Music Library limits you to 25,000 tracks. CD rips, Apple Music streaming tracks and iTunes Match songs all count towards this limit, the only songs that don’t are those purchased from the iTunes store.
I’ve a shed load of albums including bootleg recordings and I easily exceed this so I have another smart playlist based on iCloud status, so I can see when I’m near to hitting the 25k limit. I have to remove tracks and maintain a separate hard drive of non-library songs. That’s a pain.
In June, Apple’s Eddy Cue said he was looking to increase the limit to 100,000 for iOS 9 but this hasn’t materialised in the recent release of this OS.
It absolutely needs to for me to be content with a manageable library.
I’m trying to educate the service on my tastes as it recommends by ‘loving’ tracks as I listen but I’m not convinced that Apple Music is paying attention to this.
People I follow on Twitter are surfacing more interesting music than this supposedly tailored service.
For You - Albums
The suggested albums are pretty good but just not adventurous enough for me.
Also, this oddness:
It’s jarring to see - it would only be justified if there was a ‘Here’s some albums from your library you haven’t played for a while’ row. That would be useful.
For You - Playlists
Although I quite like the artist playlists I don’t think they’re particularly eclectic or daring. It’s certainly not recommending many (if any) artists I’m not familiar with. I really want this to improve.
The curated various artist playlists are excellent though. I’ll give them that. You can tell they’ve been put together by humans and I enjoy them far more than I thought I would. I much prefer listening to artist albums but these work.
I'm very envious of the people who get to work on this curation. That would be my dream job.
What is ridiculous though is, guess what?
That’s right - playlist recommendations that ignore my library, particularly the ‘Intro to’ playlists.
If Apple looked at my collection and play history, they'd see that I really don’t need an ‘introduction’ to Belinda Carlisle, Hüsker Dü, Natalie Imbruglia, The Fall or Charli XCX. (Don't judge me). Yet, over my 3 month trial Apple Music has suggested these playlists to me, frequently. Almost every day also sees some sort of Madonna recommendation, and I've got almost her entire discography. A rotation of such a small number of artists is pretty poor irrespective of their (lack of) usefulness to me.
Browsing the ‘New’ section is massively frustrating. If you’ve played with it, you’ll know all about the navigation inconsistencies. If I was to list them all here, I’d be writing a book here, so I’ll just take one example.
Let’s take a look at what it offers me for Elton John.
I’ll start with a search.
Here I get links to his artist page, his Beats 1 radio shows, songs, albums, playlists where he’s featured, videos and an ‘Elton John station’.
All fine but it all goes wrong once I drill down a bit. Logically, I would go to the first result - Elton’s artist page.
I’m presented with ‘Top Albums’ and just ‘Albums’. Here’s where it goes a bit nuts.
There are more albums shown in ‘Top Albums’ than in ‘Albums’!
Both lists miss out parts of Elton’s back catalogue including some of his most critically acclaimed - there's no 'Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player' or my favourite - ‘Madman Across The Water’.
My assumption from this page is that it's showing all the albums available and Apple Music therefore doesn’t have these classics.
Turns out, they are available (from a specific search on album name or, depending on your screen size, the initial global search) but not on the artist page. ¯(ツ)/¯
To be clear: the Artist page (also accessed from my library with a tab marked ‘All’ to differentiate from 'My Music') does not show all of that artist’s music.
There are tons of similar glitches like this.
Furthermore, there’s nothing tailored for me here in ‘New’. It’s a slightly altered version of the iTunes Store front page. A mainstream list of new and popular releases. It’s useful, but only to an extent.
This leads me to my biggest beef with Apple Music. It’s also been my long standing disappointment with iTunes. The one missing feature that should have been there for years:
No Personalised New Release Information
My favourite feature in Rdio is the notifications page. It’s a constantly updated page showing all new releases added to the service from artists I’ve previously added to my collection of favourites.
This can be new singles, albums, back catalogue additions. They’re presented in a beautiful grid and I can add them to my collection with one click.
There’s no friction at all and it’s super useful.
Sometimes I’ll miss hearing about a new record and this system ensures I get to know as soon as it comes out.
Even Spotify with it’s janky UI manages to let me know this information, albeit in a less useful notification system.
There is nothing like this in Apple Music.
I’ve never understood why iTunes hasn’t had this in the store. There’s been an email alert system but you have to manually add artists. My experience has been that the emails are, sporadic, incomplete and inaccurate. It should be automatic and a section or tab in the store when I log in.
The ‘For You’ section of Apple Music should surely have a pane or section for this now. Something along the lines of ‘Here are all the latest additions to our service from artists in your library’.
Its absence from Apple’s music offerings seems seems so odd.
My workflow every New Release Friday™ is currently to open Rdio (which I no longer subscribe to) to see what releases are out and then manually search for them in Apple Music to add to my library. Bonkers.
I’m not going to to this forever. If I decide cancel my Apple Music subscription and go back to Rdio it will largely be due to this.
If ‘Connect’ is where Apple expects me to learn of new releases by the artists I follow, they’ve got to think again.
Connect is worse than Ping.
I’ll say that again.
CONNECT IS WORSE THAN PING.
I have no interest in it.
It’s a horrendous Tumblr / Twitter hybrid shitshow that offers nothing that these existing service don’t already manage well. A single genre social network limited to one provider is ambitious and even when it launches on Android I’m not convinced it will get traction. It needs a lot of artist involvement to take off.
At the moment some artists are repeating things they’ve already posted to other services, while others are posting irrelevant crap - random photos, old videos etc. Most of the time it's clearly an artist's pr or management posting there rather than the artist and as far from connecting as you're likely to find on the internet.
This random post by Primal Scream is a great example. I’m not that invested in the band to be particularly interested in this. It clutters up Connect. Also, top engagement #numbers!
I’m not going to sift through a linear list of random posts to find things of interest.
Even if it improves I can’t see a time where I’m going to put the work in to curate it to my taste. I’ve already done that with Twitter.
The whole premise of it needs to change before I spend any time there.
It could be Apple’s groundwork to eventually eliminate labels and have a platform that becomes a PledgeMusic / Ticketmaster / Merchandise alternative for artists, but that’s going to need a lot of work.
Right now, it stinks.
Disparate features (all in one place)
All of the above, leads me to conclude that the only noticeable integration between the old Beats streaming service and pre Beats acquisition iTunes is the ability to add streaming tracks to what is now called the iCloud Music Library.
I’m left with an impression that the Beats technology that learns my taste has not yet been developed to pay any attention to this library, including streaming tracks. As far as I can tell It ignores songs i ‘love’.
The only discernible changes I see on ‘For You’ come following my listening / ‘loving’ of the Apple Music playlists, and pure streaming tracks from the New tab (i.e. those I’m not playing from the library).
My gut feeling is that what should be a crucial part of Apple Music hasn’t been implemented yet.
I’ve heard the argument about curation trumping algorithms but Apple's Jimmy Iovine and Eddy Cue have talked about them working together. Apple has the potential to know more about the listening habits than Spotify, Last.fm, and Echonest combined and I’ve yet to see any sign that they’re doing anything tangible with that data.
Beats 1 Radio
Ok, something positive.
While prefer the BBC’s 6 Music station to Beats 1, I’ve been listening to the latter more due to the ease of use within iTunes.
Julie Adenuga's show is my favourite so far, especially when she concentrates on hip hop and dance genres I'm unfamiliar with. Her curation seems to be surfacing the best out there. It's expanding my tastes.
This has some way to go but dipping into it for the odd half hour has invariably been rewarding. Adding a song to your library and looking up an artist's catalogue while listening on the radio has never been easier.
The scheduling info and navigation needs some work but I like the idea of this.
I’m still going to subscribe!
Yes, despite all of this I’ve decided to continue with the service at the end of the trial. For now at least.
I'm not going to give up my iTunes library. I've had an organized collection of music ever since I kept all my cassettes in a box and then alphabetically arranged cd racks. I'm a collection guy.
Streaming isn't going to replace that and I don't want to run a separate streaming app so I'm going to give Apple Music a chance to mature.
There was some regret in cancelling my Rdio subscription (and guilt for continuing to use their notifications!) but I suspect they don’t have a future. Nor does Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz or any others I’ve tried.
It looks like it’s going to be a choice between Spotify and Apple Music, at least for my generation.
(YouTube and the free tier of Spotify is where it’s at for youngsters but I come from a different time when paying is what you do).
I'll give Apple a chance to fix things, add notifications and evolve the service into something I’ll love to use.
I hope they move quickly.