Remember when building a music collection involved buying individual albums? These days, it’s a far more open and friendly system, and Apple’s “Music” service might just bring positive change.
Features and performance
Music has changed a lot over the years, and new styles have certainly emerged amidst technological changes, allowing something like auto-tune and its robotic voice to change music forever.
But that’s not the only thing changing about music, and between all the great ways to listen to music — from awesome headphones to mind-blowing speakers, and the less impressive stuff in between — you also have to deal with how you get that music.
Some people still buy it in CD form, and others buy it again on vinyl (this guy included). Digital is also a big reason many of us are buying more music, and while we’ve heard arguments that Justin Bieber has sold more songs than The Beatles, that comes down to how much easier it is to acquire songs these days than back when a Beatles album hit the music store and people shared the experience over a suitcase record player.
Music services are the new thing, however, and with more people getting their daily and hourly fix of music through streaming media — be it through WiFi or 4G — it’s high time Apple got in on that whole area, too. After all, it did practically reinvent music distribution back when it introduced the iPod and iTunes.
Apple is a bit late in this area, too, what with Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Guvera, Google Play, Deezer, and Tidal all getting in before Apple did, though Apple’s offering is a little bit different.
Now if you had asked us to put up our review during the first few weeks, it would have read completely differently, because in the first few weeks, Apple Music almost felt like a rush job. Now, three months in, we’re seeing the bugs go away, giving Apple’s Music service a chance to really shine.
But is it the best?
To answer that question, let’s start with what it is and what it will do on an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod Touch, and even a Mac or Windows computer connected to the service.
In a nutshell, Apple Music is a service that will let you listen to any of the millions of songs accessible in your region in what many describe as an “all you can eat” or “all you can hear” music service. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t own that Radiohead CD or the latest Ellie Goulding track, because as long as it exists on the Apple Music catalogue that your country has access to and you have a current subscription, you can listen as long as you want, whenever you want.
That’s the crux of a streaming media service based on individual plays, which Apple Music counts as, alongside the likes of Spotify, Google Play Music, Tidal, and Deezer. This is different to the concept underpinning one of Australia’s bigger media services Pandora, which relies on a “radio-like” mentality, that is to say you shape a radio station based on your thumbs up or thumbs down to tracks, though you can never hear a specific track by choice and are limited to five skips an hour.
Apple Music — like the other individual play services — doesn’t have a skip per hour setting built into its design, so if you didn’t like a song or two on that new Demi Lovato album, you can skip until the album is finished, or just move onto something else altogether.
Offering a library is only one part of the equation, because while you could just search for tracks you like, finding new music is something awesome that many of us love doing, so Apple will also offer a Pandora-like radio service to define radio stations based on your likes and dislikes, but it also delivers curated playlists handled by people working at Apple who love music and know what to look for.
Updated on a regular basis, this is probably our favourite feature of the Apple Music service, and one that delivers the most positive influence on the industry.
After all, it’s all well and good to rely on a music genome-based logic like Pandora, with music programmers tagging songs to allow an algorithm to link them for likes and dislikes, but this doesn’t always offer the human touch, and as much as we love Pandora (and have been keeping a subscription since it started and before it arrived in Australia), it doesn’t always get it right.
Apple’s curatorial playlists are different and handled by real people. They’re lists of tracks that have a mood, a flow, and generally dig up something that might take you down memory lane.
These load into place based on how you decide on the music you like, which you can start with in your profile or when you first setup your Apple Music account, but all you really have to do is start looking up artists you love and either follow them or “heart” songs and albums.
We haven’t mentioned this yet, but this “heart” is actually ironically at the heart of Apple’s algorithm for the Music service, relying on what you dig to power what gets shown.
For instance, if you love songs from Dr. Dre’s new album “Compton”, you’ll find more hip hop selections suggested to you, and if you’re a fan of Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out”, prepare to see more jazz in your suggestions.
The more songs you heart through the entire Apple Music system, the better the system gets at recognising what songs to deliver on your radio services, and it goes much deeper than that.
Let’s get back to those curated playlists, because my list of playlists will be very different from yours, unless we have identical tastes in music.
As a point, there is very little country in this reviewer’s playlist selection provided by Apple, but if you dig on the twang of a steel guitar and sing Dolly or Keith at the top of your lungs, that will be different, and the playlist makers at Apple who enjoy the same will be delivering their wares to you.
This reviewer loves jazz, and so the first few playlists he had delivered to him tended to be about that, though once he added some love for Radiohead, for Dre, for Nigel Kennedy, for Al Green, and for Muse, the playlists started to diversify, and with a daily refresh, you’ll probably find a list you haven’t seen before.
But let’s say you’re not really into playlists at the moment, and you’re not game to explore or find a new CD, or even find an old one you love. What else can you do?
There’s also the radio side of things, and this is a two prong effort, delivering a customisable Pandora-style digital radio service as well as a real “live” radio service.
The Pandora-inspired radio service is handy because you can take those artists you already follow and try and find new ones to listen to, using that heart system to say approve or disapprove of others.
You’re not technically disapproving of anything, mind you, and Apple’s “heart” system doesn’t really ever say you dislike something, which makes it different to the other music services. Instead, it’s just relying on what you like, what you listened to, and what you skipped, though we’re not quite sure if it’s ever going to get the right message that skipping through a song several times may not mean you don’t like the song, but just didn’t want to listen to it at that time.
Beats 1 Radio is the other part of the radio effort, and it’s worth talking about solely because it’s an interesting take on what radio is meant to be. We’re not sure it technically qualifies as “live” as Apple suggests it is, as not all shows appear to follow that definition with some pre-recorded, but it is definitely one of the interesting evolutions of radio.
Like internet radio, Beats 1 isn’t a station you can get on your old wireless, relying solely on being connected to the internet, which on a phone may be wireless, but at home or in the office is probably wired in some way, whether it’s through the Ethernet connection to your computer or the home broadband cables used to deliver the internet to a modem or router of some form in your home.
Long story short, Beats 1 isn’t radio in the way most people think of it, but it does deliver a radio-like service at the same time to everyone else in the world. New York and Sydney may be in totally different time zones, and from Sydney’s point of view is in the future, but if you listen into Beats 1, you’re hearing the same material at the same time.
You’re not just hearing it either, but you’re also seeing it.
Digital radio may have brought album art and weather and news images to people’s devices, but Beats 1 delivers album and song information if it exists on the Apple Music catalogue, as well as the ability to “heart” those songs again — like the rest of the system — and add them to your library.
And this happens while the DJ is talking, so those awkward moments where on live radio you frustratingly want the DJ to list the songs that you caught halfway and liked don’t have to happen, and you can just see what you heard and add it to the system.
The Beats 1 radio service isn’t totally popular music either, but it is predominantly that, so depending on what sort of music you want to listen to, it may be worth checking out the schedule. If, however, you have very eclectic tastes, tuning in when ever you want does provide a bit of a reprieve from your regular library, so it’s a great feature and a potential influence to the way the digital music world can change, though Apple’s connections to musicians and artists does help this, as does its ownership of Beats, we suspect.
So there’s the music side of things, and how it integrates is super important as well, with iTunes pretty much replaced with an app designed to hook into Apple Music.
It doesn’t matter if you’re using this on an iPhone, an iPad, or even a computer, because the recent version of iTunes has been made to kind of get its hooks into Apple Music. You’re not required to use it, mind you, but if you do, the app feels like it’s working better.
And given Apple offers a three month free subscription service — longer than any other system out there — it’s a fair bet quite a few people are trying it. We’re now into our fourth month and have started paying, though this may have more to do with needing to finish the review and less with actual reliability, and here’s why: for all the good Apple Music brings, it also brings a little un-Apple-like clutter, and some of the bugs still don’t feel like they’ve moved on.
The interface is one area that feels like it has too much going on, because while the player controls are easy to get used to, some icons just don’t feel like they’re in the right place, while others are superfluous and in there a few times.
It’s not really a problem with how you select your music either. That’s easy, and has you jumping between five tabs at the bottom of the screen, much like how iTunes has always worked it.
In Apple Music, you now get the curated playlists selected based on your music tastes in “For You”, new music and access to allot the other easily accessible playlists in “New”, both your own custom radio stations and Beats 1 in the aptly titled “Radio” section, and even a bit of social amplitude in “Connect” (below) allowing you to almost feel like the artist is talking directly to you with updates and photos using an Apple Music artist-only social network.
The final tab is “My Music”, and as the name implies, it’s the music you’ve been listening to and adding to your library.
Well, sort of, anyway, because music added across your Appme devices aren’t always touched, making the cross platform music control not always fantastic.
But we’ll get into bugs like this momentarily, because for now we need to show how confusing the interface for Apple Music can be, so let’s show that interface.
For the most part, it shouldn’t be hard to work out that you’ll be pausing and playing items, but much of what you use to get around the interface isn’t explained, or then changes inexplicably.
You can heart songs, but if you turn one into a station using the not-quite-explained station icon, your heart changes to a star because (we think) Apple has kept an older system in play which relied on stars not hearts. And then if you’re in Beats 1 radio, you might lost the ability to heart songs altogether, even after you’ve just been able to, possibly because the song isn’t on the system, though because album art shows up, we’re not actually sure.
There’s always the option to send your song or station to a friend, but for some reason, you have two places to get this happening from, with the bottom left hand corner and the bottom right hand corner icons able to kick off the same mechanism.
Apple tends to be the king of interface design, making things easier for the masses, but while we get that complicated all-you-can-listen-to music systems aren’t easy to program, the Apple Music app feels like it’s being play-tested on the masses, while Apple fine tunes what works and what doesn’t.
We can live with the superfluous settings, too, and we’re already used to the design quibbles, but the bugs and catches with Apple Music will end up driving people away.
In fact, if you had asked us what we thought of Apple Music in its first and second month of delivery, this review would have turned out very different. It initially did, actually, and has been rewritten several times while the service went through changes, because initially, there were bugs, and bugs beyond bugs, not like what you normally expect out of Apple.
In the beginning — and by that we mean for the first couple of months — these bugs were everywhere. Crashes, inability to add favourites, the ability to add favourites but your hand was forced so you favourited everything, etc; you name it.
If there was a bug that could exist, Apple Music could fill the gap.
Our most frustrating bug occurred with playlists. You might have wanted to add a song to a playlist, and so you did, but it wasn’t there, so you waited. And you waited. And you waited and waited, and then it didn’t always turn up or sometimes did.
Fortunately, this bug has mostly been eradicated, and we’ve only seen a deviation of it in the past month, whereby you add a song to a playlist and it arrives, but then decides to disappear.
You still have a bug whereby you can’t add a song to a new playlist, and you’re forced to get out of the song, create a playlist in a separate playlist window, and then go back into the song so you can add that song to the new playlist, but one thing at a time.
Unfortunately, Apple’s playlist system in Apple Music isn’t guaranteed the way it is when you actually own your music, and there are other problems stemming from this, such as your playlists refusing to sync across devices, which appears to still be a bug for some people even in our office.
We jumped from an iPhone 6 to the iPhone 6S, and yet our playlists didn’t travel with us. Likewise, they didn’t travel with us to our iPad Air 2, and the music playlists we created on an iMac didn’t jump over to any other device, either. Yet, for some reason they were on a MacBook five days later.
In fact, that time issue of a full five days may have been what it had taken, because five days later, we found our devices finally had the playlists.
Well, the iPhone did anyway. Our iPad is still looking for them, even on the day this review was published.
But why had it taken five days of new syncing? Why — in a day and age that has to do with immediacy and the directness of the cloud — had it taken that long to synchronise?
You have to think that centralisation appears to be the problem with Apple Music, and this appears to go a little deeper than playlists that don’t line up, taking their sweet time to be delivered to your device.
For instance, we’ve already mentioned how you can favourite songs by adding a love heart to them, and this will influence how Apple Music delivers track and playlist suggestions to you, which is handy.
What’s not handy, however, is that Apple Music lacks a heart tracker at its heart, so you can’t for instance find that song you favourited at lunch over Beats 1 radio, nor can you find your favourites from a few days ago.
You’ve favourited them, sure, but they don’t exist for you to find, and so your act of favouriting them wasn’t technically for your benefit, but rather that of an algorithm trying to work out what you do and don’t like. Every music system uses something like this, but most of them provide your favourites in a location, allowing you to at least look back at them.
On Google Play Music, it’s a playlist called “thumbs up”, but with Apple Music, that’s not what is going on, and instead the only way to at least tell the system that you want to hold onto the music is to add it to your library, but just like with the synchronised playlist problem — or lack there of — as noted above, you’ll find if you jump from device to device, they may not necessarily come with you.
Worse, music you’ve purchased may actually disappear or just refuse to play in the Apple Music system, which we’ve seen a few times.
These bugs and lack of features lead us to the belief that while Apple Music is, in theory, a positive influence — because its editorial and curated system is something other music services are only now cottoning on to — its lack of long-term usability and overly complicated interface let it down in the face of these other ones.
In fact, about the only thing it has going for it is how well it integrates into the Apple ecosystem, but that’s partly because Apple made the software to work with its devices so well, and so it naturally looks good like the iPhone, and the iPad, and a Mac, and so on and so on.
But it’s not the mature bang-on product you expect out of Apple, and while it’s not the travesty that was the first generation of Apple Maps, it has many problems.
It also has one striking positive: you get three months free, which is a great trial option no other music service provider can match.
Is this enough? Only time will tell.
We held off publishing this review for longer than we’d like, but partially because some of the bugs we were seeing in our testing might have been limited to Australia specifically.
After sending some feedback to Cupertino and waiting for patches, and essentially going beyond the trial, most of the bugs we found in the beginning have gone away, though some of the quirks like that inability to see what you’ve favourited still remain, as well as the odd playlist glitch and disappearing song.
On the positive side, the company isn’t totally resting on its laurels and is actively changing the service, improving it, with the end result being an improvement to the Apple Music service, and that positivity can kind of be applied to the rest of the feeling you get on Apple Music: it’s a positive influence for the industry.
Even if it isn’t perfect, Apple Music still feels like a positive shift from a world built on figuring out what you want from the algorithm to the more human side of things, with the curated playlist, whether it’s found in the form of a “check whenever you want” playlist or a “listen live on the radio” playlist.
That human side of music has kind of been missing from the digital music services, and it’s nice to see it return.
In fact, Apple’s push for this is even having an effect on the other music services, with Google Play Music rolling out its own curated music playlists in the past few months.
But back to Apple Music, because is it worth trying?
We’re going to go with yes on this one, simply because Apple has made it much easier to get in there with a three month trial, something no other music service has matched, though Pandora and Spotify do offer free options that help.
That quarter-year trial does help, and the fact that Apple is developing its Music service for Android does too, because you shouldn’t need to be locked in, but just be aware that if you don’t like what Apple is offering, it’s not as if there’s a shortage of music services out there, so don’t feel compelled to want to like it, because like the services offering unlimited music services, you have plenty to choose from.