31 days into Apple Music, Beats 1, and Connect, how's it working for us?
Apple Music launched one month ago and in that time it's bounced from revolutionary new service to internet enemy number one—then back and forth again and again.
In part, this is due to how big a job the service is attempting to tackle: providing a unified music experience to everyone who uses the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac. That includes people who have tens of thousands of painstakingly ripped and cataloged songs in iTunes, and people with nothing but Siri and on-demand streams.
Like many others, we've been using Apple Music since its launch one month ago; 31 days in, here's what we love, loathe, and wish Apple Music could do better. Roundtable-style!
Before you started Apple Music, what were your hopes?
Ren: As a Beats Music subscriber from pretty much the beginning, I was crossing my fingers that they'd keep the personalized playlists angle and custom curation. I also had a devil of a time finding new music on any streaming service, so I wanted Apple Music to have better options. And Beats 1 was a crazy promise: I secretly love live radio—maybe it's the performance nerd in me—and I really hoped Apple could pull it off.
Peter: I can't say I went into it with a lot of expectations or preconceived ideas about how it should work. All I knew is that with Apple's name on it, it had to integrate with the music experience I'd already grown accustomed to with other Apple products.
Rene: Exactly what Jimmy Iovine said on stage: One complete thought about music. I wanted to not have to care if I owned a song or not, and simply have the ability to play whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it. I didn't even really care about Beats 1 or Connect. I just wanted a special music delivery service.
Were you using any other streaming services? If so, what?
Ren: Beats Music, Spotify, Google Music, Soundcloud… Beats Music was my mainstay, but I was also testing a bunch of services so that I could get a feel for the market Apple was entering here.
Peter: I have a free Spotify subscription and listen to music regularly on Soundcloud. I hadn't actually paid a subscription fee to any streaming service prior to Apple Music (technically I still haven't, but I plan to once my 90 days is up).
Rene: No. I used iTunes to buy music and iTunes Match to sync everything I had everywhere I had. I'd tried the few services that came to Canada when they came to Canada, but none of them stuck because they were all separate apps I had to switch to. I'm not sure why that made a difference when, for example, switching from Videos.app to Netflix.app never felt like a big deal, but it made a difference.
Beats 1: Always on? Or kind of off?
Ren: If Beats 1 was actually 100 percent great for me 100 percent of the time, I'd be a little disappointed. It'd just be catering to my taste, in that respect—and for a radio station to truly be worldwide, it needs that flexibility.
That said, I listen to Beats 1 almost every day. There's a lot of music on there I'm not particularly fond of—some rap and hip-hop just doesn't do it for me—but I love the passion the DJs have for it. Zane Lowe's show is a highlight of my day, playing a huge eclectic mix of fun, while Julie Adenuga introduces me to something new that I love (and usually can't download off iTunes or Apple Music, darn it) almost every day. I'm also starting to really dig the NYC and LA "local" station programming—there are a few DJs on there who play really smart stuff and really good transitions.
Where Beats 1 truly shines, however, is its specialty programming. Elton John's Rocket Hour. St Vincent's Mixtape Delivery Service. Joshua Homme's Alligator Hour. Ellie Goulding. Abstract Radio. If you're finding the DJ sets a little too hip-hop for you, listen to the specialty shows: They're far and away my favorites on the network in part because of their variety and versatility. I may not love every song on one of St Vincent's mixtapes, but Annie Clark and her guest sell me on the show every week.
Peter: Beats 1 irritated me from the outset. The incessant DJ chatter, the constant promotion, the absence of format. Some of the specialty stuff has been great, but there isn't enough there there to keep me tuned in all the time. I admit I haven't given it a fair shake, but first impressions mean a lot.
Rene: Beats 1 is kind of like broadcast TV for me. Often when I go through a list of content I find myself saying "nope, nope, nope, nope, …, nope." But when something is already playing, even if it's something I said "nope" to even a few minutes before, I'll listen.
I think there's some mental overhead to to choice that we, as humans, don't always benefit from. We're better at find reasons not to do things than reasons to do them. When we don't have to decide, it takes a burden away and we can just enjoy.
And no, I'm totally not taking Loki's side from Avengers 1!
Let's talk music libraries. Were you using iTunes Match before Apple Music? What did your personal library look like?
Ren: I have something like 17,000 songs—a third purchased, two-thirds ripped, and a couple dozen home recordings—and all of them are on iTunes Match. My library is eclectic, but not complicated: I've got a lot of variety but very few tracks that I'd classify as rare or super-weird beyond the occasional weird musical. I'm one of the lucky souls who's never really run into an iTunes Match problem, and the service always worked well for me. Sorry, guys.
Peter: My personal library includes more than 20,000 songs. Much of the library is ripped from audio CDs I still own, though I've collected a lot over the years from iTunes, eMusic, Amazon and other (legitimate) sources.
Rene: I was and still am, but I never had a particularly large library. The amount of CDs I've bought in my life is likely in the dozens, and certainly less than the amount of tapes, DVDs, and Blu-Rays. A lot less.
I'm more a video person than a music person, so streaming was always the most attractive option for me.
Are you still using iTunes Match with Apple Music?
Ren: Yep. I have a full backup of my music library on one of my Macs, but I like knowing that matched tracks from my Mac that I download on an iPhone (or my laptop) will be DRM-free. $25/year isn't that much for the privilege.
Peter: Yes. I've subscribed to iTunes Match since it came out and it's made keeping my music in the cloud much easier. I plan to continue to use it as well. Like Ren, I keep a full backup of my music library, though I keep it offline most of the time — I prefer to let iTunes Match, or perhaps I should say iTunes Music Cloud, keep everything in the cloud for when I want to hear it.
Rene: Absolutely. I just love the idea that the music I do have is easy to get everyone without a USB cable, sync, or anything else to worry about. At $25 a year, even for my relatively small library, it's a no-brainer.
Apple Music's streaming catalog: Does it suit your needs? Are you saving songs from it to My Music?
Ren: I really haven't found major beef with the streaming catalog beyond its lack of brand-new songs—but that's more of a "Darn, Beats 1 DJs, stop playing songs I can't buy or add!" thing. In general, I wish it was easier to buy or make a wish-list of songs not on the service so that I could either hop into iTunes or know when a tune was available for download. Definitely saving a ton of songs and playlists to my iPhone from Apple Music.
Peter: I am saving lots of songs to My Music. I find new playlists almost every day that give me something fresh to listen to which I haven't heard before. And despite having as much music as I started with, there's still a huge amount of back catalog from my favorite artists that I want, too.
Rene: I'm not really caching stuff (I feel more authentic calling it that, or bookmarking, then downloading, because I don't really own it). I use Siri almost all the time to find and play music and that means I don't have worry about lists or libraries. I just need to think about what I want to listen to, speak the words, and it plays.
How's For you working… for you?
Ren: My favorite feature of Beats Music carried over and made even better on Apple Music. Though it bums me out that my favorite Beats editors have been masked under faceless curator titles like "Apple Indie," the playlists are still great, and I find myself saving one to my music library on my iPhone almost every day. I wouldn't mind a "bookmark this playlist for later" option that didn't involve adding it to my library, though. Some days I'll wake up and want to listen to every playlist and Beats 1—not enough hours in the day!
Peter: For You is fantastic. I admit that it took me a few days of tuning, but we're at a pretty good pace now. Almost every day For You turns up something I want to hear, whether it's a human-curated playlist or an album by a favorite artist.
Rene: It's really good! As much as I don't use My Music, I do use For You. My Music is stuff I already know about, so I can just ask Siri to play it. For You is stuff I would probably never have thought of. So, any time I don't know what I want to listen to, and Beats 1 isn't doing it for me, I head right on over to For You and almost always discover some enjoyable.
The New tab: do you use it?
Ren: Occasionally! I actually like browsing it now and again because songs and albums will pop up that I didn't realize existed but absolutely want to listen to. (Florence + The Machine's new album, for example.) Most of the time I spend in Beats 1, For You, and My Music, though.
Peter: I check it periodically. I scan it for artists I'm already familiar with, then look for new stuff that catches my eye. Occasionally I'll load up something just because it looks interesting, to see if it'll sound interesting. It often doesn't.
Rene: Not really. I tend to forget it's there.
Connect or disconnect: How's the social stuff?
Ren: Artists, not so much. BUT. You can also follow the curators that make the For You playlists, the DJs from Beats 1, and the specialty shows. This is largely how I use it (and love it)—I add all those folks, and that lets me see when a new "Classic Rock" playlist is out, or a new episode of Josh Homme's Alligator Hour.
Peter: Where it works, as Ren points out, it's fabulous. Otherwise it's largely a waste of time. I hope this isn't another Ping. Apple's track record on social networking stuff is pretty abysmal.
Rene: I like the theory of Connect but so far it hasn't rocked my world. Ren pointing out how to get the Beats 1 playlists is awesome, because I do miss things I want to catch up on, but other than that, I've not found much else of interest.
I hope that changes. I love iTunes Extras and DVD/Blu-Ray extras, and the creative process, so if Connect became a regular, reliable behind-the-scenes content area, I'd be all over it.
The Music app: What's working—and what's not?
Ren: Mostly, the Music app is great. It's a lot easier to navigate than the old app, and once I learned where everything was, I could get around pretty quickly. But it does have a bit of a steep learning curve for beginners, and there are really weird UI choices (I'm looking at you, More button). There may be some relief for this coming in iOS 9, and I'm hopeful, but it is a bit of a mess at times—especially if you're not an Apple Music user.
Peter: Is my eyesight failing, or is the type on everything getting a lot smaller and less distinct? Maybe this is just a cranky old man yelling at a cloud, but I feel a bit bewildered by the Music app at times, simply because I'm so accustomed still to the way it was.
Rene: The Music app has a tough job. Making one complete thought around music is easy to say, not so easy to do. There's a lot of ways people enjoy music these days, from buying to streaming, internet radio to online lockers, social interaction to recommendations. Music has to manage all of that, and all of the playback functions from playlists to stations to up next, all in one place.
It's why we get ••• buttons all over the place.
So, yeah, it's cramped and overflowing and, right now, the convenience is hurting the usability. iOS 9 looks like it makes things better, however, and if Apple can keep iterating and improving it, we could have the best of both worlds eventually.
iTunes and Apple Music: Dare we ask?
Ren: Kill it with fire, please. iTunes has 10x the bugs that Music.app had when Apple Music was introduced, and combined that with already-existing iTunes Match errors to make for a truly terrible experience. I know Apple is short-handed in their software and services department, and that's the only thing keeping me from going on an all-out tear about the app. But seriously: Music.app for Mac can't come soon enough, folks. Maybe in the final version of OS X El Capitan? Can we dream?
Peter: iTunes is the foundation of Apple's modern music legacy — without it, there'd have been no iPod, no iTunes Store either. But that foundation seems badly eroded when you look at iTunes in its current state: It's a mishmosh of different interface ideas and disparate functionality that just doesn't make sense anymore. Apple Music complicates an already complicated interface. It's time for Apple to look at how to deliver music on the Mac with a fresh set of eyes.
Rene: If Music has a tough job then iTunes has an impossible one. It has to play and manage everything that can possibly be synced to an iPod, iPhone, or iPad, and do it all in a single package that can be wrapped up and ported to Windows.
One day Apple will decide it no longer wants or needs to support Windows, traditional iPods, and USB syncing to iOS. One day, iTunes will go to the cloud and the Mac will get the modern apps it deserves. (Mac App Store doesn't sync to iPod or iOS, doesn't port to Windows, so it gets a standalone app... which also doesn't get updated—all problems are relative!)
Until then, we're stuck with iTunes. And the only real—and huge—complaint I have here is that Apple isn't archiving existing libraries and then applying Apple Music as a separate silo that gets unified in the presentation.
When it comes to important user data—which music libraries certainly are—protecting the data has to come first.
Apple Music bottom line (for now):
Ren: Apple Music is buggy, yes. It's barely a month old, trying to do a lot, and (mostly) succeeding. It has a huge userbase already, and I imagine that will only increase with the release of the next iPhone—people may gripe about being "test subjects", but when it comes to cloud services, it's incredibly difficult to stress-test these kinds of things in a closed lab. Should the company have called Apple Music a "beta" for its first three months? Probably. But it's doing a lot of the right stuff, and I know I'm listening to a ton more music than I was a month ago. For me, the combination of For You and Beats 1 blow the other music services out of the water when it comes to discovery.
Peter: Apple Music is off to a rousing start. There are and will continue to be growing pains, of course: Interface issues to work through, service uptime, content that works and content that doesn't work. Apple piqued my curiosity with the launch of Apple Music, but it's delivering content that's going to keep me subscribing long into the future.
Rene: There's a lot that needs to be fixed about Apple Music. Making it work with separate iTunes accounts and Family Sharing shouldn't be so hard. Canceling the free trial should be easy to do. iTunes Match vs. Apple Music should be crystal clear. No one's music libraries should be touched. No song should ever not add when you want to add it. And the list goes on and on.
Growing pains, all of that. No plan, no matter how well thought out or how well intentioned, can survive impact with millions of customers and their edge cases. Problems happen. It's how well and quickly they're dealt with that matters.
That's said, I'm digging Apple Music. I don't have much of an existing library to worry about and I don't go to the apps anywhere nearly as much as I go to Siri, so it's been borderline miraculous for me so far.
The ability to just Power Word Music up whatever I want to listen to, whenever I want to listen to it, feels like the future to me. And Apple Music has delivered that today.
How is Apple Music working for you, one month later? Share your thoughts in the comments below!