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Apple Music review: Two years later, the service is finding its voice

On June 30, 2015, Apple Music turned its speakers on, began blasting Beats 1 to over 100 countries, and presented music lovers with a question: Could Apple beat streaming giant Spotify at its own game? Two years later and 27 million active subscribers later, the answer to that question isn't "yes," but it's much closer than it ever has been. As Apple Music has grown over the last 24 months, the service has taken what works — Beats 1, the streaming catalog, custom playlists — and amplified it, and remixed the parts — social and iCloud Music Library — that didn't.

In 2017, Apple Music is still recognizably the service that launched in 2015: For You and Radio are still the service's top draws, as is the integration with your iTunes Music Library. It's still a paid-only service, in contrary to Spotify's ad-supported free tiers. And it's still experimenting with new ways to differentiate the service — most recently, introducing exclusive video content.

But there have also been shifts, improvements, and missteps that have marked the service's evolution. Apple Music is turning two: Let's celebrate with a quick breakdown of where it is.

For You is even more personalized

When Apple Music launched, it offered custom playlist and album suggestions based on your past listening history and your iTunes library; that baseline is still there, but has been augmented with weekly custom playlists of New Music and Favorites (and, come iOS 11, a relaxation mix called Calm).

Apple's iCloud Music Library, which promised to combine your streaming tastes with your previously purchased and ripped music, has also improved. It ditched the feel of "DRM-laden gimmick" last summer to fully support DRM-free downloading of your existing content without an additional iTunes Match subscription; both the Music app and iTunes app on iOS and Mac were further organized so that users who wanted to see their subscription tunes separately from their personal library could.

To me, For You is still the backbone of Apple Music, and why so many users subscribe: Apple's playlist editors are smart, track-savvy, and constantly learning what people like and don't like. It's not perfect: For one, the service's weekly mixes are still far too capricious around what you're listening to lately versus your general taste. (If I go off on a Dear Evan Hansen kick one week, my mix the next week is likely to be over 50% musicals and a-capella.)

But having recently compared all the major music services head to head, Spotify's the only service that even comes close to Apple Music when it comes to great curation. They all have issues with balancing taste, in part due to their various computer and human music algorithms. It just depends on which service's flair fits your music listening style.

Apple also seems to be adjusting slightly to account for these wide disparities in tempo and style: The company has started beta testing a Chill mix that pulls out some of the more laidback tunes from your New Music Mix, and there's hope Apple may experiment with more custom mixes in the future.

Playlist sharing is going to be huge

It's not quite here yet (unless you're playing around with the developer or public iOS and Mac betas), but the Fall will bring arguably one of the biggest improvements to Apple Music since its DRM-free iCloud Music Library change: You'll soon be able to share your own live-updated playlists and recent listening history to the world (or just your friends, depending on your privacy choices).

This is a feature Spotify has had for ages, and it's been a much-requested Apple Music feature. While you can currently send links to your playlists via the service in iOS 10, those links are to static playlists that don't update if you change a song or rearrange the order. There's also no way currently to search the service for user-created playlists or find more playlists from a certain user.

All of that is changing with iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. Playlists are live-updating and searchable. Users have full profiles showcasing created playlists, what they're listening to, and their friends and follows. For You will get a new section called "Friends Are Listening To," which I've been using nigh-constantly to find great work music.

How to view and share playlists with friends in Apple Music

Forget Ping. Forget Connect. This is the social music sharing service Apple should have released years ago, and even in a rough beta stage, it's great. Come the fall, it's going to completely explode how Apple Music users interact with each other and the service.

After all, Apple may not need to create 20 special weekly "Mixes" if you can save weekly playlists from your favorite user DJs.

Beats 1 is less prominent but no less important

Apple's streaming online radio station Beats 1 was looked at of something of a novel curiosity when it launched, but it's died down in the tech press as of late. Without a new "Beats 2 or 3" station launching to captivate our interest, we just aren't that excited about online radio.

But plenty of Apple's subscribers are, as evidenced by the increasing number of specialty shows on the service. Apple Music now offers over 40 specialty shows on Beats 1 in a large variety of genres, from tastemakers and superstars alike. Elton John, Ryan Adams, Anna Lunoe, Run the Jewels, and others run weekly shows with full archive support, allowing users to essentially pick the musical podcast of their choice.

The Radio tab also now offers streaming for 4 news services (CBS, local NPR, ESPN Radio, and Bloomberg) in the United States along with a slew of automated radio stations for all sorts of genres.

Radio may not be the primary reason anyone subscribes to streaming media in 2017, but Apple continues to keep watching the space and delivering interesting variations for the users who care.

Betting on video

Apple Music was never meant to be a video streaming service — unless you count the occasional music video. But until the company decides to fully launch its TV streaming option, video has started living in Apple Music. That includes live concerts like Taylor Swift's 1989 tour and made-for-Apple disaster pieces like Planet of the Apps, along with an upcoming digital version of James Corden's Carpool Karaoke.

There's an argument to be made for Apple just offering a one-user-fits all music and video service called Apple Streaming — the company certainly has enough cash in the bank that it doesn't have to rely on multiple subscriptions to push its services revenue. And in that hypothetical realm, having a TV & Movies tab in the Browse section wouldn't seem that out of place.

In Apple's currently-existing music service, however, it just feels off. Maybe I'd be less opposed if the content were better. But given how hard Apple worked a few years ago to separate its music and video offerings on iOS, it's odd to have some video back in the same place again. (Especially when it doesn't link to your other video iTunes content, the way iCloud Music Library supplies your past music content.)

Hopefully the messaging for this will become clear as Apple Music goes through its third year; until then, consider me skeptical on this front.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

22 Comments
  • I moved to Google Music because of YouTube Red. The best deal in streaming music and no silly DJ's desperate to look edgy and cool. Add how my music library was scrambled early on, yes I hold a grudge ;)
  • EXACTLY....YouTube Red allows me to actually save money because I pay for a smaller data package. The ability to download videos while on wifi to be watched later is a big deal.
    Also, the title of this article implies that iTunes is even clearer (audio) these days and yet I see no indication of higher bit-rates or higher quality audio here.
  • Does Google Music has higher bitrate ? Just curious want to try it.
  • Improved playlist sharing should be great when it arrives. The other major improvement in AM I am curious to see is the changes to synching user playlists with the Watch. Unlike the iPad which took off like a storm (and also plateaued just as fast) the Watch seems to be building it's momentum slowly, step by step ... "taking the time to get it right" as Ricardo Montalban used to say in the old Maxwell House coffee ads!
  • Well, iOS is still ‘trailing’ Android too in market share. So what does Apple Music ‘trailing’ Spotify have to do with anything? Why frame it in a success/failure context? Why continue the ‘more sales means better product’ meme? Rene Ritchie just published an article about this mentality. Low and behold, the very first response to this article is declaring a competing product to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Is it some glitch in human nature to want to see a winner and a loser?
  • Great point I don't see it as a this vs that as much as it is a I like this because ... that's what it is for me at least I love apple music and use the download offline content which is super easy and really like the radio station as I get tired of my own lists.
  • All those "mixes" aren't really mixed. They're just sequenced.
  • Google play music has way more adventage. Like YouTube red or you can listen to music everywhere. Than ability to upload 50000 songs. Everyone just cancel apple music and get the right service.
  • Spotify still offers a superior service and is platform agnostic (quality of the app/program is consistent among platforms....Apple Music is not nearly as good on Android...kinda an after thought).
  • I couldn't agree more. We were using the Spotify family plan and loved it until we tried using it though our Amazon Echo's. If I was streaming music and then my son started on his, it would cut mine off. Amazon said it was a Spotify issue and Spotify said it was an Amazon issue.
  • Bottom line apple should of bought spotify. They were much hotter company at the time. They are still leading IMO and can easily be the best with a few changes.
  • I think the DOJ would never allowed it. Apple's iTunes Music Store dominates the download end of the industry. That would have left the big three, Apple, Amazon and Google. Just can't see Uncle Sam allowing it.
  • They did buy Beats music service without a problem.
  • Yeah but their music service was but a blip compared to their headphone business. But I get your point.
  • I've tried Apple music at start, and after WWDC 2017 re-subscribed and will not go past the 1 month I paid for. Spotify just seems to recommend me more interesting music, and the interface seems to be just that much more intuitive. Discover weekly is a great idea, and yes - those shared playlists are great. Also - most Apple Music playlists are for a couple of hours worth of listening at best with a region of 30-50 songs in them. Spotify will have 1000s worth of songs in the playlists which allows you to stick one playlist and run with it for the duration of a long commute (I have to drive 100s of miles some weeks to see customers).
  • Worst deal in streaming services by far.
  • Since it came out I subscribed and I haven't changed. They are all pretty much the same and since i use MacOS and iOS, Apple Music and its system integration is a no brainer for me.
  • I have tried and continue to try Apple Music from time to time and the convenience of using it with Siri is definitely a pull but with my Vodafone contract i get 2 years free premium Spotify and i love Spotify and its playlists, its social integration with friends and its Discover weekly is so spot on.
  • what IS VODAFONE? FROM Slimmm13, Thank you!!
  • Maybe it's me, but Spotify, & Amazon Music, seem to have superior Dynamic range, & overall sound quality.
    I've listened to the same songs on all 3, & Apple Music seems to lag
    I'm talking primarily; 60's, 70's, & 80's, Classic Rock; primarily British.
    IMHO
  • I gave Apple Music 6 months, and although I did find some new music, there was far too much hip hop, and the recommendations for my taste in music weren't that great. It's probably a great service if you are born after 1995.
  • I'd use it but over 90% of what I listen to I already own. Feel silly paying for a streaming service for that.