Posted on05 July 2015 11:20 PM GMT

Apple Music - The Verdict

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I will preface this article by saying that I am a long term music fanatic - having amassed some circa 10,000 12" records over the years, as well as a considerable volume of CDs - music is a constant in my every waking moment. Over the past 10 years I have gradually and almost fully transitioned to digital. I’ve been using iTunes since 2010, and am an early adopter of Spotify. I buy between 2 and 10 albums worth of music on roughly a weekly basis - this comes from a variety of sources - including iTunes, Amazon, Beatport, Traxsource, Juno Download, Bandcamp, 7 Digital, and still some vinyl and the occasional CD. I am still disappointed that a great part of music has yet to be converted to digital and still can only be consumed on an analogue basis. To which ends I have a USB turntable and optical drive to convert my analogue music sources to MP3 format - so that I can listen to them on the go. When you encounter me in public you will almost always see me with a pair of headphones on - either in use or wrapped around my neck in standby mode (Bluetooth!).

 

I rely on an iPhone 6 Plus 128GB paired with a Philips Fidelio M1BT headset - which combination is my daily musical companion / jukebox. The vast majority of the iPhone’s memory is occupied by music - currently in excess of 11,000 songs (circa 50% of my total iTunes library). As I said previously, this music soundtracks most of my daily activities, and is with me while I work and on every journey. Cloud-streamed music will never be fully reliable for me though, as there will always be some sort of reception black spots and occasions for Signal drop-out. The most significant part really, is that no single source can or could ever fulfil the broad spectrum of music I like to listen to.

 

Spotify I use mostly for music discovery / exploration and to help me to decide whether it is worth adding a particular collection of songs to my own collection / library. As the 30 seconds to 2 minutes song previews on iTunes etc. are usually inadequate to properly gauge the character of an entire album. For ease of use I buy most of my MP3s through iTunes, then Beatport, Juno Download etc. for more specialist tracks which aren’t available from Apple.

 

Before and while upgrading iTunes and iOS to the latest versions (i.e. featuring Apple Music), I had fairly familiar memories of Apple’s Ping offering of old, and the previous Beats streaming platform. For my own purposes, I was hoping for a more converged experience - where before I bought my iTunes album, I could preview it fully, with lots of additional background info, videos, social utilities, band interviews, interaction etc. - all in the same seamless and unified interface. I recall the time when Spotify had an MP3 purchase option - and you just added to basket from the same playback screen - as you would expect.

 

Reading around the web over the last few days, I have seen a lot of very mixed reviews about Apple Music - very favourable from the Apple fanatics, and not so favourable from the neutrals and the proper heavy music fans. As always, Apple has designed beautiful interfaces, but that is somewhat part of the problem too - as all the functionality is silo’d into different functional areas rather than part of a seamless and intuitive rich media experience.

 

This is my experience to date:

 


Too Disjointed

 

iTunes Music now has 7 main tabbed sections:

 

My Music | Playlists | For You | New | Radio | Connect | iTunes Store

 

All of those tabbed elements are somewhat separate and not at all integrated into a singular 360° experience - as my friend Jeff would say - all this is just way too ’clicky’. For instance, instead of having the ’Connect’ element properly integrated into the music stream - with comments and all, it is a separate silo - consisting of what is a very basic bulletin board type app - where artists post messages / images / videos and allow their fans to comment and like! There are 3 separate searches - for My Library, Apple Music, and iTunes Store - which typifies the disjointed nature of the app.

 


Poor Social Connectivity

 

The reason that the previous Apple Ping ’Community’ was stillborn, was that Apple did not understand social media. The new Apple Music seems to highlight that Apple still does not understand the nature of ’Social’- and this is going to become a significant problem with the social / sharing aspect of music too - which most web / mobile users are already familiar with and engage in. In a delicious irony, St Vincent curated a Playlist on Apple Music - ’For a 11 year old girl who likes Purity Ring and Chvrches’, but the Stereogum write-up includes an embedded playlist from Spotify, as Apple does not enable that sort of functionality. All you seem to be able to do on Apple Music is ’Copy Link’ or ’Share in Email’ - which is not nearly enough.

 


Stand Alone

 

The one thing I really used to dislike about Spotify was its clunky nature as a desktop app - when play.spotify.com was launched as a browser version of Spotify - it massively improved the Spotify experience. I have had a torrid time with iTunes in the past and ongoingly, and Apple Music is really just a sort of iTunes Plus - with pretty interfaces, but an over-reliance of continuously clicking in and out of items to expose full functionality, details etc. With Spotify, as soon as you select the Artist/s you get a single scrolling screen which encompasses their whole musical output and you can freely click between tracks quickly and intuitively - with Apple you are forever clicking in and out of albums. I have never found iTunes to be particularly responsive, which was true to a degree with the Spotify Desktop App - why Apple can’t do this as a lightning fast HTML5 version for browsers I have no idea.

 


Isolationist

 

Apple has always ring-fenced its ecosystem - so that you need to be inside the walls to benefit from the experience in any real sense. Compare this to how Spotify and the BBC operate - both are very progressive with their Social Media programs - and have content on other platforms and make their content accessible to other platforms. Apple though has never had a proper sharing philosophy - it has always tried to totally, autocratically even control and thus limit its overall environment - especially in the area of social reach. The same example can be made when comparing the Android ecosystem to the iOS one - the former has much greater freedoms and more potential for customising the experience to your own specific needs. I am mostly on Apple because of its still slight edge in the quality of Apps, and in particularly - music-related apps.

 


No Improvement to iTunes Store Preview

 

I would have thought that as an Apple Music subscriber, I would get full track previews in iTunes, but no! I need to go into the ’New’ and ’For You’ tabs to access the streaming versions separately - there is absolutely no connection seemingly between the iTunes store and the Streaming offering. Where being able to listen to the full album predisposes you to whether you want to buy the album or not - surely it’s in the interests of the store and the artists on that store that people can properly preview and thus likely buy more music? Surely it is better for artists too if you can directly purchase from the same point you listen to the music - yet at the moment the two are very obviously and awkwardly separated. I find myself opening up iTunes on the album in question and previewing it on the other side of my split-screen on Spotify! Still an easier process than working within iTunes / Apple Music. iTunes also has a nasty habit of resetting to default when you are clicking between My Library and iTunes - meaning your search results and selections disappear and have to be found again ...

 


iTunes too convoluted?

 

With all these additional tabs etc. there is now a whole lot to iTunes - starting with tabbing between the various top levels - Music | Film | TV | Podcasts | Books | Apps etc. - in comparison, Spotify is all about the Music and does more things in a single, instantly accessibly scrolling screen interface - where on Apple Music you are still clicking backwards and forwards between tabs and in and out of different screens. To the untrained eye - Apple looks more user-friendly (because of the perceived prettier interfaces), but in actual usage terms the process of finding and playing back music is much more straight-forward on Spotify - certainly for me.

 


Radio vs Playlists

 

Very few of my nieces and nephews listen to radio any more - it seems more of a pastime of a by-gone era, as exemplified by Radio 1 vs Radio 2 audience figures. All the younger generations I know, love to create and share playlists - this is their version of radio. I use a number of different social sites for music discovery - and except for the occasional car journey I rarely ever listen to radio any more. And for playlists - the whole purpose is that they can be easily shared and consumed - like Spotify does them. Apple is kind of new to this particular type of ’content’, and there have been some understandable teething troubles in establishing its new radio service - which in and of itself does nothing innovatively. The BBC is much more adept at Radio and handles the medium more cleverly and on a more integrated and social-friendly basis. Apple’s forte here is using the cache of musical celebrity in letting more artists host their own ’shows’.

 


Limitations in App Set-up

 

When you start up the Apple Music App on your mobile device for the first time, you are asked to select two or more (artist/s) favourites to help Apple understand / predict your preferences. I skipped through the first few assortments looking for more significant artists that I follow, only to find I could not get the earlier choices back - I was looking for two of my most significant influences - Björk and Sigur Rós - neither came up as an option at all. I found I was clicking largely on artists whom I consider to lie in my second tier - rather than primary taste makers. It gave me significant cause for concern as to what future automated recommendations might yield, and how those suggestions would be arranged and prioritised!

 


More Memory

 

Before the Apple Music update, my iTunes was typically idling at circa 250,000K RAM, the first few times I used it with Apple Music, it hit around 900,000K RAM and I can still find it peaking significantly above its former values. It is evidently a somewhat bigger app than before and seems to take up noticeably more resources.

 


Unresponsive

 

This is more about the desktop version really, as iTunes is the source of so many ongoing issues for me - particularly in the area of syncing the My Music library with various devices. I find iTunes frequently a highly frustrating experience - it is often sluggish to respond and ’freezes’ momentarily every now and again - which I never encounter with the ’Music’ app on the iPhone - which is truly slick and quick to react. iTunes still regularly fails to properly sync My Music with my iPhone often corrupting the music library on-phone, and meaning I need to clear off all the music and load it on again - a 3 hour process which I have lost count of the times I have had to carry this out. Generally though iTunes, and now Apple Music often don’t respond quickly and fluidly.

 


No Real Innovation

 

Beyond some pretty interfaces / layouts, there really is nothing innovative or particularly special here. The execution and its resulting experience is rather disjointed for me. I have read reviews from quite a few Apple fangirls and fanboys who proclaim that Apple Music sorts out all manner of usage glitches found on Spotify. For a music lover though, Spotify may be a little less glossy, but when you dive into it, offers a currently more satisfying and experience than Apple Music. We also know that Apple is very much on the side of the big labels - which is reflected in its so far 60/40 big labels to independents radio playback split. In many ways I see DJ Zane Lowe’s move to Apple’s Beats 1 Radio as a step back for him - as I believe he will have less musical freedom and less choice - as there is still significant music only being released on specialist formats.

 


No Major Simplification

 

I was sincerely hoping that Apple Music would streamline and enhance the entire music discovery / acquisition / playback experience for me. Yet what they have done is a very disconnected approach which has somehow managed to complicate things in many ways. I will persevere with my 3 month trial to see if I will be fully won over. I am likely to maintain both Spotify and Apple Music subscriptions in any case as their catalogues vary quite a bit in some of the tiny margins where my interests lie. For newbies though it is a case of whether Apple Music genuinely offers something better than Spotify. I can see their family pricing policy of $€£15 for 6 family member accounts as the real winner here - although how can that be good value for the artists Apple serves? I also hate the fact that I cannot open up separate browser-like tabs for different searches etc. - like I can on play.spotify.com. Apple has silo’d off the principal parts of Apple Music - and each can only be accessed singularly and individually, a long-time bugbear in using iTunes.

 

 

 

Conclusions

 

I think it’s still a little too early to call, but I see nothing here which would overly compel one to switch across from Spotify. Unless I had a large family, where I might be tempted to go for the $15 deal for six family members (Interesting to see what artists say about this and if Spotify does anything to respond to this threat). For what and how I like to use it, the browser-version of Spotify is still eminently preferable to desktop iTunes. I am disappointed that the new additions offer very little benefit to the iTunes Store experience - and the lack of connectivity seems a careless oversight. You could argue that if you go for Apple Music - then all your music needs can be routed through a single App / single icon selection, but that app can in fact be quite convoluted to use - accessing my own library for playlist playback now requires an additional click to access it, which is a reduction in efficiency by 50%. I’ve not seen any analysis on the exact relevant sizes of total streaming libraries - I am led to believe they are fairly similar, but Apple may have the upper hand in some areas (major labels + Taylor Swift!?), while Spotify supposedly has the upper hand with certain independents.

 

In terms of how Apple sets up its recommended playlists and new content, the emphasis will likely be geared more towards the bigger labels, in common with its apparent radio playback policy. If you really like Radio, there are companies and organisations already doing bigger and better things with that format - like the BBC for instance (Neutrality has to be a factor). The Music Connect area is embarrassingly simplistic, and the ongoing lack of proper social integration is almost inexcusable in this day and age. Many have said that Apple Music is perfect for those who have absolutely no knowledge of music and would like everything recommended to them on a plate. As far as different playlist recommendations go, I already subscribe to a number on Spotify - connected with TV Shows, Pitchfork, Guardian Reviews etc. - overall this seems like much of a muchness and it would seem that listeners can be equally well served / inspired and educated on both formats. As I said at the start, I largely know what I’m doing, and have various and multifarious sources of recommendation for new music - which seem to suit me better than having to dig into Apple Music. It’s early days, and I am still open to influence, but on balance, Apple Music so far weighs in somewhat under expectations...

Stefan
Posted by Stefan
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