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We’ll have separate reviews of the Beats1 radio streaming and iTunes Connect artist social networking services that complement the music-suggestion engine in Apple Music. –Ed.
The new Apple Music app, while not perfect, lives up to the hype, and may pose a serious problem to competing subscription music services like Spotify. It’s that good. Here’s why.
The new service, which launched in iOS 8.4 launched earlier today, adds some powerful music-suggestion features to the old Music app.
The suggestion engine in Apple Music uses much of the technology Apple got in its acquisition of Beats Music in 2014. But Apple takes advantage of existing iTunes user data in a way that makes it a far more capable of creating streams of music that the user will like.
I’ve been putting Apple Music through its paces, looking at the quality of the music suggestions, the app’s ease-of-use, the music organization and navigation features, and the overall user experience. And so far I’m impressed.
Downloading iOS 8.4 is relatively painless. You must be on at least a Wi-Fi network to do so, and it took my phone about 10 minutes to download the new system and restart.
You’ll notice that the Music app icon is no longer red — it’s now white with a blue-and-red music note symbol. After you hit the icon, the app asks you if you want to start your three-month trial subscription of Apple Music. You can opt out of the service before the end of the trial and never be charged.
You enter your iTunes password to get that going. The Terms of Service has added an Apple Music section and is now 73 pages long on my iPhone 6. We’ll be taking a spin through that later.
Apple Music’s centerpiece is a suggestion function called For You. Its algorithms use your music preference data and your iTunes music history to present you with relevant music streams.
For You borrows a key feature from Beats Music to understand your music tastes. When you first start using Apple Music, you’re asked to tap a series of bubbles to indicate your music tastes. You’ll see bubbles for genres and then specific artists.
You tap on a bubble once to “like” the genre or artist, tap twice to indicate you “love” it, or press and hold for 3 seconds to indicate you don’t want to hear the genre or artist. This step takes a while, but it’s important because it will help dictate the music the service plays for you, and all of the suggestions it makes to you in the app.
I started out by removing all the genres I don’t like (country, gospel, blues, etc.) and then began tapping on the ones I like (indie, experimental, metal, etc.).
Finally, I double-tapped indie rock and metal to indicate that I love those genres. You have to indicate that you like or love at least three genres and artists before you can move on (before you do, the Done button at the top right is grayed out).
I then went through the same process with the artists it showed me, pressing down hard on the Coldplay bubble, tapping AC/DC once, and R.E.M twice. And then I was done.
I’m impressed with the suggestions the app showed me. It represented the genres and artists that I told it liked, with special attention given to those I loved.
One of the most interesting parts of the suggestions are the curated playlists created by editors at Apple. For me, Apple Music suggested playlists called “When Pop Met Punk” and “Sunset Strip Hair Metal,” both of which I am likely to listen to.
If you tap on any of the tracks in the playlist, you’ll see the record it comes from, along with a pleasing visual presentation.
From any LP page, you can tap the three little dots at the bottom right to bring up this options page, from which you can start a radio stream or playlist based on the artist, add the album to your collection, or share the music with friends.
The “deep cuts” playlists show you lesser-known music from artists that you (and your existing iTunes music) have indicated you like.
It’ll also suggest whole albums by artists it knows you like. I had mixed results here because Apple Music served me up a couple of albums that I already own — like this Adam and the Ants LP. It should have known that by scanning my collection.
The app served up some things I hadn’t heard, like this Johnny Mathis record. I listened to some of it, and I liked it.
It also offered to “introduce” me to an experimental rock band called Battles, who I already like.
I wondered how Apple Music could have suggested so much stuff that was up my alley based only on the bubbles I chose. Then I remembered that the suggestion engine also takes into account my recent iTunes music purchases as well as the tunes I’ve played recently. That answers this question, but the service should have known that I already know all about Battles and don’t need to be “introduced” to them.
You can add your own art to your playlists. For You can also surface playlists from top artists, top songs, and top videos.
This is the part of the app where Apple shows you the latest chart-topping singles and records. The section is organized in sections for popular LPs (Hot Albums), recent releases, top-rated songs, and new releases. You’ll also find top songs from Apple’s Connect artist social network.
In a music world as stratified (by taste) as it is today, will anybody really use this feature? Will some users think, “Gee, I really want to discover the most corporate, mainstream music available, and stream it”?
Apple makes some headway in remedying this issue by breaking down music in the section into finely sliced genres and subgenres. I still doubt that I would come looking here for new music.
But I might be interested in suggestions from in-the-know editors from publications like Mojo, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone. These publications specialize in music from a genres I like (indie, rock, metal, etc.). Apple Music uses other subject matter experts to suggest music from other genres. I found some interesting music in these playlists in the Grand Ole Opry section.
Other playlists are created around life situations, or life events like “breakups.”
The My Music section does roughly the same things as the old iOS Music app, with some better presentation on the artist pages.
Here’s where you can view the music already in your collection and create new playlists. The songs can come from both your own downloads collection and from Apple’s catalog of streaming tracks. You can save any of this music in playlists for offline listening.
A new toggle switch at the top of the screen allows you to view songs from your library or from your playlists.
Apple’s download music business has been suffering as consumers download fewer songs from iTunes and listen to more streaming music from services like Spotify and Google Play Music. Apple would prefer to retain some of those would-be defectors with its own streaming service.
Services like Spotify allow listeners to create their own music streams, with varying amounts of control over the specific songs that are played. Most have both a free tier and a premium package, with ads paying for the free ones (and which typically offer listeners less control over song choices).
After using Apple Music for a while, it’s clear that the company’s betting on your existing iTunes membership, your credit card on file, and most important, your music history. It’s that last thing that makes the Apple Music so good at matching music with user tastes. For millions of consumers, Apple simply has more information about their music tastes — and not just in a broad sense. It knows every track you’ve ever bought on iTunes and leverages that information to create enjoyable streams for you.
So if you and iTunes already have “history,” you may experience a moment using Apple Music in which you think “this thing really understands what I like.”
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