2015’s going to go down in the books as the year streaming music officially became a norm. Obviously, it’s been a thing for years, but 2015 marks streaming becoming a dominant force, not just in terms of behind the scenes number crunching, but as a cultural phenomenon. You could avoid hearing much about Spotify without trouble, Beats Music came and went as a gimmick, and even now, GooglePlay is the quiet kid in the corner, but through a combination of “the streaming wars” between services and the public’s focus on anything Apple or Taylor Swift do, streaming’s come to all.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with Apple. Apple Music, the tech juggernaut’s streaming service, co-opts the mobile Music app, and nestles its way into the most recent desktop version of iTunes. Basically, Apple brought streaming to you: the next time you went to fire up “Hey Ya” in your Music library, Apple asked if you’d want to start your three month trial period, and, one password later, you were on your way. In our current #HotTake climate, there were a lot of first impression pieces on AppleMusic, so I thought I’d examine the program now that I’ve had a few weeks to use it in my day-to-day.
Oh, the set up Bubbles. Upon agreeing to try AM, you’re presented with genres (hip-hop, country, classical, electronic, rock, alternative, indie, hits, jazz, etc.) in bubbles, and have to tap once to “like”, tap twice to “love”, before doing the same with artists within your genre selections, all with the end goal of a highly customized “for you” section in the app. It’s a cool idea with belabored execution: surely, wouldn’t it have been faster to ask me for ten artists and start basing recommendations from there? Instead, I was stuck going through clusters of chosen artists, debating if I liked or Like-liked Alicia Keys, and praying LCD Soundsystem would show up. Sure, you don’t have to revisit this Pepto-tinged ball pit ever again, but it’s a slow start.
AM brings a lot of bells and whistles to the table, and the iPhone’s Music app was already an efficient and fully formed music player/organizer. As I read about features in AM, I got to wondering how it would work in relation to the longstanding app I already knew. The bulk of the old music app is regulated to one “My Music” section, sacrificing its efficiency in playlist creation and toggling between categories (songs/artist/albums/genres), and a clunky redesign of desktop iTunes shrunk down. On a full monitor, the list of options makes sense, but on mobile (and especially my poor, pintsize 4S), it’s just claustrophobic. The rest of the sections pop with color and sleek designs, but the opposite feels true of “my music”. Design wise, it seems to trump its musical selections while shrugging at yours.
Even in the halcyon days of Last.fm, digital music has treated taste curation and recommendation like an alchemical formula it’s always on the cusp of discovering. It’s never just been about playing your music, but going one-up from there: “sure, we can spin To Pimp a Butterfly, but have you heard of Stankonia?” If there’s a predictive model to music discovery, I haven’t seen it; no matter the platform, the “recommended” tag feels novel and inessential.
Which is why it’s refreshing to see that AM’s “For You” has some teeth. Its pitch is less sexy than the celeb hook-ups at Beats1 Radio or Connect, but it’s the feature with the most potential mileage. Basically, when you open “For You” or refresh it, it comes at you with six album suggestions and three Apple Music curated playlists. It gets started in the bubbles, but seems fairly receptive based on your listening habits. For example, I went spelunking in demos on Smashing Pumpkins reissues, and the next day AM spat a Smashing Pumpkins deep cut playlist at me (score!). “Deep cuts” style playlists are popular, as intro/best-ofs, and the requisite “mood” playlists are accounted for, as well. Some of the best playlists I’ve seen are the ones that forsake these standards for more inventive ones: I had one that was nothing but songs produced by Just Blaze, and another that was nothing but Rihanna hip-hop collaborations. Another boon to the playlists is length; instead of Spotify’s unwieldy 100 song behemoths, these skew between 12 and 25 songs, keeping selection tight and runtime brisk.
Even with “For You”, though, that ideal predictive music discovery model is still missing. It gives me a selection of hip-hop playlists wildly disproportionate to how much of it I listen to (I listen to about as much hip-hop as I do indie or alternative or punk on a given day; a steady 90% of my playlist selections for said day will be hip-hop). Playlist specificity is great until it isn’t: Jay Z playlist? Awesome! Jay Z guest verse playlist? Still awesome! Jay Z Guest Verses With Subtle Digs In Them? Okay, I get it, the Apple Music Hip-Hop team really thought these out–y’all wanna do a Nas best-of?
Likewise, as soon as you get outside canonized punk or alternative records, AM goes blank faced. I went on a bender where I threw Likes/streams/downloads at Title Fight, Candy Hearts, Titus Andronicus, Joyce Manor, The Wonder Years, Allison Weiss, Modern Baseball, Spraynard, Adventures, Mixtapes, and Into It. Over It to trigger some sort of response, and got “Drake: the Deep Cuts” in return. Some of the indie or alternative playlists seem pedestrian as well; I don’t know, maybe the Hip-Hop team’s creativity spoiled me.
Nifty as it is, the feature can be exhausting: AM opens in “For You” by default, even when you just want to throw on some of your music. I get it, they want to emulate the mythical All Knowing Record Store Employee, but this isn’t suggesting a record during small talk, it’s shoving half a dozen in your arm when you walk in.
It’s 2015, and I’m reviewing a radio station.
You can hear the pitch for Beats 1: Apple gets exclusivity on big names, DJs get to be themselves, play some tunes, talk shop; everyone walks away happy. And it’s Always On ™! I like that Beats 1 doesn’t archive their shows, it gives incentive to catch what you want to, and adds a bit of urgency to whatever you hear (it also keeps a show from being an overproduced podcast). The shows have a permanent novelty where it’s not that something’s always happening, but that something could always happen. I caught part of “Money, Pizza Respect” with The Fat Jew–who I genuinely thought was Action Bronson for the first ten minutes–where Lisa Loeb just happened to call in, chatted for a bit, and told a story about a fight between some Bloods and Crips at one of her shows back in the day. I don’t know that I needed that in my life, but I also don’t know that I didn’t need it, either.
The celebrity shows I’ve heard were both of the “Play music we like and comment” sort. Ellie Goulding had a great assortment her influences and favorite contemporaries, while Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age (sidenote: can we appreciate that Homme, whose biggest album has the underlying concept of “DJs suck“, has his own radio show?) played from the same pool of stuff, but would occasionally throw a theme in for a few songs, like “animals”. They were both enjoyable, but nothing I’d make a priority.
What I’d really want to see is someone who won’t play nice. Beats 1 advertises itself as being the most exciting radio station in the world, let’s see someone whose not afraid to go there. Put Tyler on. Give Noel Gallagher an hour. Let’s see Willow and Jaden burn this thing down. That‘s exciting.
A streaming service has to do two things: play the music you want it to, and justify the existence of any of its add-ons. I can’t say Connect sticks the landing, not yet at least. Connect is a way to “keep up with the artists” and have access to content you wouldn’t find otherwise. Trent Reznor, bless his heart, has been the only one to do something meaningful with this: he put up studio quality instrumentals of two of Nine Inch Nails’ albums up the day Connect launched, and put up some extra music from the Gone Girl soundtrack since (although, full disclosure, he’s also one of the creative directors for Apple Music). Otherwise, Connect is full of the same dull announcements/postings you’ll find on even the most basic social media sites where the uploads are done by the #ContentManagement intern. I see Connect’s SoundCloud/Tumblr/Facebook/Instagram aspirations, but it reads much closer to GooglePlus.
Aside from playlists from the official Apple Music genre teams, there are activity playlists and curator playlists. “Activity” playlists are broken down by categories–“Breaking up”, “driving”, “getting it on”, “kicking back”, “running”, “lamenting the inevitable heat death of the universe”, and so on. This seems like a retooled, less whacky version of Beats Music’s Sentence feature, but still more novelty than anything else (and God help whoever’s frantically scrolling through the “Getting It On” section with their pants around their ankles, agonizing between “Bedroom Bangers” and “Trip-Hop Turn-Ons”).
Curated playlists have gotten to be part and parcel of streaming services. I think they’re kind of silly. At their best, they offer a little more (read: any) genre diversity by list, and they’re trite stereotypes at worst (to wit: NME’s first list is “Alex Turner’s Best Tracks”). I’m sure there are interesting lists there, but finding them is to go further down the rabbit hole than I’ve explored so far; most are garden variety tastemaker/”here’s what’s out”.
I’d much rather curate my own playlists, but making a playlist using streamed content only is like pulling teeth. All playlists are routed through “My Music”, meaning that you have to download each song locally, or turn on the settings to show your entire iTunes library just to make and access a custom streaming playlist. A two click process on Spotify or Tidal is jumping between two and three sections and two different settings here. It gets back at the obtuseness of “My Music”, like Apple’s made their stuff as pretty and accessible as possible while cutting every corner of your own input.
I think I’m still going to carry on through my trial period. Right now, it’s not costing me anything, and I’d like to see AM improve its functions (that and give Connect/curated playlists time to update). It’s convenient and it has enough useful features to keep me coming around, but the fact that I can’t get to my own music without it throwing a handful of records at me sums the experience up perfectly: forget ownership. Digital music has always tried to recreate the record stores they supplanted, but AM forgot the end goal: leaving with what you love.