24 hours with Apple Music and Beats 1

Before I began covering tech, my first writing gig was in music — reviewing new releases and live shows for a local music blog. I have always been a huge music fan, buying albums, reading liner notes, going to concerts and gigs, and keeping up with my favorite artists online. Writing about music seemed like a natural fit, but the timing was wrong and I never really stuck to it. Later, I got really into tech and actually had the time to write about it while I was at university, and I eventually turned it into a full-time job.

The reason I explain this is that I consider music and technology to be two of my fiercest passions[1] and these two worlds have not collided in quite the same way as they have with Apple Music for many years — really since the peak iPod days, over a decade ago. iTunes has grown in popularity and in revenue generation, a number of music services have arrived and begun to take over the digital music market, but neither have grabbed me (Spotify came closest) and I have been essentially stuck in a pre-digital music mindset, buying and ripping CDs. While there are benefits to physical CDs that I still value, and I've only had 24 hours with Apple Music, I think Apple's streaming service could be the first digital music service that pulls me away from physical media.

In recent years, my music consumption experience has been fragmented — some purchased from a record store, some downloaded from iTunes, some of it streamed on Spotify, some on YouTube, artists I like sharing updates on Twitter and Instagram, and the radio that has held much less of a place in my life since on-demand streaming became a thing. Apple Music has the bold ambition of providing all of the ways we collectively love to hear music, all in one place which, in itself, is enough for me to consider it over alternatives.

Library

From my initial usage, Apple Music appears to have all the music available I would want in its streaming library. There are a few notable holdouts — The Beatles, for example, but I already own their entire back-catalog, and some others that I am not all that interested in — but I have not found the service to be lacking like I have Spotify at times.

While not quite true, the seamless integration with My Music and the various ways to stream music I don't own makes it feel like I literally have the entirety of recorded music at my fingertips. That can be daunting as well as exciting, so discovery is key. Fortunately, Apple has focused on curation and recommendations to help you find music you will like.

Discovery

Built on Beats Music's smarts, Apple Music has a pretty great recommendation engine. You pick a few artists you like in the setup, tap to like songs or artists when you play them, and skip tracks you don't like. Over time, Apple Music learns what your tastes are and can recommend music to you in the For You tab.

Following the initial setup, my recommendations were broadly accurate and as I used the service throughout the day, being sure to like tracks I, erm... like, I found that my recommendations got better the more I used Apple Music. Returning to the For You tab each time brought a new suggested playlist curated by one of the Apple Music teams, or an album suggestion based on my listening habits. I first thought it would be super easy to become pigeon-holed into a particular genre with each play of that type of music further reinforcing the preference. However, Apple Music has so far been intelligent enough to pick out different genres and artists I like, offering me varied but still suitable music to choose from, be that Alternative Pop Party, Foo Fighters: Deep Cuts, Kanye West's The College Dropout, or Setlist: One Direction at the Rose Bowl[2]. I consider my tastes fairly eclectic, and Apple Music was capable of catering to that while surfacing some content I'd like.

I have also been impressed with the Radio tab. Forget Beats 1 for a moment (that deserves its own sub-head) and focus on the stations formerly incorporated into iTunes Radio. We never had the pleasure of experiencing iTunes Radio here in the UK and I am already impressed by how well it works in its new Radio guise. Being able to start a station like Charting Now and get the latest hits, or genre-based streams like Alternative or Classic Rock, skip tracks I don't like or request more tracks similar to the ones I do like is a fun process — I actually kind of like not knowing what is coming next and being pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised.

Music mogul turned Apple exec Jimmy Iovine spoke on stage at WWDC about how the most important track is always the next one and I have to admit that all the playlists I have heard so far, alorithmically generated or otherwise, have had a great flow to them.

I have already discovered a number of songs and artists that I had never listened to previously. Some of my findings have been new like "Thinktank" by Lake Komo or Fyfe's 2015 album Control and some have been much older artists I knew of but never played like Motion City Soundtrack. For someone who considers himself pretty into music, it has been nice exploring some artists, new and old, that are new to me.

Beats 1

On the first day of broadcasting, it seemed everyone was listening to Beats 1. It immediately becomes clear why Beats 1 is a good idea: marketing. The word of mouth surrounding Beats 1, the feeling of being part of a special club and all listening together, plus the fact that it is another great platform for finding new music, make Beats 1 extremely compelling.

As I said on Twitter, I spent most of day one listening to Beats 1. While I think its novelty will fade over time, it's something unique and different that no other streaming service is doing (or even could do). A throwback to a time before digital downloads that somehow feels modern and, I think, natural within Apple Music.

It isn't for everyone all the time, though, as I suspected before it launched. It was extremely interesting watching tech Twitter react to Beats 1. Knowing Zane Lowe, and his penchant for talking, especially over songs, it was fun seeing people throw criticism his way. But, realize, these people probably haven't listened to actual FM radio for nigh on a decade. Radio is as much about the person playing the tracks as the tracks themselves.

I think Zane killed it and set the bar very high.

I've seen some people on Twitter proclaiming that Beats 1 is so good that they might not even have to subscribe to Apple Music. While that may be true for them, it's not for me. I already value the curation and recommendations Apple Music offers. It also makes me wonder if that was a consideration for why Beats 1 is only available for paying Apple Music subscribers on Android.

One complete thought around music

There are so many ways to consume music in Apple Music — so many, in fact, that the Apple Music app fills packed, cluttered, and confusing at times. It is certainly going to take some getting used to and I fear for the less tech-savvy user.

However, I also love having it all in Apple Music. There's something for every mood, taste and circumstance and it's so easy to switch between different listenign experiences when it's all in one app. This morning, I set the Singer/Songwriter station playing for some easy listening tracks to come around to[1], I spent most of the day listening to Beats 1 yesterday but working late last night I switched to Linkin Park: Deep Cuts to keep me awake. There's only so much listening I've been able to fit in within the first 24 hour period, so I'm looking forward to experimenting more with stations and recommendations and maybe even listening to some of my own music at some point.

Regardless, the point is that however I want to consume music, be it live talk radio, genre-based playlists, or a particular album, I can do so in Apple Music.

Connect

One thing I have left out so far is Connect, Apple Music's social tab. I haven't used it much, so I don't have well-formed thoguths yet but the little I have used it have backed up what I thought when it was unveiled at WWDC — it's going to depend heavily on artist adoption. For those that seem to be on-board early, the activity and interaction from fans seems to be good, but the jury's out and probably will be for some time.

There's more to come

I've only been using Apple Music for 24 hours so my thoughts are only initial impressions. A service like this takes time to integrate into your life — exactly why I think Apple was so intent on offering a three-month free trial.

The UI needs some work, the onboarding process isn't the smoothest (or most accessible with those Beats-inspired bubbles), and the Music app now feels so packed that I can get lost in it sometimes. There are bugs to be ironed out, namely in liking tracks played during Beats 1 broadcasts and the occasional crashes I have experienced, and Apple Music has nuked my battery life while making my phone run extremely hot. I hope these things can be fixed.

We'll only see in time how well Apple Music is adopted and, crucially, how many people on the free trial will upgrade to becoming paying members. As it stands, Apple Music has reignited my passion for music and I have little doubt that I will be one of those that does subscribe come September. Before Apple Music launched I wrote about how excited I was to rediscover my love of music, and how I thought Apple Music would aid that:

What's really exciting me are the curation and discovery aspects. Beyond cost, one reason I have stopped buying music is that I spend less time listening to it. I have albums and bands I regularly play, I love nothing more than going to live shows, and sometimes I do stick my library on shuffle, but the vast majority of my audio-listening time is dedicated to podcasts these days. I'm looking forward to really getting back into music and finding some new musicians and bands along the way.

In its first 24 hours, Apple Music has proven to do that for me and I have no doubt that Apple Music is going to do just fine outside of the tech crowd too.


  1. I'd add sport, specifically football (don't call it soccer), to that list but I don't see Apple launching a Sky Sports competitor any time soon. ↩

  2. Yep, that's a real playlist and nope, I'm not ashamed to admit that it was a good recommendation. ↩

  3. Side note: Wouldn't it be excellent to be able to set a particular Radio station to be your morning alarm? ↩

  1. I'd add sport, specifically football (don't call it soccer), to that list but I don't see Apple launching a Sky Sports competitor any time soon. ↩

  2. Yep, that's a real playlist and nope, I'm not ashamed to admit that it was a good recommendation. ↩

  3. Side note: Wouldn't it be excellent to be able to set a particular Radio station to be your morning alarm? ↩