Apple Music review: streaming service, Beats 1 Radio, iOS 8.4 update


After more than a decade of increasingly dominating the music industry through digital sales even as one competitor after another has plunged itself into debt by trying the streaming music subscription model, Apple is almost inexplicably wading into the streaming side itself. Here is my hands-on review of Apple Music including the good, the bad, the ugly, the long term prognosis, and why the biggest news here is what else the iOS 8.4 update delivers…

THE GOOD:

The one thing it undeniably has going for it is the super-easy interface, as it’s built into iTunes on your computer and the Music app on your iPhone or iPad. That immediately gives it an advantage over obtuse competitors like Spotify, where half the “fun” seems to be trying to figure out how to make anything work. This is the first and only music streaming service built for people, not geeks.

It did a pretty good job of figuring out what I like, though I suspect that was based less on the artist-bubbles it had me click (there were far too few choices) than on an analysis of my existing iTunes library.

AREAS OF CONCERN:

The “For You” tab mostly just offered music I already own. Why would I listen to a streaming station called “Intro to Pearl Jam” when I already own every Pearl Jam album? So maybe Apple Music just isn’t for people like me, who own music. But that’s a problem for Apple, because the people who aren’t willing to pay to buy music generally aren’t willing to pay to rent it either, meaning a pay-only streaming service has no real target audience.

The “Radio” stations tend to be either way too generic or way too specific. If I listen to “nineties rock” I won’t get more than three songs into before hitting a song I don’t like. It was a great decade for rock, but it wasn’t all great. Again, why would I listen to this when I can simply put my own nineties rock music library on shuffle? On the other end there are things like the Spacehog radio station called “In The Meantime Radio.” I played it, and it predictably started off with Spacehog’s one big hit, In The Meantime. Where is this station supposed to go from there?

AREAS OF ASK ME AGAIN LATER:

Apple has already tried and failed to connect fans and artists with Ping, but I don’t blame it for wanting to try again. After all, none of the tech giants has yet to figure this one out. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the high water mark for artist-fan connection was MySpace ten years ago. The bar is truly that low. Facebook musician pages suck. Google+ is gone. Twitter is still just glorified text messages. No one has any idea how to connect artists with their fans on any sophisticated or immersive level. So maybe Apple gets somewhere with the “Connect” feature, just by default.

THE UGLY:

Beats 1 is being marketed as a “too cool for you” type of radio station. When I tuned in, the first song I heard was from Kanye, which pretty much told me what I needed to know. I get that some oddball and upcoming stuff is thrown in among the chart toppers, and that’s cool. But this is largely a rehash of what every FM pop radio station is playing, and there’s something vapid about simply slapping a live DJ onto what might as well be a computerized playlist. Then again, a lot of people like vapid. But I don’t know anyone who chooses their favorite music radio stations based on the DJ.

AREAS OF MONEY:

People have already shown that they’re overwhelmingly unwilling to pay for streaming music. Since Apple isn’t offering a free version, its only hope here is the possibility that after the three month free trial, some people will just passively forget they’re being billed month after month – and with just ten bucks on the line, that’s possible. Apple’s ace in the hole is that most people already have a credit card on file with it for music or app purchases, and these subscriptions will automatically get billed to that. Competitors like Spotify and Pandora never had a chance, because they were never able to get the credit card numbers of their “free” users. But in a streaming music industry where everyone else is going bankrupt because customers won’t pay anything for the service, and Apple’s only chance of succeeding is if customers literally don’t know they’re paying for it, that tells you all you need to know about the viability of this already-failed business model.

If Apple had any desire to make its streaming service popular, it would have offered a free version and tried to make it work with the ad revenue, and eaten the losses in the mean time, which it can clearly afford. The mere fact that there’s no free version means Apple doesn’t intend for Apple Music to succeed, but rather to fail without losing a lot of money in the process. Apple is only getting into the streaming quagmire because the labels have been pressuring it to forever, and they’ve been propping up bankrupt subscription services like Spotify as leverage for us in every iTunes Store negotiation.

The most likely scenario is that Apple Music ends up being a niche at best, the labels finally have to acknowledge that their fifteen year pipe dream of no-effort recurring revenue isn’t real, and they end up pulling the plug on the free streaming services and putting them out of their money-losing misery. Which is exactly what Apple has wanted all along. Whether Apple Music continues to exist after that is anyone’s guess. That depends on whether the artists themselves will want the streaming market to continue, and right now most of them wish it would die so they can go back to making more money from digital sales.

AREAS OF CELEBRATION:

While the Music interface on the iTunes has been intuitive from day one, it hasn’t been revamped in years, something I’d been complaining about for so long that I finally stopped and gave up hope. The arrival of iOS 8.4 brings a highly revamped Music app, and it’s a huge step forward in usability. So even though the streaming service itself doesn’t offer much, at least it finally motivated Apple to start paying attention to its own music app interface again.

Will Stabley
Will Stabley is the Founder and Senior Editor of Stabley Times.
Will Stabley