July 27th, 2015
It’s been a month almost since the initial release of Apple Music, so I thought it might have been a good idea to weigh in with my own impressions. This is not going to be a review, just a flow of thoughts and personal experiences with this new Apple service.
A new design
The first notable change when you update to iOS 8.4 is going to be the new icon on your home screen. I’ve been a fan of the orange Music app icon since the launch of iOS 7, but I feel like they’ve done an extraordinary job with this new one. It definitely sets Apple Music apart and looks beautiful on the iPhone dock.
The icon is only a small part of the overall redesign that Apple gave to its music app. With iOS 7 and then later with iOS 8, the music app has been slowly but surely streamlined, in order to better fit with the overall flat trend of iOS.
Among all of them, the inside album view is definitely the aspect that I like the most about it. I like how the entire UI picks up the dominant colors of the album art so to blend in and give a much better experience to the user.
The new design unfortunately is not always helpful. There are many cases in which the new UI becomes an obstacle when trying to understand what’s going on. One classic example is the offline availability of tracks. First of all, why by default Apple Music is not showing the streaming-only tracks? That doesn’t seems to be a good implementation choice. Also, the switch to change this behavior is hidden in the last place you would be going to look for it (the menu where you can switch between album/artist/song view).
In addition to that, it’s very difficult to exactly know which track is available and which one is not. Usually next to the offline track you would get a small phone icon which should signal that the track is saved locally. In reality this system seems to be a bit of a hit and miss. I have one playlist where I put all the songs that I like (a kind of Best Of). This is the first playlist I wanted to save locally, so that no matter what I always have some good music with me. You can save the entire playlist, but only some of the songs have that little offline marker. All of the tracks are actually stored locally, but simply by looking at the visual clues, you wouldn’t be able to tell that.
On a single playlist is not a major issue, but if you start managing a bigger offline library, things may get ugly pretty soon.
There are now five main tabs within the new Music app: For You, New, Radio, Connect and My Music. My Music is basically all that the Music app used to be before the introduction of Apple Music, so I won’t spend too much time on it. As a matter of fact, if you decide not to subscribe to Apple Music, the My Music tab is all you’re left with.
This section quickly became my favorite part of Apple Music. During the initial setup of the service you are asked for your musical taste. This and favoring tracks while playing them will help in making sure that the service can deliver the best music experience for you.
So far this has been working almost magically for me. What you get from For You is a mix of playlists and albums, which so far has been a mix of things that I already know and love but also quite a lot of new stuff that made me discover such great music.
I particularly enjoy the playlist side of For You. You generally have a mix of ‘songs inspired by X’ where x might be an artist already in your library and these are the ones really useful for discovery; ‘deep cut of Y’ where is all about a specific artist and then depending on the time of the day you also get contextual playlists: something relaxing for the morning or a party compilation for the Friday night.
Then there’s also another type of playlists which I’ve seen a few times already: the geo-location playlist. I’m not sure if this is a real thing or it’s just chances, but I do get lots of lists London-based. This seems a great way to discover local music. I haven’t changed my regional settings to see what you get in the US or other European countries, but if it’s really location-based it would be another great feature of Apple Music.
As the title of the section suggests, you would think that the ‘New’ tab is all about new music releases and the hot tracks of the moment; and you would be only 50% right. Indeed there’s new music and new releases, but there’s also a lot more. The first thing that you’ll notice is that in there you can find many celebrity-curated or magazine-curated playlists, alongside the ‘mood-playlist’ (are you outdoor? do you want BBQ music? it’s a dinner party? that kind of mood).
It is for this reason that I find this section a bit confusing. Mostly because I only look at the label and I think to myself, ‘here I’ll only find new stuff, so it’s not worth to check there daily’. I always forget that there’s a lot more going on in there, so I end up missing a lot (even if I rather prefer the dynamism of the For You section anyway).
Radio is the new big thing of Apple Music. Beats 1 is live
24h 12h a day (is about the same 12 hours repeated twice every day) with three main hosts and a number of a-list musicians hosting their own smaller shows. I love Zane Lowe, I used to listen to him all the time when he was at BBC Radio One and I was extremely pleased that Apple brought him on board for their radio. He’s always been on top of the new music scene, bringing to the wider audience so many great artists over the years.
Now on Beats 1 he keeps doing the same show as ever and therefore he keeps being the best way of discovering new music. I like Julie Adenuga’ show as well although sometimes it goes outside my comfort zone in terms of musical tastes, but it is still a good listening exercise. With Ebro Darden instead I’m almost always lost. I’m not into the kind of music that he regularly plays (lots of rap and hip-hop) and he also makes cultural references that are escaping me since they are very US based.
All in all I think this is a very good mix of hosts and diverse music backgrounds to appeal to such a wide audience (Beats 1 is live in more than 100 countries as we are often reminded during the broadcast).
The celebrities shows are also great, I especially like the St. Vincent Delivery Mix Tapes; not just for the music (which is always great) but also for the stories and how the music blend in so perfectly. Despite having lots of great shows, Beats 1 has a discovery issue. Yes there’s a Tumblr blog where you can find the schedule, but you can only look ahead about 12 hours and the times there are not always 100% correct, making it sometimes difficult to tune in at the right moment.
Myke Hurley (of Relay.fm) makes a good point of saying that Apple should have an iCal ready for user to download and integrate within the calendar app. I would even go as far as saying that they should give an option online where you can pick and choose which show you want to add to your personal calendar, so you can be reminded of the shows you really care about.
Another possible improvements could be to serve this music shows as downloadable podcasts after the facts. Right now, once the show is over you get a playlist with all the songs played during a specific show (not for all the shows and not always straight after the show is over). The interesting parts of those shows are the DJs interaction, which are currently lost once the show as aired twice. I know that by doing so, you may lose a bit of the appeal of listening live, but I still think it would be a great improvement for Beats 1.
Now comes the only bit of Apple Music of which I have nothing to say about. The premise would be of a revamped and improved Ping (remember that??…me neither…), the reality is that is just about the same. You can follow artists which are more or less regularly posting materials on there. To help you populating the Connect section, Apple Music will make you follow all the artists which material you add to your Music, a behaviour from which you can opt-out from the app settings.
Is it worth the jump?
I’ve been a Spotify Premium subscriber since the very beginning of Spotify. Last week I’ve cancelled my subscription after replicating all my playlists onto Apple Music, which itself was a very painful and manual process.
So far I’ve been pretty satisfied with Apple Music, it has offered me a solid service. For me the biggest advantage is to have a service that is full system-integrated so that it allows me to use Siri for example.
It definitely might not be for everyone, but I think that Apple is moving in the right direction.