I’m not expecting here to replicate my rather extensive Apple Watch diary series – I doubt this one will run to four pieces. I’m also not starting out here as an Apple Music skeptic. I’ve been using Spotify for years, and – from a brief trial of Beats Music – started out pretty confident I would be jumping ship once Apple Music launched.
But I do think Apple Music has one thing in common with the Watch: I don’t think it’s possible to judge it without a reasonable amount of usage. So I thought I’d begin with my first impressions and then follow up once I’ve used it long enough to have more to say.
I’m not going to dwell on the launch-day glitches, like the welcome screen (above) left over from the beta, the rather belated iTunes update, Beats 1 outage, frequent spinning beachballs in iTunes and the tracks that either refused to play at all or took an age to do so. Half the planet was simultaneously using the service yesterday, so these things will only become issues if they persist. So leaving those aside, what were my first impressions … ?
Signing-up to Apple Music in the iOS app was entirely painless. Having trialled Beats Music, the opening interface was familiar, and it’s one I think works well. Tap the bubbles you like, double-tap the ones you love, tap-and-hold to ‘burst’ the ones you dislike.
After selecting my genres, I did four rounds of artist selection and de-selection. That done, I eagerly tapped on For You. In my view, this is – or should be – the heart of Apple Music. Personalized recommendations for me based not just on algorithms, but on personal selections made by people with a deep knowledge of the music industry. That’s the Apple Music promise.
The first playlist it offered me was Evening Commute: Acoustic, and I was instantly impressed. It was heavy on my favorite genre – singer-songwriter – but also mixed in pop and alternative. Of the 16 tracks it offered, I skipped only two – and those because I found them so-so rather than actively disliking them. That’s a far better hit-rate than any Spotify playlist I’ve tried.
The second thing that impressed me was, of those 16 tracks, I only owned two of them. That has always been the main weakness to me of Spotify’s playlists: they tend to play a lot of music I already own. Artist radio, in particular, is very heavily biased toward the artist themselves, rather than other artists you might like. Sometimes, Spotify had just felt like a slightly lazier way to listen to my own music. Apple Music, in contrast, was doing what I see as the core job of a streaming music service: introducing me to new music.
From those 16 tracks, I liked two of them enough to add them to My Music. Apple Music was off to a great start.
Unfortunately, things went fairly rapidly downhill from there. It initially offered me only one other playlist, and that one was far less successful. Nothing I actually hated, but nothing I loved or even particularly liked. It was really nothing more than inoffensive background listening. A third playlist popped up later, and that one I mostly disliked.
In addition to the three playlists, it initially offered me six albums. I already owned three of them. It later expanded these to twelve albums; I owned nine of them. Nine out of twelve. Nine albums sitting in my iTunes library. Where’s the supposed integration between my music library and the streaming service? Why is a music discovery service showing me music I discovered for myself years ago?
Now, I guess you could argue that it would be legitimate to surface albums I owned but haven’t played for ages, but nope: two were albums I play often. Again, iTunes has access to play counts, so this is hardly the seamless marriage of owned and streamed music I’d hoped for. The only good news here is the other three albums were ones I don’t yet own by artists I have in my library; that’s legitimate and useful.
By the following morning, Apple Music was offering me three Intro To selections. Intro To is a great concept: show me an artist I don’t know, and give me a hand-curated selections representing a good cross-section of tracks by that artist. Fantastic. Except … all three artists it was ‘introducing’ to me were, yep, you guessed it: artists already in my music library!
Now, I know this is day 2. It needs to learn my tastes. But the whole point of integrating owned and non-owned music into a single app is, surely, to use one to generate suggestions for the other? Offering me albums I already own is silly, and Intro To artists I already own is absolutely crazy.
The user interface in both apps is, I would say, a little clunky. In the iOS app, if you really love a track, the chances are you’re going to want to do three things:
- tell Apple Music you like it, so it learns
- make it available offline to listen to it more in the immediate future
- add it to My Music to effectively make it part of your music library
Those are three separate actions in the app (only two of which can be done from the Now Playing screen, as far as I can see). Now, I’m hoping/assuming the app is smart enough to realize that if you make it available offline or add it to My Music, that’s because you like it – and that either action is treated as a Like – but even if I’m right, it’s still two actions.
The iTunes ‘…’ menu gives you the choice of New Station from Artist and New Station from Song; the iOS app just gives you Start Station. Again, it doesn’t give much of an integrated feel. And the menus also order things differently. On the iOS app, Start Station is above Add to My Music; in iTunes, the order is reversed. A small point, but Apple is all about attention to detail, and it’s lacking here.
There’s also no obvious way for me to tell Apple Music that I dislike a track. With Beats, you could give a thumbs-down as well as a thumbs-up. Apple/Beats clearly recognizes from the setup stage that what we dislike is as important as what we like, but once past setup I can see no way in either app to give a thumbs-down to a track – there’s only a heart option to like it.
The latter point seems to me more than a UI complaint: it would also reduce the effectiveness of Apple Music’s ability to learn my tastes.
Here’s where I’m going to sound like my dad. I’m not a fan of DJs as a concept; I just want the music. By all means hire DJs to create the playlists, but I won’t want them talking between tracks – and talking over tracks ought to be a felony.
My musical tastes are far from cool, so I sampled Beats 1 without expecting much, and I wasn’t disappointed. This isn’t a criticism: I’m just not the target market.
Conclusions so far
I have to confess, I’m disappointed. From my brief trial of Beats, I’d been expecting great things of Apple Music – and so far it hasn’t delivered. The UI stuff isn’t a big deal, it just feels messy; not learning from the music I already own is the big disappointment.
But I do fully acknowledge that it’s unfair to judge the service on day two: I need to give it a decent shot at learning my tastes, so I’m going to religiously Like every track it plays that I do like, and see how it does over the next week or three. Watch this space.
What are your own first impressions? Take our poll, and let us know your views in the comments.