Apple makes much of its human curation of Apple Music. Indeed, just a couple of months ago Tim Cook suggested that this was the key difference between its own offering and competing services.
We worry about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft.
Personally, it was the curated playlists that mostly won me over from Spotify. That’s moderately impressive …
Although I enjoy some mainstream music – mostly pop – my tastes are somewhat eclectic, with a strong bias toward singer-songwriter. That’s not a completely mainstream genre, but it’s one which Apple serves well.
Music discovery remains key for me. I don’t need a streaming music service to listen to my own music, even if it does give me prompts I wouldn’t otherwise get. And it’s here that Apple Music really has excelled. Even a week in, I found it was broadening my musical horizons significantly, and it’s continued to do so, recommending artists I’d likely never have discovered any other way. Some of those artists have become favourites.
In three months, it has introduced me to more new artists I like than Spotify has in literally years. More than I’ve discovered through recommendations from friends. More than I’ve found by Shazamming tracks in bars and coffee shops. That’s huge.
But there are some genres where Apple Music fails badly. Perhaps the one most often discussed is classical music.
Indeed, when I Googled for ‘apple music classical,’ this was the top hit:
A colleague got the same result, so it doesn’t appear to be related to my search history.
That piece, by Franz Rumiz, identifies a number of issues. The first is that classical music fans don’t just want to find a composer and a track, the exact recording is crucial.
Just think of Verdi’s “La Traviata”. This opera has an own Wikipedia entry which lists 29 different recordings of the piece and this is just a partial discography. The major distinction of classical pieces lies in categories that are not provided by Apple Music or that are ordinarily summarized in the artist section: conductor, orchestra, soloist/ cast, opera house and year.
Another issue is nonsensical playlists.
Last but not least: the “Richard Wagner Essentials” playlist. A mash-up of arias and overtures of different operas in a totally senseless way.
And, writes Rumiz, Apple Music even manages to mess up a recording of a single performance.
The idea to write this article came up while listening to Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony” — which, by the way, was one of the first recordings to be pressed on compact disc.
The piece consists of twenty-two continuous sections and lasts typically 50 minutes, depending on the performance. In a recent recording, the piece is split up in 22 short tracks, the shortest 16 seconds, the longest 6:05 minutes. So far, so good.
But now Apple Music comes into play: It pushes a break of one second in between the tracks. This is an absolute outrage! I find these breaks in the middle of a thrilling, highly emotional classical symphony to be annoying — they are destroying the concentration and pleasure of the listener.
A reader yesterday wrote a similar critique. Benjamin Charles argues that not only does Apple Music fail existing classical music listeners, but also those who might be developing an interest for the first time.
Now let’s say you are interested in getting into classical music. You search for one of the biggest names of the 19th century: Hector Berlioz.
You’re presented with an odd cartoonish drawing of Berlioz, despite the fact that photographs are available. The first thing listed is an album of “The Finest French Classical Music,” which contains one movement of a work by Berlioz alongside a handful of other French composers spanning about 100 years, with no continuity in musical style between them (other than the fact that they all happen to be French). The first “top song” listed is called Symphonie Fantastique, which is one of Berlioz’s most famous works, but it is actually the second movement of this work as performed by the Odense Symphony Orchestra (a Danish regional orchestra, rather than, perhaps, the London Symphony Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic) for a movie soundtrack. Scroll down a bit and you are presented with a confusing array of albums containing works by Berlioz and others, a playlist of “essentials” presented without much explanation, some live albums (Berlioz died 20 years before Emile Berliner recorded the first album in history), incomplete biographical information (it lists his birth date, but not his death date, and the actual bio is what I would deem a “blurb”), and a smattering of “similar artists”—explain to me how Johann Strauss, the Austrian Waltz King, is at all similar to the early French Romanticist Hector Berlioz.
Notably absent are: a list of works by Berlioz; any information on the themes in his music; and a clear list of his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.
And there’s no shortage of others out there saying the same thing.
Apple is trying – just not hard enough
It’s not that Apple is unaware of the issue, nor that it doesn’t care. It is putting some effort into it.
Cupertino has teamed up with Deutsche Grammophon, one of the biggest classical music labels, to launch a curated channel that highlights the company’s best recordings. One of the portal’s first offerings is the 2008 Salzburg Festival staging of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette featuring star tenor Rolando Villazón — and, yes, the service is making the full-length performance available as a 32-track visual album.
But the steady stream of complaints shows that Apple isn’t doing nearly enough.
Not just a classical music problem
I’ve recently been finding a similar thing with tango music. I’m learning to dance Argentine tango, and have been searching for pieces recommended for beginners. Spotify is pretty good at this, but Apple Music fails in much the same way it does for classical music: a search mostly leads to playlists that have some random version of the song you want, plus a whole bunch of rather random tracks. Even I, as a complete tango novice, can tell that these playlists weren’t compiled by anyone familiar with the genre.
Indeed, in the Apple Music Diary piece quoted above, I wrote that I was cancelling my Spotify Premium subscription and wouldn’t be returning to the service. I was wrong: because of the massive disparity between Apple Music and Spotify when it comes to tango, I now have a premium account again.
I’m sure there are countless other genres out there where the same thing is true.
Why should Apple care?
You could argue that Apple shouldn’t care. That it focuses on pop and hip-hop and a few other genres precisely because they are popular. Mainstream music is, by definition, what the bulk of Apple Music subscribers care about. Why should the company devote resources to serving minority markets? Especially when you consider that many classical music fans wouldn’t go anywhere near a 256kbps AAC stream.
To which I have three responses. First, while it’s true that a serious classical music fan sitting down to listen intently to a piece may well want a lossless recording, there are plenty of people who listen to classical music more as a background activity. Even What Hifi? doesn’t turn its nose up at the service.
Apple Music’s streamed songs sound clean, snappy and detailed. Compared with similar tracks on Spotify (which are 320kbps Ogg Vorbis streams), Apple’s have greater subtlety and more space around instruments.
Dynamically, the sound is more fluid and exciting. Notes stop and start with punch, timing is good, and subtle shifts from quiet to loud are admirably handled.
Second, because Apple has the resources to do it properly. It’s one of the few companies on the planet than can afford to hire the world’s best curators across almost any genre you could name, not just mainstream ones. Sure, it may want more of them for some genres than others, but it could at least manage one person who knows what they are doing in any genre for which it has a significant catalog.
Third, because I’d argue it has a responsibility to do so. Apple, as a modern company, was built on music. It was the iPod that turned it from a niche computer company into a mass-market consumer brand, and it is the iPhone – itself very much trading on the iPod’s musical heritage – that made it the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Music has been a massive friend to Apple; it’s time for Apple to return the favor.
So that’s my view: Apple could and should care about all the genres it streams. Please share your own thoughts in the comments.