iTunes Radio

Along with today’s iOS 7 upgrade came iTunes Radio, Apple’s entry into the online radio wars. As a frequent Pandora user and an Apple devotee, it was go time. Here are a few quick thoughts after my initial experience:

  • In order to get the mobile version of iTunes Radio, you have to upgrade to the new iOS 7 operating system, which is like a high-tech holographic version of the previous iOS. The radio software, accessible through the “Music” icon along with your song library, follows suit. Visually, it’s somehow both flashier and cleaner than Pandora’s clunky interface. It’s sleek and stylish — definitely an Apple product. The desktop software isn’t as futuristic.
  • Here’s what Pandora users will recognize immediately about the functionality: You select a musician as the foundation of your station and proceed with a series of songs from similar artists. You’re given the option to approve songs (“Play more like this,” marked by a star), reject them (“Never play this,” marked by an X) or let them play without offering feedback. Like Pandora’s “add variety” function that allows users to build a station around multiple artists or songs, iTunes Radio features an “Add artist or song” button. There’s a share button for sending the station to friends via email or social media. You’re given the option to purchase the songs. Some pre-programmed genre stations are offered.
  • Theoretically, the coolest feature on iTunes Radio is a tuner bar that allows you to program the station for “Hits,” “Variety,” or “Discovery.” Thus far, toggling the bar hasn’t affected the output yet. When I programmed my Usher station for “Discovery,” it fed me songs by Chris Brown and Mary J. Blige, not exactly obscure selections for an Usher fan. When I set up my Radiohead station for “Discovery,” it gave me a Remy Zero song, which seems like it could be at least somewhat under-the-radar for Radiohead fans, but the quick succession of Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and Arcade Fire that followed suggested the “Discovery” feature will only be helping the most clueless music fans uncover something new. However, that also might be because my user history isn’t established enough yet for the program to know what constitutes “new” music for me. (This lack of user history also means there’s no way to tell yet if there will be certain songs that always pop up eventually, like Chris Brown’s “Deuces (Remix)” does for me on Pandora.) I haven’t been able to find the tuner function on the mobile version yet, but again, so far it hasn’t seemed to affect the song selection very much. If Apple can get this thing to work properly, it will be a major advantage over Pandora.
  • There’s an “Allow explicit” function that toggles on and off. Take it from someone who’s been watching his four-year-old nephew a lot lately: This is a handy function.
  • In addition to approving or rejecting songs, you can also select “Add to my iTunes wish list,” designated by a plus sign. Those songs then show up in a Wish List in the iTunes Store, which could be helpful if you buy a lot of music on iTunes.
  • After songs play, they remain cued up in a list along with a price tag. There’s definitely a big push here to get you to use the iTunes store, as expected.
  • In addition to genre options like “Alternative” and “Pure Pop,” pre-programmed options include “Guest DJ” features from the likes of Diplo and Katy Perry. Based on my limited experience so far, it’s unclear how listening to Diplo’s Guest DJ station is different from listening to the Diplo artist radio. More promising were “3 of a Kind” stations for the likes of “The Killers + Imagine Dragons + Neon Trees” and “Mumford & Sons + Of Monsters & Men + The Lumineers”; although those artists mostly aren’t my personal preference, the stations were well-curated.
  • You can skip 6 songs per hour on each station and full iTunes-window advertisements play occasionally.
  • Playback was exceptionally choppy Wednesday compared to streaming I did on Pandora and SoundCloud. I’ll chalk that up to lots of users trying to check out the new product, but if the playback was always like that it would be a death knell for this service.

What are your thoughts on Apple’s Internet radio service? Have you tried it? Do you plan to? Should Pandora be worried? Are you waiting for Pono?

Comments (31)
  1. As a die hard Remy Zero fan, I gasped just seeing their name mentioned. Seems like a good fit for Radiohead radio since they opened for Thom and co. during the “The Bends” tour. It’ll be interesting to see how Apple tweaks their algorithm though. I like the concept of Discovery but sometimes get bummed out when a radio station goes way too far off the grid. Hard balance to find.

  2. Stereogum is my “Discovery” button

  3. Excited to check it out tonight.

    Since we have Deafheaven featured up there, is it ok if I take the time here to vent about something that’s been on my mind recently? Ok…I have tried and tried, but I just do not get the vast appeal towards that album. The idea of it excites me because I appreciate that this style of music is “fasionable” or considered “good” by a lot of people, and that pleases me because I’ve been craving more and more of the heavy these days. But seriously…what is it about Sunbather that is really that much better than anything else out here? I’m admittedly no black metal fan, so that connection is obviously a little lost on me. The vocal stylings aren’t my favorite, but that has much more to do with the fact that it sounds like he is saying the same thing over and over. Even when I read the lyrics, there is no connection to what is being sung. With that said, I’d actually prefer it as an instrumental. But even then, there isn’t much variety from song to song and it ends up sounding like a pretty average (albeit faster paced) shoegaze album.

    I’ve been trying to “get it.” I really want to love this thing. I just don’t. And I am completely baffled that so many do. Is it just because it’s the hip thing to do? Is the “metal for dudes who don’t like metal” factore really that prominent in its popularity?

    Anyway, sorry to bumrush the iTunes Radio post. Just needed to vent somewhere that might actually get seen. Go Apple, and what not.

    • Don’t try to get it. Move on. I tried my hardest to get Japandroids’ “Celebration Rock” but it’s useless. I will never get it and it will remain an album that I just don’t like and you know what, I’m fine with that.

      • Yeah, that’s the easiet thing I suppose. It wouldn’t bug me so much except that I really want to like Sunbather. The National? Meh, never cared for them too much and I’ve moved on. Savages? Take it or leave it. But the idea of Sunbather is like a shiny jewel. I want to like it. Which has me thinking maybe that’s where most of the praise is coming from. It’s a good idea so people are willing to pretend they enjoy it. I’m not saying there aren’t people who genuinely do enjoy it, I just think the hype machine is pushing extra hard with this one. And, obviously, hype does this now and then. “Next Big Thing”… It’s not new. This is just one of those times I really wanted it to be true for me. For some reason.

        Oh well I guess.

        • There’s nothing wrong with simply not connecting with any piece of music, but as someone who has written positively about Sunbather, I will say emphatically that it’s not hype or wishcasting; that record is a legit masterpiece. (Which, again, doesn’t mean you have to like it or even understand why other people like it.)

          • And I completely respect your professional opinion, Michael. Another reason it saddens me. In fact, you are the main reason I’ve given it the chance I have. Perhaps it’s glory will hit me one day. It’s happened before with other albums that escaped me!

        • That album frustrates me so much. I’ll be enjoying some awesome, explosive instrumental intro, and then the guy just starts screeching and puts me off entirely. I don’t know how anyone can enjoy that or not think that album would be so much better as an instrumental.

    • That’s been my relationship with Waxahatchee. I just can’t.

      • I’ve been trying with Waxahatchee as well and having a bit better luck only because I like what I hear, I just wish there was more of itt. Cerulean Salt has a noticable appeal but it seems like a sketch. Half finished. It seems like a collection of good ideas instead of a realized album.

        • I feel the same way as you. It’s not that it isn’t a good album, but many of the reviews and Twitter praise by other musicians I’ve read puts it on a very high pedestal, where as I feel like there is still something better than this from her to come. I saw her live, and in comparison to the write-ups I read about her and the band at SXSW that made it seem like she owned the room like Fiona Apple might, I still heard a lot of harmless green in the live performance as well.

    • KiDCHAIR,

      I’m glad you read the lyrics, as that really helped me enjoy Sunbather even more. But I still don’t think they’re completely necessary to enjoy their music.

      Take two bands I really enjoy but have never bothered to understand what they are singing about: BORIS & Sigur Ros.

      Now, I think BORIS is a decent comparison to Deafheaven. BORIS loooooves their feedback (see: “at last… Feedbacker” their 40 minute song. Also, the vinyl version of “Pseudo-Bread”). When they sing, it can seemingly appear as a tantrum of Japanese hollerin’ but they also tone it down and mumble in Japanese too. So really I’m forced to embrace their larger than life guitar squalls and feedback worship. But that’s fine, I love some loud guitars! (Coincidentally just got back from a No Age show last night. They’re still loud too! Also: Their 12″ version of “Glitter” deserves a mention in this graf).

      Then Sigur Ros. Sure, I’m stretching with this one, but on “Untitled #8″ when everything comes crashing down… especially when they play it live and let the bass QUAKE?! What is it with that? Why do we take such out of this world pleasure in being assaulted by NOISE? (Might as well mention MBV live too…)

      Have a listen of this intriguing cover: (Deafheaven covers Mogwai)

      I’m a huge Mogwai fan. So to see this new band I just got into cover two of the more famous Mogwai songs (the one with the Iggy Pop sample and the one with extremely prominent lyrics). Anybody with a familiarity with the original will see that Deafheaven have turned it into one of their songs, but they do leave in the pretty whispers of “Cody”. I feel with that cover song, it could help you figure out what it is about them that makes them so special. While he does indeed scream the lyrics beyond recognition, they pull back and let those eternal guitar lines ring out (I’ve been listening to “Cody” for awhile…) before blowing right back into… the noise.

      Hell, Mogwai themselves are big fans of noise themselves, which makes this cover make some sense. Especially when you look at “Young Team” and see songs “Like Herod” not to far away from a song like “Radar Maker”. Reminds me of how a song like “Irresistible” can slip into the track 2 slot on “Sunbather” (one of my favorite moments on the album). It’s that ability to climb to the highest of highs, yet still show that you’re capable of bringing it down to the simplest and prettiest of… I don’t want to call them lows, but the quieter parts basically.

      I don’t know where this is going, maybe I should start typing in all caps or something, but look over the bands I listed. Because they’re bands I could see Deafheaven falling into company with eventually. Go over them, if you find yourself saying what you said above about not being into this band or that band, then maybe it isn’t up your alley. And ask yourself the question about NOISE. Does it have a special warm place in your heart? (OH! I just remembered the feedback at the end of “Hurt” )

      tl;dr (sing like Miguel) “Do you like nooooiiiisssseee? Yeah? Well me too.”

      • Not gonna lie, went straight for the tl;dr and now I’m happily jamming out to “Do You…”

      • Good points, RJ. I think I mentioned this in the inital run of Deafheaven hysteria, but if I’m being specific, it isn’t necessarily the fact that I can’t understand the lyrics that bothers me, it’s the fact that he seems to be saying the same word over and over. Maybe I need to listen closer with the lyrics in hand, but it makes me feel dooped, like “Give me a break, I’m supposed to believe there are lyrics behind this? He’s just screaming “Yai yay!” over and over…” (Again, my disconnect with black metal in general probably fuels this fire). This is different than the type of bands where you can clearly tell they are saying something but just aren’t sure what it is, which is what I think you are getting at with the bands you mentioned above.

        Sigur Ros is one of my favorite bands of all time. Even with their Hopelandic gibberish, they at least sound like they’re saying something, and the variety of melody and vocal emphasis add to the emotion and interpretation of whatever it is. There is a mystique about that approach that I find appealing. But with Deafheaven and most black metal in general, my real problem is not being able to connect with anything about the singing. It’s just monochromatic blank noise. Which brings me to that aspect…

        I do enjoy NOISE. Sunbather’s sound in and of itself is relatively pleasant, which is another reason it frustrates me to not appreciate it as a whole. This might have more to do with the songwriting in general in this case. I feel myself wanting grander melodies, stranger effects…something. It comes across as a very average shoegaze record. Which in itself isn’t bad because I love the genre, I just don’t get why I should hold this better than relatively similar sounds coming from Mogwai or My Bloody Valentine or even a band like Deftones who are all extremely melodic and engaging. In fact, if I think about it, if I found the songs to be more memorable or having a wider range of variety, the vocal distractions wouldn’t bother me as much.

        But all of these factors combined just make it a very “ok” album to me. I should reitterate that I don’t “hate” the thing. I just don’t love it despite wanting to, and on top of that, can’t fathom why so many do. The idea of a black metal band going full-on shoegaze and blowing everyone away makes me wish featuer was as pleasing as the trailers make it out to be. Am I making sense?

        I dunno. Just one of those albums I guess? Maybe someday…

  4. I’m actually having a hard time deciding which streaming device to use. I find each has their perks. At this point I’m gonna have to start cutting some out. Of course given that most of my devices are apple, this might just be the easiest interface. Apple controlling me once more.

  5. I am waiting for PONO.

  6. Has Pandora gotten any better in the last year or so? I gave up on it because all it plays for me is Modest Mouse, no matter what station I choose. I like Modest Mouse, but if I wanted to listen to Modest Mouse, I’d listen to Modest Mouse. I guess what I’m saying is if iTunes Radio plays more *indie rock* bands than Modest Mouse, Pandora should be worried.

  7. I’m with you on problems with playback. My internet isn’t great, but it’s good enough to run Pandora and Spotify without a hitch, and iTunes Radio just isn’t buffering fast enough and songs keep stopping. Hopefully they fix it, because I do really like the interface…

  8. Since I actually can’t comment on the Levi’s Mobile Art Project post, I’m gonna throw in my two cents here. Sorry guys. The fuck is with that post? It’s a big ad disguised as news, with closed comments to not allow pointing that out, and small italicized print saying “Written with help from Levi’s” or some shit like that. Get your act together Stereogum, that’s not content and it’s not appreciated.

  9. Yeah the Discovery/Hits feature was hugely appealing to me, I too will stay tuned to see how well it works. Pandora should definitely try to incorporate something like this.

  10. I don’t see the point when I have Spotify.

  11. I love it! the related artists are spot on.

  12. I can’t see the point of any kind of streaming radio service when spotify, rdio, mog, and whichever other sites already offer the exact same service bundled with the far greater ability to play any song you want when you actually want to hear it.

    I say this as an existing user of Itunes Match (which is a horrible, virtually worthless service that barely works at all, is plagued by bugs and lapses in service, yet has somehow trapped me for life so far as I can tell, since my mp3 collection only exists in the iCloud at this point)–and apparently us Match users get extra features or something. I just don’t see the point in introducing a service modeled on another existing service that already feels hopelessly outdated.

  13. Here’s what I didn’t like with Pandora, and I am a paying member: I run Pandora on my iMac in my basement. I have wired & wireless speakers in my house and on my patio. Over time Pandora seems to slowly veer off course of the station I set up. Since I can’t remotely control thumbs up/thumbs down, I would leave my patio, head to the basement and thumbs down or skip ahead.

    In the Apple orchard, I can use the Remote App on my iPhone or iPad and control iTunes Radio via my wi-fi from my patio, If I don’t like something it plays I can skip ahead. I can also control the volume on the Remote App as well. I had been doing the same thing with songs in my iTunes library, but using iTunes Radio opens up much more variety.

    The only odd thing I’ve found so far with using it this way is that I have to ‘start’ my station and then I can control it remotely. I can’t navigate to my station or the Featured stations via the Remote app.

    As far as the accuracy of finding related songs to the artists I put in, I’m not finding any difference from the stations I had set up in Pandora. So for how I use it, I’m going with iTunes Radio.

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