Beats Music, the streaming music service from Beats By Dre, goes live today. Boasting the involvement of Dre himself plus Chief Creative Officer Trent Reznor, Interscope mogul Jimmy Iovine, and Topspin founder/former Beastie Boys webmaster Ian Rogers, it promises to improve upon existing services through sleek design and human curation, presenting listeners with the ideal personalized music experience. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Beats intends to know you better than you know you.
Yes, another wannabe big fish is trying to make a splash in an already crowded pool. Beats Music’s competitors include Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Grooveshark, Google Play, and Deezer, and that’s just the ones offering on-demand access to a vast catalog, not even considering radio-centric services such as Pandora and iTunes Radio. There are so many of these products for a reason — in this proto-Matrix cloud world we live in, everybody realizes streaming is the future of music — so it’s difficult to believe Beats Music will stand out. But someone is going to end up winning this war, and those who inevitably will give this new service a chance thanks to the big names attached will probably be impressed. After toying with an advance copy of the mobile app this weekend, I think Beats Music is at least a fascinating alternative to the pack and, yes, maybe an improvement too.
The interface looks slick from the start. After registering, you’re presented with an array of bubbles, each one containing the name of a genre, and instructed to pop the ones you hate (by pressing them until they disappear) and expand the ones you like or love (one tap for like, two taps for love). It looks like this:
Then comes a similar display with a range of artists’ names based on the genres you specified. Here you’re instructed to select at least three artists you like, though you’re allowed to keep clicking as many bubbles as you want:
Having completed your preferences, you’re launched into the main interface. There you can slide sideways through pre-programmed departments chock full of playlists. JUST FOR YOU presents recommended playlists based on your stated preferences (“Blur: Best Non-LP Tracks” and “Best Of LaFace Records” were among those I tried) and album picks (mine included OutKast, Bright Eyes, Animal Collective, and the Who). The HIGHLIGHTS tab gives you more playlists, many of them timely; “Oscar Nominees” and “Game Day Warm Up Mix” popped up on Sunday. The FIND IT tab allows you to peruse even more playlists organized by genre, activity (BBQing, Chilling Out, Getting It On, Starting A Riot) or curator. Curators range from magazines, websites, and radio stations to Target and Ellen DeGeneres. I tried out Decibel’s “Just Shut Up Already” (Baroness, Pelican, Faith No More) and Country Weekly’s “Top 15 Songs Of The Year (2013)” (Tim McGraw, Lee Brice, Kacey Musgraves, the Band Perry). As for activities, in the Chilling Out section I toyed with “Stoned, Alone And Turning Off My Phone” (Cocteau Twins, the xx, Modest Mouse, Grizzly Bear), which proved entertaining even while sober; under Getting It On, I found a list called “From Ignition To Climax” that indeed included R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” and Usher’s “Climax.”
So, yeah, a whole lot of playlists — that’s where the curation comes in. Beats Music has assembled a seemingly bottomless bucket of expert opinions to provide an on-demand version of what you get from Sirius XM satellite radio’s highly specialized stations. Like Spotify, Beats also offers a behemoth library of music on demand, searchable by artist, album, or song. I didn’t notice differences between the selection on Beats Music compared to Spotify; they both provide access to almost any music you could want, but they both lack, say, the Drag City catalog and Atoms For Peace. No alarms and no surprises there.
The strangest feature in the main interface, and Beats Music’s closest thing to a radio function, is called THE SENTENCE. Borrowed from Songza, it’s basically a game of musical Mad Libs: You select a setting, a mood, who you’re with, and a genre of choice, and Beats creates an infinite playlist based on those factors. Theoretically this is the coolest service Beats has to offer; it definitely helped me discover more music than iTunes Radio’s parade of headliners did, but I also struggled to figure out what difference some of the variables made. Selecting “I’m On A Boat & Feel Like Punching Walls With Robots To Oldies” queued up an enjoyable stream of music from the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, and Gene Vincent, but I’m not sure what robots or punching walls had to do with it. “I’m In The Car & Feel Like Chilling Out With Your Ex To Rock” resulted in music as disparate as Isis and post-Freddie Mercury Queen, and frankly I don’t think I would have enjoyed any of it in the car. It’s unique, sure, but compared to the bounty of hyper-focused playlists, it’s not as useful.
On balance, could I see myself using Beats Music instead of Spotify going forward? Quite possibly! It looks good; it sounds good; I found what I was looking for and what I wasn’t. But if I want it, I’ll have to pay for it. Unlike Spotify, Beats isn’t offering a free version of the service, which means (a) no irrepressible ads lulling you into Stockholm Syndrome and (b) only those willing to commit $10 a month will get on board — that is, after a seven-day free trial. But I feel more inclined to pay for Beats than I’ve ever felt about Spotify. Using the app was a smooth experience all-around; I encountered no bugs, and, Thom Yorke or no Thom Yorke, everything was in its right place. (Yes, Beats does have Radiohead.) That smoothness can be attributed to Beats being designed as a mobile-first product; as of now, there is no desktop app, so all the design work went into making the mobile product great. That seems to have paid off; there are so many nooks and crannies to explore, and more often than not, exploring them was rewarding. More than any service I’ve encountered, Beats is the complete package.
What does that mean for the big picture? Only time will tell, but today’s launch might be a beachhead toward Beats’ eventual domination of the streaming game. Only a small handful of these services will last long enough to really thrive, and Beats is bringing something both functional and sexy to the table. Given Pandora and Rdio’s well-documented financial struggles and the pile of headphones money Beats is starting with, the newest kid on the block seems poised to dictate terms of the battle going forward — if in fact Beats hasn’t already won by simply existing. Its name recognition alone should give it a leg up. Furthermore, Beats seems to be targeting folks who are not traditionally big streaming users: DeGeneres is promoting the app on her daytime talk show and a partnership with AT&T will allow users to sign up their whole family for $15 a month. If Beats can successfully cast such a wide net, it will be well on its way to becoming for music streaming what Google has become for search engines.
World domination is not going to happen overnight. Beats is still in the U.S. only, whereas Spotify is already up and running in about 60 countries. Many wealthy and powerful companies have a dog in this race, and something else may yet emerge to squash Beats — Deezer or YouTube’s forthcoming service might catch fire in America, or, far more hypothetically, a preexisting power like Pandora might launch its own on-demand libraries to complement its much-loved radio component. Who knows what else is brewing in Silicon Valley and around the world? There are always more next big things around the corner.