Essay

First Impressions Of Apple Music

Less than 90 minutes after I began downloading Apple’s new mobile-phone operating system, the voice of London grime rapper Skepta was yawping in my headphones: “This ain’t a culture/ It’s my religion.” Those lines could almost describe how, for most of the past decade, many devotees have approached the company that Steve Jobs built; the cult of personality around products from the iMac to the iPad helped grow a business that’s now the biggest by market value in the world. But Skepta’s stark declaration of purpose also drives home my first impression of Apple Music, the iPhone maker’s just-launched bid for the online streaming business. That is: Apple comes across as if it’s making up for its latecomer status through sheer zealous fervor for music. For a self-defined music obsessive, I can’t deny it’s an appealing sales pitch — then again, they already have my credit card number.

After much press coverage in recent weeks, Apple Music arrived with the rollout of the new iOS 8.4 this morning a little before 11AM EST. It’s not the company’s first venture into streaming; iTunes Radio, which takes a Pandora-like “lean back” approach, debuted way back in September 2013 (see my first impressions here), and Apple bought Beats Music service, a Trent Reznor brainchild that plays tracks on demand like Spotify, as part of its $3 billion deal last year for Dr. Dre’s whole Beats Electronics empire. Apple Music, early reviews based on products demos have noted, has a whole lot more going on than the old iTunes pitch of any song you want for a dollar. But to focus on the complexities in the details — which are real — is to miss the bigger picture, which is deceptively simple. Apple Music, as far as I can tell on day one, does nothing more and nothing less than integrate a huge range of digital music options in one familiar ecosystem. And the principle organizing it all, making it comprehensible and (perhaps ultimately determining how well it will success) is that underlying sense of passionate musical intelligence. Apple is a technology company, but Apple Music has succeeded, at least initially, by persuading me it’s as record-crazed as I like to imagine myself. I don’t see that as a zero-sum statement, either: If Apple Music succeeds, there’s a chance the extra publicity could help lift the entire streaming industry.

To understand what’s impressive about Apple Music, it’s helpful to look back at the company’s earlier industry-changing innovation, the iPod. Apple wasn’t the first to release an mp3 player, and that’s what came to mind for me when iTunes Radio arrived, as well. But more importantly when it comes to Apple Music, the iPod didn’t just Apple-ize an existing product, as iTunes Radio pretty much did. The iPod brought the various aspects of mp3 culture together into a single system, then catalyzed it with a marketing campaign that captured a sense of excitement: Where once an mp3 listener might have had a file-sharing program such as Napster, a computer-based mp3 player such as Winamp, and then a way of taking the music with them such as a burned CD or the Diamond Rio portable mp3 player, now, at least theoretically, a person could buy music from iTunes, organize it in iTunes, and play it on the iPod. Even if those little white earbuds never did stay in my ears. So when reviewers point out that Apple Music is more complicated than the idea of being able to buy any song you want for a buck, they’re right, but that’s kind of the point. The iPod (and, later, iPhone) experience was about more than any one of its component parts. iTunes Radio was just one of the parts: Apple Music feels like the whole, with the already-existing ideas of passive streaming, on-demand streaming, curation, and access to a library of previously downloaded files all now combined so that in the future we may not have to think about them as separate again. And that is exciting.

Reznor, describing his streaming vision in a December 2012 article, said, “What’s missing is a system that adds a layer of intelligent curation.” A mix of algorithms and human selection has since become crucial to not only Beats Music but also Spotify, Google Play, Rdio, Rhapsody, and other streaming providers, so Apple is hardly pioneering the idea. But with 800 million iTunes accounts worldwide and a catalog of 30 million songs including, as widely reported, the streaming-averse likes of Taylor Swift, Dr. Dre, AC/DC, and even Thom Yorke (though for now the Beatles’ discography is available only for purchase — no Prince, either!) Apple Music has a unique opportunity to bring all that streaming can offer to the masses. There’s already some interesting exclusives, too, like Pharrell’s “Freedom” music video and instrumental versions of The Fragile and With Teeth from Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. But the most excitement, what will end up being Apple Music’s “killer app” if it has one, can be found in the human element Reznor years ago envisioned. Its flagship online radio station, Beats 1, will be available free to Apple ID-holders even without a subscription to the service, and passion is the product. It is hosted by Zane Lowe, poached from BBC Radio 1, who played Skepta; he opened with Manchester band Spring King’s “City” as part of an initial run of songs that also included tracks from Beck, Jamie xx, (inevitably) AC/DC, Hudson Mohawke, Courtney Barnett, Shamir, Bully, the Chemical Brothers, the Weeknd, and (also inevitably) Dr. Dre. Almost all of these were songs were ones I consider personal favorites; after a phone call briefly interrupted my stream, for a second I wondered if what I’d come back to wasn’t Beats 1 at all but rather a mix I’d been working on last night. Oh, sure, we will all have our differences with Lowe’s tastes. But from the choice of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports as Lowe’s pre-set music to his characteristic decision to play Pharrell’s “Hot Music“-reminiscent exclusive track “Freedom” more than once in a row, there was no mistaking either Lowe’s intense enthusiasm or his willingness to go where that leads him. Skepta! (It should be noted, though, that all the songs played on Beats 1 are “clean” versions. Just like terrestrial radio!)

Within the app itself, my experience with Apple Music’s curation was mixed, but once again, good enough to have me planning to use the service in a way I never did iTunes Radio. Though I’ve seen raves about the “For You” feature, that’s what actually gave me the most frustration: After I’d downloaded the new operating system and signed up for my three-month free trial with the streaming service, I found myself feeling embarrassingly befuddled as I attempted to tell it what genres I liked. As bubbles for “hits” and “classical” floated around, it actually took me what seemed like forever before I could see the categories for “hip-hop,” “dance,” “alternative,” and “pop”; I didn’t see “country” or “rock” until I’d hit a reset button. The next phase, where I found myself being asked to say whether I “love” Whitney Houston and the Boredoms or just “like” them (or dislike them altogether), also struck me as a bit arbitrary and overly complex. But certainly not enough for me to cancel in disgust. And the resulting recommendations were more on point than I’d expected: a “ramshackle indie” playlist with Kurt Vile, Woods, War On Drugs, Parquet Courts, the aforementioned Barnett, and the Drums (bing!), another playlist that’s an introduction to Lil Wayne (bing again!), and a playlist of Elvis Presley’s ’60s singles, which was just leftfield enough from what I usually listen to that I had to smile. I hadn’t yet reached the point where I was discovering new artists — a list of recommended new albums that included records by Deerhunter, Houston, Wayne, Drake, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and Lady Gaga had a high batting average for preferences but didn’t introduce me to anyone I hadn’t heard a bunch of times — but it was early, and I wasn’t complaining.

The “New” feature, too, shows potential. Click on this one and you see a range of current music, with Taylor Swift’s 1989 towering skyscraper-like over the rest of the screen’s contents. I scrolled down to the “Apple Music Editors” section (“The music we’re obsessing over, plus handcrafted playlists”); there are also tabs for “activities” as well as “curators” like Alternative Press and Pitchfork. On a whim, mindful of the many recent articles about country’s ongoing gender divide, that’s where I clicked, though the “Songs Of Summer” playlist embodied the angst over “bro country” rather than serving as an antidote; instead of Kacey Musgraves or Little Big Town, I saw Dustin Lynch, Brad Paisley, Sam Hunt, Luke Bryan, and Zac Brown Band. Not what I was hoping for, then, but probably what I should’ve expected in light of country radio playlists and festival lineups.

One area where Apple Music does generally stand out from rival streaming services is its ability to receive voice commands through Siri. Full disclosure: I’ve never really had much luck getting Siri to work. But I know others have, and I gave it a go again this morning. I can confirm previous reports that yes, Siri is able to play the No. 1 song from a given year when asked. We’ll have to wait and see what else Siri can do: During Apple Music’s big unveiling recently at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, a command to play the song from Selma worked on a second try, so I randomly decided I’d see what it did if I asked for a song from High Fidelity. I got Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity” and, when Siri thought I said something about a “Deli,” I got “Two Mules For Sister Sara” by Movie Screen Orchestra. I told Siri I like Robyn, and the device may or may not have understood I like Robyn (or “Robin,” as the text unsurprisingly showed). I asked Siri to play me the best song by OutKast, and I got “Hey Ya!”, which, well, I don’t know if that would be Lowe’s pick.

Reviews based on demos have been filled with praise for the way Apple Music integrates the songs already in a user’s iTunes library, and that worked well for me, too. Other services do this as well, of course, but I’ve been a longtime iPhone music listener so I’m happy to avoid the extra step of using another app. I saw a friend on Twitter say he was having trouble saving a playlist, but that wasn’t the case for me. I found this aspect to be fairly self-explanatory. And the design overall, for Apple Music in its entirety, was up to the company’s usual par, as others have said.

Demo-based reviews have also noted that Apple Music’s social aspect, called “Connect,” still leaves something to be desired, and I’d have to agree. A “synth Saturday” playlist by Holy Ghost! popped up, presumably because I’ve bought the group’s music before, but mostly my Instagram-like feed was filled with self-promotion by Snoop Dogg, whom I had told the program I liked back when I had a short list of artists to choose from in the “For You” section. That’s what I get, I guess?

The other key point to make is the price: $9.99 for a user or $14.99 for a family. That adds up to more than the vast majority of people are used to spending on music each year. So it’s only logical, then, that Apple Music exudes a certain fanaticism about its given medium: Fanatics are its market. Fanatics about music, rather than tech. People like me, in other words. As Apple begins to cannibalize the sales from its equivalent of a record store, the company has held onto the idea of the trusted record-store clerk. “It’s not about fanfare,” Lowe said early on in his Beats 1 debut broadcast. “It’s about quality and consistency.” Apple Music isn’t alone in much of its basic premise, but it already has the fanfare. I’m excited to see if the quality and consistency continue to follow. Either way, unless I remember to opt out, I’m now a subscriber.