Apple Music review: Apple joins the streaming game
At last, Apple has released Apple Music, its foray into paid streaming that is designed to shore up its long-held position as the king of music sales.
There’s a lot in Apple Music, and a lot to like. It’s the most comprehensive – and sometimes most complex – music application I’ve seen. This makes it potentially the most powerful, and also occasionally the most confusing, music app around, and it has a couple of gaps.
So, what is Apple Music? It’s an on-demand streaming service, similar to Spotify Premium and Google Music, that lets you play, and download for offline play, any track from a catalogue of millions. The catalogue itself is broad enough to satisfy most people. There are a few artists you won’t find (notably Prince, who has recently pulled his back catalogue from all streaming services apart from Tidal), but almost everyone else, including Spotify absentee Taylor Swift, is there.
Apple Music offers more than just a way to steam all the songs you want. It focuses on human curation, with hundreds of pre-built playlists based on genre, mood and even time of day. There’s also a kind of mini social network for artists, who can send – via their marketing people, no doubt – fans updates and share music they love. Did I mention there’s also a global radio station, Beats 1, anchored by former Radio 1 star Zane Lowe and some other really good DJs? Yes, Apple has made a radio station.
Apple Music: iOS app design
If that makes you think there’s a lot packed into Apple Music, you’re right. This means the design of the apps is incredibly important. Apple has built Apple Music into the iOS Music app on iPad and iPhone, and into iTunes on Mac and Windows. There’s also an Android app coming later this year. Everyone can get a three-month free trial, which at the very least should encourage a few people to cancel their Spotify Premium accounts to get free music for a quarter of a year.
First, the good news: even if you completely ignore all the features involved in the streaming service, you’ll find the iOS app easier to use and navigate than the old Music. There’s a prominent search button at the top, which makes it quick and easy to find any artist, track or album you want across Apple Music and your own songs. Offline music management, in particular, is much faster: you no longer have to go into the app’s preferences in order to toggle between seeing all tracks in the cloud and only those downloaded to your device.
At the bottom of the screen on iPhone, there are five icons: For You, New, Radio, Connect and My Music. The most familiar territory, and one of the only things you’ll have access to if you choose not to pay for Apple Music, is My Music. Here, you’ll see your iTunes library, including anything you’ve uploaded to the cloud as part of iTunes Match.
If you choose to subscribe, anything you add to your library from Apple Music sits in here, too. This is similar to Google Music, which also lets you mix and match songs you own and songs you rent in a single library. You can also mix both sources of music into playlists.
Apple Music includes all the features of iTunes Match, which matches music on your Mac or Windows PC with Apple’s catalogue and effectively turns that music into a downloadable, DRM-free, high-quality copy from Apple’s library. You can currently store 25,000 songs of your own, but Apple says it intends to upgrade this to 100,000 over time.
When you first subscribe to Apple Music, you’re invited to select artists and genres you like. The interface is a little gimmicky, based on tapping onscreen bubbles with artists’ and genres’ names, or double-tapping those you like a lot, until you’ve selected as many as you want.
Although it’s playful, it confused me a touch, since there’s no indication of the number of artists you should select; there’s a minimum of three, but no maximum. There’s a large, circular blob at the bottom of the screen that represents “you”, but you don’t drag the bubbles here. Also, the progress indicator on the blob represents your overall progress, not your progress within the current screen.
Apple Music: Curation and playlists
It’s worth going through this process, though, because it’s at the heart of one of the most useful and powerful features of Apple Music: For You. This is a homescreen that suggests playlists, albums and artists you might like based on your initial selections, along with any songs you’ve liked in the past. I found For You surprisingly good: every time I opened the app, it suggested something I might plausibly want to listen to.
The playlists in particular are excellent, in part because they’re human-curated, but also because whoever’s in charge of them seems to
Whoever’s in charge of the playlists seems to have a deep knowledge of music
want to find a playlist on “The roots of industrial music”, it’s there – and a fine selection it is, too), and there are hundreds and hundreds of them. Every genre and most of the artists I found have at least one playlist, and often many.
Of course, other services have playlists, but they often feel like an afterthought. Here, it’s clear a lot of love and genuine enthusiasm for music has gone into their creation.
The New tab, as the name suggests, surfaces new music, but also old stuff that Apple wants to highlight, such as a “Best of Glastonbury” collection. It’s also the main way into playlists, if you want to browse them. New isn’t as impressive as For You, though, mainly because it feels a bit like a dumping ground right now.