Apple Music: The Story So Far

4 July 15

Going into it, I was already highly skeptical of any usefulness Apple Music would have to me. This is because I’m a true music snob, and an old-fashioned record store one to boot. That is to say that I still go to music stores, and I actually chose where I live based on its’ proximity to the best record stores in the country. I own thousands of records and buy hundreds a year.

So a streaming service that chooses for me what I like has never been a good solution for me. I hate radio with a white-hot passion previously unknown to humankind, and I own all my records to make sure I never have to listen to radio in any form. Letting a DJ push their taste on me is intensely unappealing and almost never rewarding. I can list the DJs who’s tastes I respect on one hand and still have enough fingers left over to hold a pencil. I’ve dipped my toes in Pandora and Spotify, as well as the earlier iTunes Radio service. I can go maybe three minutes before I’ve blasted through my allowed skips and then I turn it off for good.

I Knew I Hated You For A Reason

Apple Music is the perfect service for people who have out-sourced their taste in music. That’s not to cast aspersions on those folks who find this kind of service helpful. I know many, many people who have little to no interest in deciding what they like to listen to. They enjoy the radio experience and like having music delivered to them without interaction. They are fine, upstanding citizens who contribute to our economy and fight beside us in wartime. They’re not picky about their music, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that.

But for people who do actually have a passion for music, Apple Music is not helpful. After going through the setup process at least a dozen times to this point, I’ve only amassed ten artist bubbles. The service just keeps suggesting bands that are wrong for me, and once I reject them it will suggest a band almost exactly like the one I just rejected. I can keep deleting the Black Keys, but every time I do, a My Morning Jacket or a Kings of Leon bubble takes their place. The one thing I did not expect from Apple Music is that it would have such poor taste in music.

Says The Snob

Why is that? Well, Apple Music appears to function as a marketing tool for the music recording industry. It is an industry solution to an industry need. The bands I’m being pushed towards aren’t being recommended for their quality, they are being recommended because they’re big sellers in the music biz. The industry’s interpretation of “good music” is the same as “top sellers,” and Apple Music reflects that. You’ll likely never get a track in Apple Music that makes you really fall in love with an artist or a song, because that’s not what it’s for. This is about selling you the same music everyone else likes.

As a discovery tool, the service is extraordinarily bad. After five days of use, I’ve found no new tracks I like. My “For You” section simply lists “deep cuts” and “rare b-sides” from the same artists I’ve chosen in the setup. The issue for me is that I already have those tracks. Apple Music seems incapable of seeing my library and knowing that I already own these songs. In addition, I get “Intro to…” selections from bands I already indicated I liked in the setup, which is redundant. And even after going through the setup again and again, it can only suggest ten artists that I like, compared to the 230 my iTunes library says I listen to frequently. Of all the suggested tracks, artists & albums that appear in “For You,” only about 7-10% are not already in my library, and that 7-10% is stuff I’ve previously made my mind up about.

What I really wanted from Apple Music – and something I used to get from early versions of iTunes Genius – was producing new, contemporary tracks that were similar to what I already like, no matter what decade it came from. It is not more important to me that my music comes from the 80’s than it being a good song. I usually find about four or five quality new artists a year on my own, and I hoped Apple Music would help me out in my search. Not so much.

I’ve written about it a few times, but the kind of discovery I’d like to see is a simple analysis of my library versus other folks. If I like Track A and Track B, other people who like Track A and Track B also like Track C. Would you like to listen to Track C? That’s as simple as I need. I trust other music fans’ honest recommendations over a DJ or music executive any day.

Not a Match, The Board Goes Back

A very distressing element of the new Apple Music is the re-work of iTunes Match, which already had some niggling issues, and is now superseded by the new iCloud Music Library. iTunes Match already had problems with mis-identifying similar songs and not allowing users to reset the library or at least manually delete tracks. I still have a library which has versions of a track on my Mac and other versions on my devices, with no way to fix it besides deleting the track outright, and losing all the metadata in the process. iTunes Match also followed in line with iTunes’ unexplained hatred of duplicates, hunting them down and getting rid of them with extreme prejudice, which has always been puzzling. Why can’t I have a duplicate track? What ethical principle, technological limitation or law am I violating?

Additionally, I had a consistent problem whenever I imported external non-iTunes music files into iTunes. It would warn me that iTunes Match was working and prohibit me from editing the metadata, and I’d wait patiently. When the track was declared ready, I’d edit the metadata and one minute later, it would revert to the original version, deleting all my new data. There would be no way to back out, and no way to undo it. You had to start over. It would often not allow me to edit my own tracks for a solid 24 hours. If I attempted to make any changes they would just disappear seconds later. That experience has been possibly the most aggravating experience I’ve ever had on any Apple platform. Inexplicably deleting user data with no warning or way to fix it is crazy.

Unfortunately, iCloud Music Library didn’t fix those problems and instead introduced some really nasty new ones.

Here’s my tale of woe: I had two tracks by a band called Cornershop. They were versions of a track called “Born Disco; Died Heavy Metal.” I have an easy-listening version and a techno remix of that track, but I lacked the original. While Apple Music was in effect, I purchased the EP the original track was on, and it downloaded. Simple enough.

But what happened next was baffling. It mis-identified my techno remix as the same track I had just purchased, deleted it, and put the newly downloaded track in it’s place. It then mashed together the metadata from the purchased track and the deleted track, leaving the name of the techno remix in place but making it a part of the purchased EP. This, despite the fact that the two tracks in question are almost entirely different. One is a punk/garage song three minutes long, and the other a four-minute tongue-in-cheek techno remix of that track, omitting all instruments and replacing them with synths.

Thank goodness for backups. But even after my fix, my techno remix that I downloaded from a fan site is now classified as a Purchased track, and the purchased track is now classified a duplicate of the techno track, so I can’t listen to it on my devices, only the Mac. This is nuts.

Beats 1 and Done

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about Beats 1, and not just because of my distaste for radio. Beats 1 has the same thin veneer of slickness that all big corporate radio stations have, with incessant reminders of what station you’re listening to, noisy quick-cut promos, and loud over-amped DJs who want to be my cool friends.

Like I mentioned above about Apple Music recommendations, Beats 1 is aimed at furthering top-selling artists rather than real music discovery. It’s also relentlessly focused on contemporary artists, and plays like a combination of American Top 40 and BBC Radio 1. There’s almost no room for anything but a non-stop freight train of hyped music and it’s claustrophobic to listen to. Turning it off feels like a relief.

I’m also confused as to why Beats is running ads. Not ads in the conventional sense, but little “made possible by” and “presented by” mentions. The necessity of ads makes me wonder exactly what the aim of Beats 1 is. If it were strictly for music and furthering the Apple Music and iTunes services, does running ads make sense? Does Beats 1 need to turn a profit to be successful enough to keep it going? That’s very unlike Apple to think in those terms.

All in all, Beats 1 misses the mark not just in terms of my taste in music, but it is also everything I don’t like in radio, in concentrated form. A slightly-slower-paced format with people who like music instead of people who like being famous DJs is more of what I’d be hoping for.

Streaming of You

Apple Music functions best as an all-access pass to listening to the iTunes library, it’s best feature by far. It’s being positioned as “Streaming” but it’s really a lot more than that. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of music that can be a dream come true for a lot of people.

It’s a Faustian deal, in that you have to keep paying your $9.95 a month to keep your music, but as long as you do, you can get everything you’d ever want, and keep it local on your computer. For a lot of people that’s a great deal, and is a step better from other services, thanks to the local downloading feature.

If you really do want to discover new artists and new music, this may be the best choice of the three major Apple Music features to accomplish that goal.

7/31/15: Added section on iTunes Match.