Nearly 15 years ago, Apple positioned itself on the digital-music vanguard with iTunes and the iPod, sending the music industry into a tizzy to quickly adapt. Now, with today's launch of the company's new streaming service, Apple Music — amid stiff competition from established streaming leaders Spotify, Pandora, Tidal and Rhapsody — it feels late to the game. While the service offers many great features, its true test lies in the months ahead, when music fans get the opportunity to sample it for three months and decide whether or not to ditch the services it's grown accustomed to as Apple slowly dipped its toes in the water.
Apple Music, which arrives as part of iOS 8.4 and will be available for $9.99 a month after the trial period, contains many features that streaming-music fans will expect (playlists galore, algorithmically guessed genre spotlights) in addition to an emphasis on music recommendations by real-life humans. The heart of the service is Beats 1, the Trent Reznor-conceived radio station that will be free to everyone and feature programs by Dr. Dre, Elton John, St. Vincent, Zane Lowe and others. It also contains a section curated based on users' individual musical tastes with playlists and other features, another offering new music, a quasi-social network called "Connect" and, of course, a place to play a user's iTunes collection. (Editor's note: Rolling Stone erroneously reported that there would be an ad-supported free version of Apple Music. It's Apple Radio that will be ad-supported in the U.S. The text has been corrected.)
On the surface, the service offers Apple-fied takes on its competitors' best features – Spotify-inspired personalized recommendations and playlists, Songza-like situational playlists, easy-to-curate Pandora-esque radio stations. But digging deeper reveals a platform designed, for the most part, to present these elements in as user-friendly a way as possible. It's like a Venn diagram of streaming music's best offerings.
But whether it's intuitive or not, will Apple Music become the standout, one-stop shop for music fans that the company hopes it will be, converting devout Spotify users and proselytizing the MP3 faithful? The company offered Rolling Stone a demo of the service to find out. Here are six of Apple Music's most notable features, reviewed.
1. The service offers Netflix-style hyper-customization.
As soon as you log in to Apple Music and go to the "For You" tab, you will see an array of bubbles offering genres and, on a separate screen, artists, so you can select which artists and genres you prefer (one finger tap for "like"; two for "love"). The service will also scan your music library to see your preferred artists. Much like Netflix, this feature tells the company what music you like and what artists you are indifferent to, so as you listen, you can continue to tap on hearts to tell the company your tastes – defining your personal algorithm – so that it can make educated guesses on playlists and other content.
For instance, when Rolling Stone selected rap, indie-rock and metal as favorite genres in the demo – and subsequently Pixies and the grindcore/death-metal group Carcass – Apple offered an "Intro to Carcass" playlist amid selections of indie hits, Melvins deep cuts and an Apple Music-curated playlist offering to help get "parents to like noise." (A valiant, decades-old quest.) Although none of the suggestions Rolling Stone received were wildly subversive, none were terribly off-base.
2. Beats 1 radio will bring familiar voices to music fans in interesting ways.
Trent Reznor's baby is the most interesting aspect of Apple Music, since it offers radio shows more akin to Sirius XM or college radio than any of its competitors. In addition to ringmaster Zane Lowe's sure-to-be-bonkers broadcasts, Beats 1 offers unique shows by Dr. Dre, Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Drake, Q-Tip, St. Vincent, Ellie Goulding, Jaden Smith and others.
It will also run non-celeb-curated shows, including Lowe's The World Record, in which the DJ picks the one song he feels everyone must listen to that day, Monday through Thursday. Gratitude will highlight an artist talking about another musician that influenced them (First up: Nas on Eric B. and Rakim's Paid in Full and Miranda Lambert on a to-be-announced Allison Moorer LP.) There's also a Chart show which, when the worldwide release day takes effect for the music business (shifting from Tuesday to Friday), will reflect what music, movies and TV are coming out in the week ahead. It also offers non-Beats channels like Pure Pop (which, when Rolling Stone hit play, began with Taylor Swift's "Style"), Soundsystem (a cross-genre mix of alternative, pop and dance aimed at millennials) and The Mixtape (classic alternative, from rock to hip-hop).
But even the artists have taken steps to make their music shows interesting. Most notable, perhaps, is St. Vincent, whose Mixtape Delivery Service finds her listening to notes from fans and dedicating an hour-long selection of songs catered to them. In one show, an 11-year-old girl made a recording noting her St. Vincent fandom and how she holds her own singing parties at night. The singer played Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," New Order's "Blue Monday" and Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart" and even chatted with the fan.
Meanwhile, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme's Alligator Hour spins Grinderman and Roky Erickson amid his ruminations on the relationships between those artists' music and human aspirations. Dr. Dre's The Pharmacy will highlight his mixes that reflect his eclectic interests as he explains what the songs mean to him now and throughout his life, along with commentary from DJ Pooh. And Elton John's Rocket Hour will show the singer-songwriter's surprisingly diverse and current taste.
The downside to Beats 1 radio, at least for now, is that it really is radio in that these artist-curated programs will not be accessible after the fact as a podcast or on demand. Moreover, when the app launches, only a handful of shows will be listed on the Beats 1 homepage as part of a schedule, rather than something complete (though an Apple rep said the day would start with Chart, move to Lowe and then on to shows from London, New York and Los Angeles, before moving to artist programming at night). An Apple rep told Rolling Stone that the company wants people to tune in, ostensibly to build buzz as listeners attempt to figure out just what they're listening to. He did say, however, that on-demand programming will be available in the future.
3. Apple Music makes finding new music a little easier.
Discovering new music can be an arduous task for a casual music listener and an ongoing quest for the most dedicated fan, so Apple Music's editorial customization comes in handy for the service's "New" tab. The default screen shows the newest of the new from all genres each week, as picked by Apple's editors. It also offers "Hot Tracks," "Recent Releases" and "Top Songs," across all styles of music, but by selecting a particular genre offers a narrowed-down selection of everything from reggae to children's music.
The "New" tab is also where you can peruse playlists made by Apple Music Editors by genre, ones curated to activities ("BBQing," "Breaking Up," "Studying," "Partying," etc.) and by expert curators (ahem, yours truly, Rolling Stone). The major drawback to these curated lists is the unnecessary step of clicking into each one to see the brief description of what's ahead. Under "Classic Rock," for example, what is "Feelin' Fine"? Apparently it's recent music from rock "icons," ranging from Robert Plant to Spoon. Another negative aspect of this feature is the inability to drill down into subgenres and micro-genres. So if you've got a sudden hankering for exploring late-Nineties Venezuelan IDM, you're not going to find it easily.
4. The "For You" tab consistently yields interesting results.
After you've plugged in all of your favorite genres and artists, the most reasonable first stop on a tour of Apple Music would be the "For You" tab on the far left. This is where the service suggests playlists based on your taste – introductions to bands, lists of deep cuts, refreshing takes on familiar artists (e.g., "Inspired by R.E.M.") – as well as full albums you might like. If you don't like what you see, pull down on the screen for a whole new list. In one instance, the metal, indie and blues–centric choices Rolling Stone made early on yielded a collage of records by Thelonious Monk, Ozzy Osbourne, Nick Cave, the Velvet Underground, the Who and Sonny Boy Williamson. Not bad. It's the sort of thing that Spotify approximates, but often comes off a bit stilted and robotic.
The one music discovery downside – outside of the "For You" tab – is that when you do look up an artist, connections to other musicians are not readily apparent. If you look up Trent Reznor, there is no clear link to Nine Inch Nails or How to Destroy Angels. And with David Bowie, there's no easy way to find – if you really, really wanted to – Tin Machine. (Though it's worth noting that the "You May Also Like" option in the Best of David Bowie album, did offer records by the Stones, Mott the Hoople and James Gang, which make sense tangentially.)
5. Apple Music wants to try its hand at an artist-centric social network.
Other than Beats 1, the main feature Apple is touting to fans that will continue to be free after the trial period is a quasi-social network called "Connect." This offers a Twitter-like feed from artists – which number in the hundreds according to an Apple rep – who wish to communicate with fans. (Any musician with songs on Apple Music or in the iTunes store can create an account.)
Ostensibly to make things easier, if you've purchased music from an artist on iTunes, you are signed up to follow them on Connect. But once you're following an artist, you can "like" posts and comment if, say, Snoop Dogg wants to test-drive new lyrics and demos alongside songs and videos. The service had not launched when Rolling Stone demoed Apple Music, but it looked pretty quiet in the demo phase with only a few artists using it.
With no other streaming-music analog on other services, this feature appears to be the service's biggest uphill battle. Twitter and Facebook already have strong locks on artist-fan relationships and it seems unlikely that many musicians would want to share potentially embarrassing works in progress with fans and risk alienating them.
Moreover, the only place where fans can interact is the comments section of each post, cutting out a major part of what Apple hopes will be a new music ecosystem: fandom. While it's possible fans would share music individually – with Apple Music's many options to post to text, email, Twitter and Facebook – the absence of fans' voices on "Connect" makes it more like a supplement to a social network than an exciting music-discovery platform. But only time will tell if it catches on. This is one place where Spotify, with its ability to follow and make playlists your friends, has a leg up.
6. It's Apple, so its music library is fairly complete.
Many artists, of course, still won't share their music with streaming services for myriad reasons (though Taylor Swift came around to Apple Music after a well-publicized power play). But it is worth noting that, because Apple does have preexisting relationships with major labels that smaller competitors like Amazon Prime Music do not, it comes to users mostly fully stocked. Moreover, like many of its rivals (including Tidal and even Amazon), you're able to make music available offline, which is especially handy to people who ride subways or live in places with spotty cell service. Even better: when you are online, you can just ask Siri to play music for you.
The Verdict: With its vast selection of music and smartly curated playlists and radio, Apple Music is robust enough to compete with, and possibly supplant, Spotify and Pandora as the go-to service for music fans. At the same time, users will need to play around with it a bit and dig to move past some of the less immediately intuitive facets (i.e., just how deep the "New" tab goes) for it to hook them.
The app's sure thing will most likely be its Beats 1 radio with its unique input from artists. But Apple will need to work the most on "Connect," which ought to premiere some exclusive content from big artists early.
Ultimately, Apple Music offers well-designed interpretations of the best of its competitors, availability on millions of people's phones and premium features that will be offered at the same price as its competitors. The service makes for a welcome addition to the streaming-music landscape.