If you’ve used Pandora in the past decade, then you already have a very clear idea of what Apple’s iTunes Radio is all about. This is the company’s first proper attempt at integrating streaming radio into its ubiquitous iTunes iOS 7 and desktop apps. Like many things Apple does, it’s a derivative idea dressed up for mainstream success. Pandora currently has more than 70 million active monthly users, and Apple wants to eat them.
Featured stations – your quickest ticket to music on iTunes Radio – take several different forms. Apple is heavily promoting stations that feature artists like Drake and the Beatles, while also hiring others including Diplo, Katy Perry and Jared Leto to “guest DJ” their own stations. (Even these vary somewhat: Leto provides overworked commentary alongside his set, for instance, while Diplo does not.)
Apple has also been hiring specialists in various genres to curate other stations, such as “The L.A. Rock Scene: ’60s and ’70s” and “3 of a Kind: James Blake, Rhye and Disclosure.” Click the play button on the Pepsi Pulse EDM station, and you’re presented with video of Beyoncé drinking Pepsi while staring at herself in the mirror, followed by dance music. The Featured Stations area combines algorithms, human curation and corporate sponsorship into a creamy, homogenized milkshake of content. Would you like a Frosty with that?
It’s also possible, of course, to create your own stations, based on an initial song, artist or genre choice. You can only skip six songs per hour, though this limit is station-dependent (skips on one station don’t count towards another). Each station is outfitted with a slider that moves between Hits, Variety and Discovery. You can share your personalized stations through Twitter, Facebook SMS or email, and send them to nearby friends using AirDrop. (This feature might as well be called “Mixtapes for the Lazy,” but we’ll leave the marketing to Apple.)
As with Pandora and Apple’s Genius (both of which use thumbs up/thumbs down icons), iTunes Radio lets you nudge your playlist with “Play more like this” and “Never play this song,” found under the Star icon on the play screen.
Using the history tab, you can browse through every song that’s been played on your iTunes Radio account, across all platforms. You can’t replay them, however; instead, you get the option to listen to the iTunes preview clip, add the song to your Wish List or buy the damn thing outright.
One part of what makes iTunes Radio potentially lucrative for Apple is its tight integration with the iTunes Store. Buying the song you’re currently enjoying is only a single click away on any screen in iTunes (there’s actually a $.99/$1.29 buy button inside the main play bar), and it’s only two clicks to add a song to your iTunes Wish List or bring you to the appropriate iTunes Store album page. Never has it been so easy to buy stuff.
Of course, Apple is also making money on ad sales. Audio and video ads run once every 15 and 60 minutes, respectively; if you’re a subsciber to Apple’s $25-a-year iTunes Match cloud music service, you get to listen to iTunes Radio ad-free.
On iOS 7 devices in particular, iTunes Radio boasts the clean aesthetics you’d expect from an Apple product. More importantly, iTunes bests Pandora in terms of sheer volume: While Pandora users have access to roughly a million songs, iTunes Radio listeners get somewhere in the tens of millions, which obviously leads to more variety and less repetition. And with the hundreds of millions of iTunes users out there, there are exponentially more users (and more listening data) for Apple to work with.
But at its core, iTunes Radio is simply a decade-old streaming service rebranded and built directly into iTunes. As a Pandora clone it’s perfectly fine, but it has nothing like what Spotify and Rdio are doing in terms of social discovery features. Is it better than iTunes’ previous radio integration? Definitely. Will it be popular? Probably. Would it succeed without being installed on every capable Apple music device in the known universe? Highly unlikely.