“Algorithms can’t do it alone. They’re very handy, and you can’t do something of this scale without ‘em, but you need a strong human element.”
That’s Apple’s Jimmy Iovine, talking to the Guardian in June ahead of the launch of Apple Music , the company’s new music-streaming service. The same interview saw him label rivals like Spotify as mere “utilities” lacking Apple’s human touch.
Three months on, Apple Music’s earliest adopters are nearing the end of its three-month free trial, and must decide whether its blend of algorithms and people is worth paying for.
Their decision will be based on a service that does some things well, but – as Apple itself has admitted – needs improvement in other areas.
Basic details Apple Music is available for PC and Mac as part of the iTunes software, and for iOS devices within their preloaded Music app. An Android version will follow later this year.
Like rival services, the core of Apple Music is a catalogue of recordings – 30m songs – to stream “on demand”, with recommendations, themed playlists and radio-like stations to help people navigate it. Here, there’s also a live radio station, Beats 1, and a social section called Connect.
For the most part, the catalogue is the same as those of its rivals. Apple does have Taylor Swift’s latest album 1989 as a streaming exclusive, while new releases from Dr Dre and Drake/Future have debuted on Apple Music a week or two before appearing on other streaming services.
A membership – Apple is avoiding the word “subscription” – costs £9.99 a month for one person, or £14.99 for a family plan covering up to six people. Some elements, including Beats 1, are available for free to non-members who sign in with an Apple ID.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Apple Music’s New section. Exploring the music
You can search for albums and songs on Apple Music to play, as well as adding them to your own playlists and downloading them for offline access. Like its rivals, it also recommends you old and new music that it thinks you’ll like.
These recommendations are found in two sections of the app: New and For You. New is where you’ll find new tracks and albums, popular playlists, music videos and other promotional suggestions – for example, in September, links to artists playing that month’s Apple Music Festival.
Related: Apple Music interview: 'Algorithms can't do it alone – you need a human touch'
New is also the way in to the playlists being compiled by Apple’s in-house team and guest curators. It’s one of Apple Music’s strongest features: a deep selection of playlists that mines plenty of interesting niches.
In one day exploring, I flitted between Resident Advisor’s guide to Ninja Tune; Pitchfork’s Early ‘80s Disco playlist; a Northern Soul collection; a selection of hip-hop tracks sampling Booker T & the MGs; and playlists exploring the influences on Chvrches, Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine.
Apple Music also has a group of “The A-List” playlists covering pop, dance, alternative, hip-hop, rock, R&B, electronic and new artists, which offer a good selection of what’s bubbling up on the service.
The obvious comparison is to Spotify , which also has a large selection of playlists compiled in-house. Apple’s tend to be shorter with 12-20 tracks at a time, while Spotify’s tend to be longer at 80 tracks or more: better suited for playing on shuffle. Both approaches can work well, though.
Bar the odd tone-deaf moment – a penny for St. Vincent or Sleater-Kinney’s thoughts on topping a “Girls with Guitars” playlist – Apple’s playlist curation is a strong point, although its rivals are far from the characterless utilities that Apple paints them as on this front.
Algorithms at work The For You feature is where Apple’s algorithms come in to play, providing a feed of suggestions for playlists and albums based on your iTunes music collection and Apple Music listening habits. The more you use it, the better the recommendations should become – in theory.
Three months in, it’s too early to provide a definitive verdict on this, especially as in my case Apple Music was challenged from the start: I’ve been a paying Spotify user since 2008, so Apple knows very little about my music life over the past seven years, apart from that I bought the last Beyoncé and Taylor Swift albums (which weren’t on Spotify).
Related: Spotify has six years of my music data, but does it understand my tastes?
Unsurprisingly, my early days of For You were driven by this: lots of Britpop, mid-90s dance and singer-songwriter recommendations based on my pre-2008 iTunes collection, and the odd “Workout like Beyoncé” playlist – which sounds inappropriate, but as a bangers-not-ballads collection of Bey and Destiny’s Child tracks is actually marvellous.
Spotify, by contrast, knows what I’ve been listening to in the last seven years: its “Discover” section is currently recommending me albums similar to Disclosure, Best Coast, Courtney Barnett, Django Django and Jamie Woon among others. Meanwhile, its excellent Discover Weekly playlist throws a new batch of new artists and songs at me every week.
Somewhere between these two poles lies a full picture of the musical me. As things stand, Spotify is better at recommending me new artists, while Apple Music is better for bathing in the warm, neon-gloved glow of Best of ‘90s Indie-Dance, Vol. 2.
Even so, Apple Music’s algorithms are learning fast: later in the three-month trial, one day’s recommendations included introductions to Hot Chip, Laura Marling and Orbital as well as albums by Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, Django Django, Jungle, Sharon Van Etten and the Chemical Brothers. An encouraging start.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Apple Music’s For You feature. Radio rocks?
Radio is a big part of Apple Music, including live Beats 1 and the themed collection of “stations” – rock, pop, hip-hop etc – which aren’t quite as specific as playlists, but may work if you just want something on in the background.
Beats 1 is a big deal for Apple Music, broadcasting live to the world for 12 hours a day, then repeating that run of shows for the following 12 hours, with a mixture of professional DJs and guest artists with their own shows.
Related: What happens when you listen to Beats 1 radio for 24 hours? Lots and lots of Drake
Beats 1 will feel familiar to anyone who’s listened to the BBC’s specialist radio shows and stations in the UK: no wonder given that Apple poached several of the Beeb’s producers as well as Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe.
The focus is squarely on new music, which won’t appeal to everyone, although with iOS devices now owned by a broad section of the population, there’s clearly scope for a Beats 2 for older and/or more mainstream music fans in the future.
Beats 1 is good, with artist-run shows from the likes of St Vincent, Josh Homme, Q-Tip and Elton John reminding me (in a good way) of why the likes of Iggy Pop, Cerys Matthews, Jarvis Cocker, Guy Garvey and Huey Morgan have helped the BBC’s 6Music build such a strong character.
Lowe’s enthusiasm for new music remains infectious, and colleague Julie Adenuga is a real breath of fresh airwaves too. Beats 1’s weakness at launch was its lack of archived shows for time-shifted listening, but that’s since been sorted: shows can be searched for within Apple Music, and are posted on DJs’ Connect profiles.
Failing to Connect If Beats 1 is a strength for Apple Music, the Connect section is a big disappointment. It was pitched as part Twitter, part Instagram and part SoundCloud: a place for artists, DJs and tastemakers to post status updates, photos, videos and even full songs.
As a fan, you follow your favourites to get a feed of their posts, which you can comment on. Apple saw it as a special club for exclusive tracks, raw lyrics and behind-the-scenes insights beyond those available on other social networks. For now, few artists are delivering on that promise.
Related: Apple admits it has 'homework to do' to improve Apple Music
In fact, many notable musicians are posting barely once a week, with many of those updates either reposted photos from Instagram and Twitter; exhortations to buy tickets, stream or buy albums; or tune in to Beats 1 shows.
Connect isn’t offering anything you can’t get from Twitter and Facebook, and while Apple is promoting songs and videos “discovered on Connect” within Apple Music, it’s nowhere near as vibrant a pool of new and unsigned music as, say, SoundCloud.
Apple Music also reinforces the familiar criticism that Apple doesn’t get social. There’s no sense of what your friends are listening to, unlike Spotify with its live ticker of their plays, and its chart of your friends’ top tracks.
Apple Music’s system for creating and sharing your own playlists with friends also lags behind: the sense is of a top-down approach, Apple’s editors and its media partners are the curators, and you’re the listener.
This will suit plenty of people just fine, but if you cherish the moments where a friend says “I’ve never heard of [band X]” and five minutes of dragging-and-dropping later you’re pinging them a personalised playlist... it’s still possible on Apple Music, but it could be easier.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Two snapshots from my Connect feed: promotion and reposted updates. Interface and iCloud issues
If you’re switching from another streaming music service like Spotify or Rdio, being hurled back into daily usage of iTunes on the desktop or the iOS Music App can be a jarring experience.
If you’re already using either or both of those, you’ll face less of a culture shock, and in fairness the more I used it, the less I found myself grimacing at the user interface.
More troubling were the anguished howls in the early days of Apple Music from some users with large iTunes music libraries, who’d seen portions of their collections deleted without warning . Other complaints have focused on problems adding albums to local libraries, and keeping that synchronised between devices.
My iTunes library appears to be intact, although it’s hard to say for sure since it’s been gathering digital dust since 2008.
One of Apple Music’s key strengths should be the way it brings your MP3 collection together with the wider streaming catalogue, so it’s baffling that such a major – for those affected – bug was allowed to slip through the pre-launch checks.
Apple has since patched the error, but if you’ve yet to try Apple Music and are concerned, back your library up before signing up. A sensible move regardless of any specific bug.
So, is Apple Music worth paying for? As with Spotify, Deezer, Google Play All Access and other streaming services, £9.99 a month for unlimited access to 30m tracks is good value for any music lover.
Apple Music’s family plan is particularly good value, whether you’re a parent wanting to keep your kids off torrent sites, or living with housemates. While some rivals have family plans already, they tend to be more expensive: £9.99 for the first person then £4.99 for each additional family member. Google Play has become the first to match Apple’s family-plan price, though, and other rivals will surely follow.
Related: How much do musicians really make from Spotify, iTunes and YouTube?
Is Apple Music worth £9.99 a month more than its rivals are? My main reason not to move over from Spotify is less about features, and more about data – the data Spotify holds on my music habits, and how it uses that data for recommendations, whether in the Discover Weekly playlist or the “Now” feature that recommends music based on your habits at the current time of day.
That, plus the prospect of rebuilding my own playlists (not to mention giving up Discover Weekly and the dozen-or-so trusted playlists that I follow from other people) is what will keep me with that service for the time being.
The people most willing to pay for a music-streaming subscription may be the toughest for Apple to sign up, then. But we’re in the minority: 20 million Spotify subscribers plus six million on Deezer, three million on Rhapsody/Napster and an unknown number paying for Rdio, Tidal and other rivals. There are hundreds of millions more people streaming music for free on services like YouTube, SoundCloud and Spotify’s free tier.
So if you’re looking for a paid streaming service, Apple Music is worth paying for. But if you’re happy getting your music for free, you’ll probably want to save yourself £9.99 a month. Apple’s challenge is to change your mind, and while it’s made an encouraging start, there is more work to do.
Oh, and one more thing … if you’re a trial member it’s worth noting, the New York Post claims that around half of the 15 million trial members of Apple Music haven’t turned off its auto-pay option . So if you’re one of them, you might want to check you’re not making your choice by default.