You can count on one finger the number of companies in the world that could launch a new music streaming service and expect to become a major player overnight.
That company is Apple and it has duly obliged by launching Apple Music – the long-awaited music app which neatly integrates new-world subscription-based streaming with the old world playback of your existing Tunes library.
Simply pay Apple $9.99/£9.99 per month and in return you can stream as much music as you like, as many times as you like, on as many devices as you like.
You can do this from inside the stock Music app on your iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, or with iTunes on your PC or Mac (an Android app will be available later in the year – an app which is *definitely* still in development and *definitely* isn’t being intentionally held back by Apple for, you know, reasons).
Apple Music also offers extensive music discovery channels including round-the-clock radio station ‘Beats 1’ featuring renowned radio DJs like Zane Lowe, as well as social features that aim to put artists and bands closer to their fans. It’s all exciting stuff.
The best thing about all this? Apple is giving everyone a three month free trial to give the new service a go – can’t argue with that.
Why it’s a big deal
The launch of Apple Music is an enormous moment for music, not just because Apple has been such a major player over the last 15 years but also because it’s taken Apple so long to get here.
Spotify launched seven years ago and has 75 million active users around the world including 20 million paying subscribers who have collectively created over 1.5 billion playlists. That’s not a temporary deal – Spotify is here to stay and Apple has its work cut out for it if it wants to be the number one.
But as we’ll see, Apple’s strategy is as self-serving, insular and crafty as usual, with its goal not necessarily to be the number one straight away but rather to simply up-sell its existing customers.
The basics of Apple Music
Apple Music costs $9.99/£9.99 per month for a standard dose of all-you-can-eat music streaming or 14.99 for a family package which gives access for up to six people.
That pricing is the same as most of Apple Music’s competitors, but the family plan is a nice addition and offers real value for money.
Don’t even try listening on more than one device at the same time with a standard subscription – you’ll be instantly be cut off on one of the devices, given a stern warning and administered with a painful electric shock. One of those things isn’t true.
Focus on music discovery
The Apple Music library is 30 million tracks strong and growing – that’s not quite as high as the number of tracks available in iTunes but on a par with Spotify and Google Music which are, lets face it, its biggest rivals.
Any music that you have in your own personal library that perhaps isn’t available to stream you can upload to iCloud and have them seamlessly integrated with the other tracks that are natively available. You’re currently limited to 25,000 but that will increase to 100,000 when iOS 9 launches.
Setting up and exploring Apple Music
Apple Music is divided into six main areas, and you navigate between them using icons at the bottom of the mobile app or via buttons at the top of your iTunes screen.
It’s worth exploring these one by one in this review as, for better or worse, they really do differentiate Apple Music from its competition.
Clearly from the way Music is designed the message is clear – Apple doesn’t want Music to be a passive jukebox that simply plays the tunes you tell it to play. It’s built from the ground up to learn what you like listening to and to suggest new bands, albums and curated playlists for you to enjoy.
This process starts from the first time you log into the service. You’re instantly confronted by a number of screens – much the same as Beats Music if you are/were a user of that service – which ask you which genres you most identify with and then which bands you like the most.
You can go back and tweak these choices at any time by tapping the icon top left in the iOS app and selecting ‘Choose artists for you’. And you can also ‘heart’ music as you go to continue fine-tuning your taste profile.
Apple Music: For You
From then on, the For You section of Apple Music will be populated by music Apple thinks you will enjoy – whether it’s an old favourite you’d forgotten about, a playlist inspired by your love of reggae or a new album from one of your favourite bands.
The design of the page feels almost like browsing a magazine, and you do get the sense that there’ll always be something interesting to choose from on this page.
The playlists are certainly the most interesting thing about For You. They’re all curated by real music experts which adds a weight of authority to the recommendations you could never get from auto-generated radio stations.
The more I use Apple Music, the more I like this section.
If you want to log on and quickly put something on, there’s usually something tempting in there even if it is just an "Introduction to Radiohead" playlist you theoretically shouldn’t need because you’ve already told Apple you like Radiohead.
You can continually improve recommendations by ‘hearting’ the songs and albums you come across, thus telling Apple that you like them.
It’s neat stuff and lightyears ahead of what Spotify is doing.
Apple Music: New
The New section of Apple Music is about pointing you towards new releases, top charts, topical playlists, hot new bands, recommended music videos and other genre-specific options.
It’s probably the screen that will feel most familiar to those people who use iTunes or even the other streaming services. It’s a really good section that makes it super easy to find out what’s hot both on Apple Music as a whole and in the genres you’re particularly interested in.
You can’t really fault this section, it’s the most linear and straight forward part of Apple Music.
Apple Music: Radio
The Radio section is your way of letting Apple Music choose what you listen to. Beats 1 is obviously the big story here, with its 24-hour roster of superstar DJs and a focus on new music.
Whether "new music" to Apple means giving exposure to the indie stars of future or simply being the first to play Kanye West’s latest deep sustained booming sounds remains to be seen – so far, it seems like a healthy mix of both.
For sure, this whole concept is a really backwards idea but I think it’s going to work.
Only Apple could pull off a global radio station like this, and while I can’t imagine myself listening to it very often – or, let’s be honest, ever – a lot of people will, I’m convinced. So far, all the DJs are excellent, playing different types of music as well as interviews, chats and so forth. It’s a proper live internet radio station.
The artist radio or album radio options you find on other services like Spotify or Google Music are there on this page, too, so you can get a Pandora-style playlist of music that the service thinks is similar to your selection.
Apple Music: Connect
Connect is the social network part of Apple Music. Just like Twitter or Instagram, you follow bands, artists or individual curators and then you’ll get a feed with all the updates that these people choose to share.
It seems like a good idea, but there’s not much going on in there so far.
I can see it evolving into a buzzing social network but equally it demands that artists get involved and there’s no guarantee they’re going to do that – some integration with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram would go a long way here – but that doesn’t look likely to happen for the time being.
Apple Music: Playlists and My Music
If you ask me, My Music should be the first page rather than the last one. It’s hidden almost at the back of the room, but I think that for most subscribers the My Music section is the most important one.
It’s where all your own music is found, whether it be music that’s physically on your device, in your iCloud account or music you’ve added to My Music as a streaming option.
You can sort by artists, albums, songs, genres and composers and you can download albums or playlists to listen to offline.
Unfortunately it’s one of the weakest areas of the Apple Music service.
One thing that Spotify and Tidal both do well is allow you to replicate your music collections digitally – they make you feel like you still own the music even though you don’t. They make it very easy to get to the music you’re looking for and they simulate that feeling you get from having a vast CD collection mounted on your wall.
In Apple Music all this stuff seems like a secondary consideration.
For me the design is messy and requires too many taps to get to where I want to go – particularly on iPad where there is a lot of wasted space on some screens while others are far too cluttered.
For example, on iPad the My Music section has no sidebar for me to flick between artists, bands, playlists etc. I have to press a drop down to select those things. And having playlists on a completely separate tab is a baffling choice. Just put all my music together in one place!
My feelings are that Apple has put so much effort in trying to be different here, that it’s ended up creating something unintuitive and awkward to use.
The good, the bad and the ugly
I’m going to say it – I really don’t like the design of the Apple Music app.
It’s an incredible service in many ways, and it is beautiful – I particularly like the now playing screen which bleeds the colours from album art into a thematic background.
But the overwhelmingly messy design makes it bizarrely un Apple-like. Many of the screens are very cluttered, with too much going all at once.
It almost feels like it’s been designed to be different from the competition just for the sake of being different. It’s far easier to navigate Spotify or Tidal. Particularly as some of the interactive elements in the Apple Music app are so teeny tiny – even on an iPad you have to be super precise a lot of the time to ensure you select the option you want to select.
I found myself having to tap more than once most of the time in order to get a response out of the app. I’m pretty sure I don’t have fat fingers.
It’s a million miles away from the design philosophy that built iOS – in fact it feels like it was programmed by a different company altogether.
On top of questionable design choices, too much clutter and a sometimes confused navigation system, there’s also a plethora of rough edges that need sanding down. One thing that really frustrated me was the lack of visible cues when I was trying to download some albums and playlists for use ‘offline’.
When I do so, I can’t see a single indication of progress – how much of the album has been downloaded? How many tracks have yet to be downloaded? How long until the download finishes?
Even when the downloads are finished, there’s no indication next to an album or playlist that its songs have been stored locally. The only way to see what you’ve downloaded is to filter the My Music page – it’s poor.
These are the sorts of little bugs and flaws you find all over the place and I’m positive they’ll be fixed in short order but it doesn’t change the fact that they combine to give Apple Music a ‘launched three months before it was truly ready’ feel.
Unexpectedly, I find Apple Music to be much easier to enjoy when using iTunes. That I wasn’t expecting because me and iTunes have had a hate-hate relationship for many years.
The latest update, which you’ll need to download to get access to streaming, has placed Apple Music at the very heart of the interface. The iTunes store is now shunted off to one side, in favour of all of the streaming sections we’ve already discussed.
Clearly, Apple wants to convert all iTunes users to the streaming way.
It’s easy to find what you’re looking for in iTunes, but honestly it’s still not as intuitive or easy to use as the other services out there. You feel like you’re browsing the iTunes store rather than plundering an infinite abyss full of ‘free’ music and so in that way it feels… unfriendly.
On top of this, the internet is full of iTunes users complaining about metadata issues with existing MP3 and AAC tracks – album art is going missing, music is being mislabelled. It’s all gone through a blender, basically, with some people affected more than others.
If you’re spotting a trend here – messy design and bugs in iOS and in iTunes – you’re not alone.
Apple Music has a launch library of 30 million tracks – the same number boasted by Spotify and Google Music. That’s impressive because it’s taken those services a long time to build up to 30 million.
So most of the music I searched for was present and correct, but as with all music streaming services, there are also some glaring omissions. Apple has exclusive access to Taylor Swift’s latest album, and other rare titles like In Rainbows by Radiohead. But it’s also missing some albums that are available elsewhere.
It’s par for the course in this territory, when you stream music you have to accept that not everything you look for will be available on your chosen service.
Apple Music is a good streaming service but one that needs a lot of work. It seems like a service designed more for converting existing iTunes users into the new ecosystem and tying down iPhone users rather than providing something that all music lovers can enjoy.
At the same time, the unique approach to music curation is fantastic and will no doubt improve as Apple Music matures. It’s Apple Music’s best feature.
There’s a lot to feel happy about in Apple Music. The For You section has heaps of potential and the use of human curators makes a huge difference. It’s always easy to find something to listen to and in that way it’s better even than Tidal which also employs humans to create playlists.
The library too is up there with the best, and has the added benefit of including many albums that you won’t find on other services. And while Beats 1 is something I can’t see myself using much, I can see loads of people really getting on board with it. It’s a modern twist on a very old idea and I think it works.
And of course, the killer feature is the three month free trial – you can’t argue with free music.
Sadly, there’s also a lot to feel very unhappy about. The design and layout of the app itself is the main problem. Some screens are very cluttered and a pain to use. Icons can be crazy small and hard to interact with. While some screens, on iPad in particular, feel like a waste of space.
I really don’t like the My Music section which is the lifeblood of any streaming service. I don’t feel comfortable there, I don’t feel like it’s ‘my music’ and it’s certainly not presented in a way that for me would be most usable. This is probably the price Apple has paid for trying to shoehorn streaming in with iCloud and iTunes libraries – it needs to tidy itself up a bit.
Navigating around the app in general takes a lot of getting used to – it’s certainly nowhere near as intuitive as iOS itself.
It’s very easy to be critical of Apple Music and I have been in this review. But hopefully you’ve seen also that there are loads of reasons to be enthusiastic about the service and with a three month free trial for everyone, there’s simply no reason not to give it a go.
For any ‘Apple people’ who’ve yet to try out streaming, this could well be a service that has you hooked immediately if you’re willing to put up with some flaws and bugs.
But for anyone hoping Apple would waltz in and deliver the perfect music streaming app to woo you out of your love affair with Spotify, Deezer or Google Music… well, we’re not quite there yet.
You can be sure we’ll be revisiting this review in three months’ time to see how things have improved and whether the early ‘free trialers’ should be happy to start paying or not.