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Hands on: Apple Music

It's no Spotify killer, but Apple Music sets a new beat for iTunes

Apple calls it revolutionary. I disagree. The concept of radio is as old as … well, as radio. But no one’s made a curated streaming online service quite like this. With the forthcoming Music service, Apple will turn the music world on its ear.

Apple Music is an overhaul of the Music app, which already exists on pretty much every iPhone in existence. On June 30, Apple will re-release it with the exact same name, adding in curated radio stations, streaming music, a subscription service, curated playlists – basically every way you could think of listening to music.

In a behind the scenes event during the 2015 World Wide Developer Conference, Apple gave me a walkthrough of the new service. I leapt at the chance: I’m a huge music fan – like the great bluesman Taj Mahal said, “music keeps me together” – and I was eager to get a close look.

Getting started

Set up is almost too straightforward: Choose a few different genres of music from around a dozen presented to you. (At this point, the service doesn’t distinguish trap music from hip-hop – shouldn’t it?) Then pick three or more bands you really like from those Apple bubbles up to you. That’s it. You’re in.

The app features five buttons at bottom to navigate through the service. Leftmost is “For You,” curated playlists by a worldwide team that should appeal to you, based on the music choices you entered. They’ll be updated three times a day, Apple says, so the “Rock and Roll Road Trip” playlist you listen to on the way to the game probably won’t be the same one you hear on the way back.

Next is New, lists of the most popular current music across genres. It’ll also be curated by experts, of course – everything is curated here – but it won’t be tailored to you. Still, it’s a good list if you like to keep current. If you don’t subscribe to the service, you’ll be able to see the lists but you won’t be able to play them. And if you don’t subscribe, you won’t get “For You” recommendations at all.

Beats 1: A full-fledged radio station

Then comes Radio, the heart of the new experience. Atop the list is the Beats 1 service. Helmed by Apple’s new star DJ, Zane Lowe — whom the company courted away from the BBC — Beats 1 is like a traditional radio station that’s “always on,” playing tunes chosen by real DJs in real time, and allowing for in-studio guest appearances. Listeners around the globe will hear the same programming at the same time, a unique feat that’s largely meaningless. Beats 1 will be free for anyone in the U.S. or U.K.

Beats 1 is like a traditional radio station that’s “always on,” playing tunes chosen by real DJs in real time.

Beneath Beats 1 you’ll find something more interesting: a wide-selection of cross-genre playlists made by individual curators. There are only four at present: a disco mix that skews toward the 60s, but offered me Bell Biv DeVoe when I skipped past the Gloria Gaynor, a dance mix that skews towards millennials, and so on.

The curators are true music enthusiasts themselves – I spoke with one who described a career in music journalism before finally joining Apple. Curation is the one thing modern music apps lack, and it’s a glaring hole. For me, the joy of listening to the radio was hearing something new from an unabashed fan of music, a DJ who would gush about seeing a concert the night before or waiting in line to buy an album. It’s today’s robotic stations and algorithms that killed the radio star, not video. I love that Apple’s putting a little soul back into radio.

Getting to know your favorite artists

The next feature is Connect, which is where consumers can see behind the scenes stuff from their favorite artists. If it works, this could be neat. I’m interested to see what a band I like is listening to, hear them warming up before a gig – hell I’d kill just to watch some artists eat lunch. This service will only work if Apple signs bands on, however, and by bands I mean all of them. I can imagine a flood of info at first that rapidly dwindles to a drip.

The service reminds me of the biggest oversight in the music industry that only a few services, like Spotify, have tried to solve: Why can’t I subscribe to a band? Say I’m a big fan of The War on Drugs. I’d pay a fixed fee per month to get a few new songs and updates by the band. I bet U2 has enough fans to justify such a service. But I digress.

Connect looks neat, but we’ll have to see how engaged musicians are, and how much of this type of information people want. There’s one more challenge: A list of activity by bands I like could rapidly become overwhelming, and hard to sift through.

$15 will buy you service for the whole family

The final button is for “My Music,” which will include all the tunes you’ve bought on iTunes. It’s pretty self explanatory.

Subscriptions to the service will cost $10 per month, and a $15 per month family plan allows up to six family members to join the fun. That means your carefully curated playlists of indie rock won’t be mixed up with your wife’s classic rock collections – raise your hand if that’s a problem for you, too.

Where’s the socializing and sharing?

The service appears polished, of course, and familiar. It’s the same interface you know from all of those Apple apps you’ve used over the years; but I’m disappointed by the lack of a social component.

Music is inherently a social act. We listen with friends, or hear good music and instantly want to share with friends. An Apple employee very close to the music service noted to me that everyone has someone who recommends music to them. In theory, Apple’s curation service acts like this person. But you never get to know the curators themselves, as people once did with DJs. Curated rock playlists come from the “Apple Rock” group, not from, say, Phil Schiller.

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Spotify attempts a social feature, but it’s an embarrassing mess. You can sort of follow your friends, and share their playlists, and you can kind of recommend music – on some platforms, but not on others. You can also exchange messages about music and even playlists, sort of, in places, if the moon is full and you’re typing with only your left hand.

Apple Music simply ignore this completely. Sure, you’re getting recommendations from curators, and they’re bound to be good ones. But who just told me to listen to that? Given the company’s failure with the Ping service, I understand the hesitation here.

Still, the service looks great: From Beats 1 to beatbox to Bread, it’ll help you find the best new music, classic rock, or whatever you’re into. I’m a Spotify fan, and have been for a while. Not for long?