Apple Music review

Should you press play or skip on Apple Music? Punch play, but be patient

Apple Music
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
After years of research, months of anticipation, and public spats with everyone from major record labels to the almighty Taylor Swift, Apple Music has finally arrived. The streaming service that sprang from a marriage of Beats Music and iTunes arrived on June 30 to 100 countries as part of the latest iOS.

But let’s face it, Apple’s a little late to the party here. You’re probably reluctant to abandon all those playlists you spent months creating over at that other huge streaming service. So is Apple Music worth your time? Here’s whether to hit skip or play.

The basics

Like Spotify, Apple music offers millions of streaming songs, on demand. Unlike Spotify, it also blends your personal music catalog with on-demand streaming and live radio, all in one place. After a three-month free trial, the service will cost you $10 per month, or $15 per month for a family plan that accommodates up to six members.

To help lock you in, Apple music boasts hand-curated playlists, a place for artists to post videos and pics, and even an adapted version of iTunes Match, which allows you to store as many as 25,000 songs in the cloud. If you don’t sign up for Apple Music, you can still access limited playlists, as well as music stored on your device. You can see how that free trial is meant to keep you on the hook.

Getting started

Right now, you can only access Apple Music by upgrading to iOS 8.4. To get started on the free trial period, which runs through September, just open the Apple Music app, which will be automatically installed with the update, and follow the instructions to set up a family or individual account. If you want to share your music from iTunes on your PC or Mac, you’ll also need to update iTunes to version 12.2 or later.

Before you dig in too deep, we recommend turning off the auto renewal following the trial period.

If you have no interest in Apple Music whatsoever but you still need to update to iOS 8.4, you can simply go to Settings, then Music, and click “Don’t Show Apple Music.” Alternatively, you can also choose not to sign up for the free trial — you’ll still get to listen to Apple Music’s Pandora-style radio stations, with up to six skips. The music loaded on your device will also show up in your “My Music” section.

Five ways to play

Apple Music has five individual sections: For You, New, Radio, My Music, and Connect. This can get confusing, but thankfully, that familiar Now Playing window always remains at the bottom of the screen, so you’re never more than a click away from switching tracks, or sharing a song.

Apple Music’s mantra is “All the ways people love enjoying music come together in one app.” And although it’s a little bit like navigating a maze, it’s a pretty fantastic concept, and the deeper we dug, the more we dug it.

For You

“For You” offers music suggestions based on your likes. When you first enter, you’ll be presented with a bunch of pretty pink bubbles that help you designate your musical tastes, starting with genre bubbles like Rock, Classic Rock, Jazz, and Hip-hop. Double clicking a bubble makes it bigger, and therefore more important, and triple clicking deselects it. Artists come next, and so on. Nothing you do here is permanent; you can change it any time.

The song suggestions we got out of this section were pretty limited at first. But the more we messed around with the app, the more they expanded. After a few hours, the section had more than doubled its offerings, and we expect that to continue.

New

Playlists, playlists, and more playlists! “New” isn’t so much a section for new music as it is a labyrinth of curated music from all over the musical map, with a smattering of new picks at the top. Those choices include Apple Music exclusives like Taylor Swift’s 1989, as well as a collection of newly-released albums, “Hot Tracks,” and a swath of new artists.

“New” isn’t so much a section for new music as it is a labyrinth of curated music from all over the musical map.

Below the new stuff you’ll find three vaults of content labeled Apple Music Editors, Activities, and Curators. The Editors section is loaded with genres, from Alternative to Christian Gospel, and even Urbano Latino. Inside each genre are about 20 to 25 playlists, featured music selections, and links to Pandora-style radio stations. We noticed most of these playlists seemed fairly short, and hope they expand in the future.

The Activities vault offers playlists for whatever activities you might engage in, from BBQing to Chilling Out, and even Getting it On. Digging into the latter unearths all sorts of genre-based playlists, with names like Makeout Music culled from the Electronic section, and Midnight Marathon from the R&B catalog. The Let’s Get it On playlist includes the Marvin Gaye track of the same name, along with tunes from Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and others. It seems pretty fun and convenient, but why are all of these playlists loaded into the “New” section?

Finally, the Curators tab offers playlists chosen from a variety of third parties, including GQ, Rolling Stone, Shazam, and several others. While the Editors and Activities sections seem really convenient for throwing on tunes in the background, we’re not sure how much we care about what Vice thinks we should listen to — a few music organizations would have sufficed here. Again: Why is this in the “New” section? There’s a lot to like here, just don’t get lost.

Radio

Lowe brings that BBC Radio vibe to the party, and it’s kind of exciting to hear a pro DJ chime in.

Beats 1 radio, a 24-hour live station that broadcasts to 100 countries from LA, NYC, and London, is one of the more anticipated pieces of Apple music. Helmed by former BBC superstar DJ, Zane Lowe, Beats 1 is pretty damn fun upon first listen. Lowe brings that BBC Radio vibe to the party, and it’s kind of exciting to hear a pro DJ chime in. Plus, it’s fun knowing Beats 1 is being broadcast to so many regions across the world at once. While there will be several other DJs taking the chair, Lowe’s first few tracks were impressive, including catchy songs from artists we’d not yet heard of, including Bully, Royal Blood, and an Apple Music exclusive debut from a band called Gallant.

Apart from Beats 1, the rest of the “Radio” section is much more humdrum. There are dozens of preset stations available (we counted around 50) that feel strikingly similar to Pandora’s presets, except there’s no thumbs-down option, just a heart to indicate that you like the track. That can be annoying when it comes to selections like Apple Music’s Country station, which is more pop-country than anything else — thumbs down Sam Hunt! If you want real country (Merle Haggard and his ilk), you need to wade through Americana.

apple-music-ipad-mini-screen-4

Oddly, radio stations created from a favorite track live in the “Recently Played” section. Will these stations stick around indefinitely? We’re not sure. You can click on “Recently Played” and see the whole list, which makes us hopeful, but it’s another bit of confusing organization that will take some getting used to – seems like there’s a theme developing here.

My Music

What you might think would be the easiest section to navigate may just be the most confusing. “My Music” is designed to meld all of your purchased music, as well as those you’ve “ripped from CDs” with any music you can find in Apple Music’s catalog of over 30 million tracks. The system is designed to make it easy to grab any song you hear from, say, a Beats 1 broadcast, a preset radio station, or a playlist and add it to your My Music library. Like iTunes Match, you can also load as many as 25,000 songs from your personal collection to Apple’s servers, freeing up your device, and allowing you to access tracks online, or cache them for offline listening. That all sounds pretty freaking awesome, right?

“My Music” should be the most familiar section, but it ends up being the most confusing.

Making all of it work is a bit of a headache right now. While we were easily able to access music stored on our iPhone 6 in the My Music section, blending in Apple Music tracks got complicated. Apple prompted us to engage the iCloud Music Library under the Music tab in the Settings section of our device, but then told us it couldn’t connect. You’ll need to engage iCloud Drive on your phone from the Settings tab, and engage Automatic Downloads for Music under the iTunes & App Store Section to make sure the iCloud Music Library is available. Head spinning yet?

After that, we were finally able to add songs from Apple Music into our My Music section. In addition, you can share any song, album or playlist, or even make it available for offline playback by clicking the triple dots in the right hand corner. That’s pretty damn cool. But pretty damn complicated at first glance. Will that be a hindrance to Apple’s goal of stealing users from Spotify?

Connect

Connect is essentially just a clipboard for artists you listen to, save, and favorite. The more artists you engage with through the app, the more stuff you’ll see on your Connect clipboard from those artists. For instance, we added a Foal track to “My Music” and suddenly had three or four messages from the band, including song lists, album art, and pics from the studio. You can unfollow an artist at any time to thin out the herd, and you can also turn off the “Automatically Follow Artists” tab.

There aren’t many choices at first when it comes to manually adding new artists to follow. But even after just a taste of it, this section is cooler than we thought it would be, and it may be a really fun way to engage with artists. A picture from Muse in a rehearsal space with the caption “Rocking out some Absolution oldies” was enough to get us on board from the start, and it’s really easy to comment or share moments like that.

Search and Siri

Of course, we can’t leave you without talking about search and Siri integration. You can ask Siri interesting questions like “play me a song from 1979,” or “find me some Donovan” and she’ll call it up. As for search, you can opt to search the entire Apple Music catalog, or you can search just the “My Music” library, making it easy to narrow results.

Conclusion

Apple Music is easily the most ambitious service of its kind, and when you aim that high, you’re bound to run into some turbulence along the way. At times the app feels a little too complicated, and seems to trip over its own taxonomy. Relegating the majority of playlists to the “New” section, for instance, makes no sense. It can also be a big pain getting the “My Music” section up and running, especially seeing that Apple Music launched first for iOS only.

Still, there are some pretty wondrous things going on with Apple Music. Beats 1 introduces the electrified spark of live radio into the streaming mix for a whole new flavor. And being able to grab anything and everything from the Apple Music catalog, including songs from a live streaming radio broadcast, is just awesome.

We have no doubt Apple will be working out bugs for some time. But for now, Apple Music offers some amazing things that none of its competitors do, making it a serious contender. If users can get over the initial hump of learning to make the most of Apple Music, Spotify will have to start watching its back.

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