For You, perhaps, but not for me

My initial experience with Apple Music hasn’t been especially bad, but it hasn’t been good enough to be worth $10/month, either. I’m sure some of this is a generational thing, and rightly so—Apple would be foolish to target 55-year-olds—but I do wonder if those who seem to be happy with the service are thinking clearly about what they’re getting.

Let’s start with Connect. This is, to me, the least interesting part of Apple Music because I’m far too jaded to believe that anything put here is straight from the artists themselves.

Next we have Beats 1, which has gotten raves from young people. My contribution to the sociology of this phenomenon was this tweet:

I wonder if the giddy reaction of the under-30 crowd to Beats 1 is because that generation never had a relationship with radio.
Dr. Drang (@drdrang) Jul 1 2015 7:50 AM

Philip Michaels had a more insightful take:

Apple Music and its attendant Beats 1 Internet radio station launched last week, to largely laudatory reviews from people who didn’t realize that radio was a thing that already existed. DJs curating collections of music broadcast to a mass audience? you could hear the millennials say in between cuts of Spring King and Pharrell Williams. This is Apple’s greatest innovation since the iPhone introduced the world to telephony. Meanwhile, in the Inventors Wing of the Happy Hunting Ground, Guglielmo Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell exchange eye rolls.

Snark notwithstanding, I can imagine myself liking a show or two on Beats 1. Elton John’s show, for example. For while it’s true that Elton’s own music has melted into a sticky goo of smarm, I suspect his taste in other people’s music is both eclectic and sharp. I’m going to give his show a listen to see if it features music I like but don’t already know about. On the other hand, I’ll be giving Jaden Smith’s show a pass, as I do his movies.

What I’d really like to hear on Beats 1 is a resurrection of God’s Jukebox, Mark Lamarr’s late, lamented show on BBC Radio 2. It was everything Beats 1 is supposed to be: deep cuts from a highly opinionated “curator.” I really miss that show.

Next on the Apple Music list of services is My Music. Because I didn’t already have an iTunes Match account, I had to go through the process of scanning and uploading my iTunes library. This took about two days of continuous connection, and both iTunes on my Mac and the Music app on my iPhone lied to me through most of the process. For example, even when the progress circle in iTunes showed the uploading to be nearly complete, none my Beatles tracks were ready. Their iCloud status in iTunes was still “Waiting,” and they were unavailable for streaming on my iPhone.

Beatles waiting

It didn’t seem reasonable that iTunes had somehow decided that the Fab Four should be uploaded last, so I signed out of my account, relaunched iTunes, and signed in again. I’d read on Twitter that this was fixing other problems with Apple Music, so it seemed like it was worth a shot. It was. Suddenly, the Beatles tracks were no longer “Waiting” in iTunes and were available on my Phone.

This is, obviously, a one-time problem, but it’s another in a long series of examples of Apple’s poor grasp of cloud services. A glitch in iTunes made it think the tracks had not yet been uploaded, and that glitch somehow became the “truth” on iCloud’s servers, even though those servers have plenty of independent ways to know what tracks they have. This is like someone telling you via email that you’re naked—wouldn’t you look down before believing it?

In any event, once I went through the sign out/sign in exercise and the uploading finished, My Music seemed to work fine. But no one would subscribe to Apple Music to get this service when iTunes Match does the same thing for much less money.

The big appeal of Apple Music, like any streaming service, is the ability to go beyond the music you own and listen to an enormous catalog of songs, wherever you are, any time you like. I don’t have much experience with other services, but Apple Music seems to do a decent job with this. In my limited use, I had no problem finding tracks I wanted to listen to.

While the ability to search directly for songs I already know about is important, discovering unknown songs that appeal to me is just as valuable. For You is Apple Music’s attempt to help with this discovery, and it just hasn’t worked for me.

Part of the problem is that generational thing. When I went through the For You setup and made the Genre selections, I ran into a dilemma: should I include R&B or not? I knew perfectly well that Apple Music would see R&B as primarily Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Usher, and, God help us, Robin Thicke; so my inclination was to turn it off. But if I did that, would I be blocking Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Gamble & Huff, and the entire Stax label?1 That was too much of a risk, so I left R&B in my Genre list. To my chagrin, I soon found lots of current R&B in my For You suggestions, but not a hint of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

Another problem with For You was that it refused to listen to me. In the second round of the setup, where you choose or eliminate certain artists, I was terrorized by Zombie Whitney Houston. No matter how many times I popped the Whitney Houston bubble, it kept coming back, reappearing at the edge of my screen and wiggling in its mirth at my feeble attempts to kill the undead. Eventually I gave up and waited for a Whitney Houston playlist to eat my brain.

When I was done with the setup and For You’s playlists appeared, over half of them were filled with songs I had no interest in. Again, I don’t really blame Apple Music for this—it doesn’t know it’s dealing with a 55-year-old. But after I brought up the context menu on each of these off-target playlists and chose Recommend Less Like This, the next set of For You suggestions shouldn’t have included yet another round of Justin Timberlake and, yes, Whitney Houston.

Even the playlists that are aligned with my tastes don’t appeal to me because they are, for the most part, too tame and too obvious. Of what value, for example, is a “Led Zeppelin Deep Cuts” playlist to someone whose library already has every Led Zeppelin album? If I’ve said I like Cheap Trick, I’ll probably like the songs in a Cheap Trick playlist, but how does that help me discover new music?

The best For You suggestion I got was a set of Bob Dylan songs covered by punk rockers. I didn’t like every song, but it was the right mix of familiar and unfamiliar.2 It was, unfortunately, the only playlist where I could clearly see the value of having people build it instead of algorithms. The other lists looked pretty mechanical.

And I don’t think I’m the only one getting unimaginative playlists. It seems to me that even those who are delighted with For You are getting dull, on-the-nose suggestions that aren’t going to stretch their tastes. Christina Warren, for example, said this in one of the early Apple Music articles:

Straight out, I was given a recommendation of a Taylor Swift love ballad playlist and albums from The Kinks, Sufjan Stevens, Elliot Smith, The Shins, Miguel and Drake. So basically my musical brain.

This is not what I want from For You. I already have my musical brain sitting between my ears, and I have a 10,000-song representation of it in my iTunes library. But there are 30 million songs in Apple Music, and even if a huge swath of them can be eliminated because I hate Christian rock or speed metal or whatever, there will still be millions of songs left. For You should be my guide into the unexplored areas of those millions of songs. Right now, it’s not.

  1. You may argue that Stax and Gamble & Huff are more Soul than R&B, and I wouldn’t disagree, but since there was no Soul bubble in the Genre selection, I assumed it would be covered by R&B. 

  2. The only (minor) criticism I had of it was that the Chimes of Freedom album was overrepresented.