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Apple Music First Look: Rich, Robust -- But Confusing

Apple has built a robust app and service that goes well beyond just offering a huge catalog of music. But it's also uncharacteristically complicated by Apple standards.

Lauren Goode

Paid streaming music has arrived on Planet Apple, where it was regarded as unworthy for years. Today, the tech giant has entered the streaming music business with its much-anticipated Apple Music subscription service. Like other streaming services, it offers access to tens of millions of tracks for a monthly fee.

Way back in 2003, the company launched the world’s most successful digital download service, the iTunes Store. Can it do the same for streaming, especially given the big head start it got from Spotify, which augments its paid service with a free, limited, advertising-based tier that Apple won’t be offering?

To find out, I’ve been testing Apple Music on an iPhone 6 Plus, loaned to me by Apple for about a day. Because of the short testing time, this isn’t a full-on review but a first look. I set out to gather some initial impressions of how it feels to use the product. And to answer the question: Would I pay $10 a month — $120 a year — to use it?

My answer is a tentative yes, with some caveats. Apple has built a handsome, robust app and service that goes well beyond just offering a huge catalog of music by providing many ways to discover and group music for a very wide range of tastes and moods.

But it’s also uncharacteristically complicated by Apple standards, with everything from a global terrestrial radio station to numerous suggested playlists for different purposes in different places. And the company offers very little guidance on how to navigate its many features. It will take time to learn it. And that’s not something you’re going to want to do if all you’re looking for is to lean back and listen.

Apple Music uses human curators to suggest songs.
Apple Music uses human curators to suggest songs.

The service has three big strengths, in my view. First, it smoothly integrates the existing library of iTunes songs you own with the much larger catalog of music you are merely, in effect, renting. For instance, you can create mixed playlists of songs you bought from iTunes or ripped from CDs with streaming music. And you can make them all playable offline, even though they live in the cloud.

Because so many people have iTunes libraries already, this is a big deal. For instance, a curated list called “Best of ’60s Girl Groups” included a list of songs and artists that matched my memories and likes, and I was able to add it to my library as if I had taken the songs from those I had purchased.

Second, while the service does use some algorithms, it suggests numerous playlists, albums and songs curated by 300 human editors, based on your tastes. These curators include editors employed by Apple, and such well-known music publications as Rolling Stone, Downbeat and Pitchfork. This was a key feature of the Beats Music service Apple acquired last year.

In my brief time testing, I found that these curated suggestions and playlists were generally more pleasing and accurate, at least for me, than those created by algorithms alone.

The For You section suggests music based on your tastes.
The For You section suggests music based on your tastes.

They were also surprising. Among the curated playlists I encountered were “Best Graduation Songs of the Last 20 Years,” “Obscure but Awesome Willie Nelson Songs” and “The Rolling Stones’ Ballads.”

Third, while Apple’s $10 monthly fee per user is both standard — and for some, pricey — the company is offering a family plan that cuts the price dramatically. For $15 a month, up to six people can be subscribers, each with his or her own individual experience. There’s also a three-month free trial.

The app is divided into five main sections, reached via icons arrayed across the bottom of the screen.

One, called Radio, includes curated streaming radio stations and a new, global live station called Beats 1, which I wasn’t able to evaluate because it wasn’t up and running yet.

Another, called Connect, is a sort of social network for artists to reach their fans; the artists post photos, videos and more, and can receive comments from fans. This section had very little content in my prerelease testing. The artists who post here must already be selling their work through iTunes, and Apple Music proposes those you should “follow,” though you can manually change these choices.

These two features are free, even if you don’t subscribe to Apple Music.

For me, the most important section was called For You. It contains curated playlists and album choices based on your tastes, which you indicate when you sign up. For instance, because I said I liked them, I got a playlist called “Intro to Marvin Gaye,” as well as two different Van Halen playlists, one featuring David Lee Roth and another featuring Sammy Hagar.

Another section, called New, isn’t tied to your own tastes. It’s the part of the app where curators, like old-school DJs, try and promote discovery of the artists and albums they like — to everyone.

That sounds simple enough, but a lot is crammed into this New module, including music videos and top tracks, plus, long, deep lists of music curated by genre, from artists that are far from new. There are also playlists for activities, like cooking, dancing or driving.

The New section is deep and rewarding, but it’s also confusing, and seems to be the place where Apple jammed everything that didn’t fit anywhere else. It could be a streaming music app all by itself.

Artist pages are colorful.
Artist pages are colorful.

Finally, there’s the My Music section, which looks the most like the old Music app, featuring your library and playlists, either from your old iTunes collection or the streaming catalog, if you’ve chosen to add any streaming songs to the library or playlists.

In my tests, this section looked and worked well, and it’s what iTunes users will see if they choose not to subscribe to Apple Music.

Search worked well, and in my tests, Siri was able to effectively respond to commands like, “Play the top hits from 2007” or “After this song, play ‘Heartbreak Hotel.'”

One of the most confusing aspects of Apple Music is that it moves all your iTunes Music to the cloud, along with the streaming catalog. You still own this music, and can download it. But, in effect, this subsumes most of the features of Apple’s $25-a-year iTunes Match service, which placed your library in the cloud, regardless of whether you bought the songs from Apple (or even obtained them legally).

Apple says iTunes Match will still be available for those who don’t subscribe to Apple Music. And, even for subscribers, your iTunes Match music that was manually uploaded remains.

However, you now have to take an extra step to find an artist or a song or a playlist you’ve created. The old icons for these things have been removed from the bottom of the app. To locate these things, you now have to first go to My Music, and either hit a button or choose from a dropdown list.

My biggest disappointment with Apple Music is that, unlike apps like SoundHound, it has no lyrics. Apple says it’s working on adding that feature.

Apple Music doesn’t just work on iPhones. It works on iPads, Macs and Windows PCs. On iOS devices, it will require an operating system upgrade to get the new music app that includes Apple Music. An iTunes update for the desktop version of Apple Music is also expected today.

An Android version — Android! — is promised for this fall. That means that, for the first time, Apple is providing a cloud-based music option across both major mobile platforms.

My first impression of Apple Music is that it’s the most full-featured streaming music app I’ve seen — and heard — and the first I’d consider paying for. But it may overwhelm some users, and I’ll need to live with it more before I can reach final conclusions.

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