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First impressions of Apple Music – not great

I want to like Apple Music. While I work in radio, picking music for stations, I don’t feel we’re competing with Apple’s new service because the vast majority of radio listeners approach a pile of 30 million on-demand tunes differently from a highly crafted, linear stream which radio has worked out how to do well over nearly 100 years. We can enjoy both. And personally, I welcome anything which makes it easier for me and other radio listeners to discover great music, which we can enjoy together. So I don’t just want Apple Music to work, I want it to be great.

On first impressions, it’s not. It misses by miles, in ways I never thought a clever, creative, technically competent company could. Maybe my expectations were all wrong. Maybe it’s an early version of a work in progress. Either way, I thought I’d write up these first impressions and share what I’d be looking for in something better. If you have ideas on how to get more out of the experience, I’d love to hear them…

Best bit – Beats 1

Zane Lowe is a class act, passionate, and not just good with words – lyrical and even poetic in a way that can draw you into the most exciting and challenging musical journeys. It’s unfair to judge anyone’s first show as representative of the ongoing experience – first shows are always a bit “raaaawwwrrr! we’re on!!!”, and good shows settle down when they find what people engage with. But I’m missing what I was expecting to find by way of helps for people to engage. It’s a nice selection of cool tunes, and there are clearly some ideas and personalities coming up, but it all feels a bit shouted and broadcast across me right now. I’m amazed at how “samey” it has felt to listen in the chunks I’ve sampled it, even though my head knows that the music has been diversely sourced. I don’t think that’s because it’s programmed to sound the same, more that I’m not engaging with it yet. Early days, though. There is life and hope here.

Radio craft query: I’m wondering how often they will play tunes. If they pick a playlist and thrash it around, they’ll annoy many who want a pure, first-listen discovery service all the time. If they never repeat good tracks, they’ll never connect most of the audience, and the tracks won’t grow on people. Where will they strike the balance? Personally I thought they would do a lot more to help tracks grow with listeners, to nudge tunes back in your direction if you show signs of starting to like them, but my expectation has dropped a lot as I’ve looked around. (Update: looks like there are playlists available for at least some shows, so you can dip into the tracks, but they seem incomplete and don’t include any presenter audio, which is a shame if you want a bit of context to get into something.)

Awful but not the worst bits – the other “radio” stations

Something I expected from Apple’s raid of radio professionals would that they would start to grasp what makes music radio work and deliver satisfying curated channels. What I’ve tried so far is anything but satisfying.

I started with their “Chill” station, because I set up a radio station with that name ten years ago. It’s what comes up first in Google (in the UK, at least) when you search for the word “chill”. The team of specialist producers and myself curate it very carefully – to the point where we’ve often been accused of not adding enough tunes, and I wouldn’t deny that there’s a lot more we could play. But we’re looking for a feeling rarely found – “chilled” but not cold, sometimes cool but more often warm and uplifting. In Apple Music’s “Chill”, I found two tunes in the first 20 they offered that I’d like to play, and we’re already playing one. The rest left me cold. I know it’s all very subjective, and there may be lots of people who prefer Apple’s blend, but for me, when I reach for the fast forward button most of the time, it’s not a service which is helping me chill. Still, I’ll keep exploring, while it will feel like work.

I thought there would be no way they could mess up the “Charting Now” channel, because iTunes is the world’s biggest music retailer and surely they get what charts are, and how they vary across the world. Apparently not. A good chunk of what they’ve played me is US-centric, has never charted in the UK, and I don’t believe the 6 minute 30 expletive-ridden album track I was just served up has been a hit in the States either. (Believe me, I check charts obsessively, as I program pop radio for kids and grown ups as well as specialist stations.) It all seems a bit random.

And here’s the problem – radio is not random. It’s anything but. It’s not enough to take a list of popular or even expertly curated tunes, pop it on shuffle and call it a day. Listeners don’t find that satisfying, for many reasons. For one, hearing the same artist twice within three tunes makes a station sound stupidly repetitive and broken. This happened within minutes of my first sampling of the charting channel. Hearing lots of tunes in a similar style next to each other isn’t ideal either, and it’s totally avoidable. Music on the radio is programmed to balance smooth flow with surprising variety. Getting it right is an art and science, and something I thought Apple could easily find the skills to manage. They haven’t, at least not yet.

The truly awful interface experience

If a device or service doesn’t work perfectly, this is often forgiveable if the interface is good and responsive. I’m running Apple Music off an iPhone 5, and have no issues with speed or responsiveness in the technical sense of stuff moving when I press or swipe it. But the experience is frustrating because of a mix of connectivity and design issues.

First impression: I tried listening to the radio channels before signing up for the trial, and got unhelpful error messages which suggested they were not working. A quick Google search revealed that these went away if I subscribed, so I started my trial, and this was fixed. I get that some stuff is subscriber-only – why not write error messages which say so?

Next problem: hearing a tune and liking it, but finding it incredibly difficult to save it in any kind of list. Turns out there may be a day 1 “we’re so successful, it’s overloading!” type issue which has been preventing the automatic turning on of the “iCloud Music Library” setting required to save playlist info. Fixing this was unbelievably frustrating and random. An error message took me to the right setting, but it kept changing itself back constantly for about 100 attempts before finally working. Lots of other people found this too. I can’t believe most people would have been patient enough to keep trying, but until that bit works, Apple Music is a dumb broadcaster, not something you can have much fun with. I’m expecting that should be fixed when peak demand dies down, or whatever.

But then, the design problems come up which won’t go away until there’s a new version. Let’s say you want to save a tune to a playlist. Which button to press? There’s a “heart”, which doesn’t do this – but it does skew the rest of what you’ll get from a radio channel, and I can’t see how to unskew it, so I don’t want to press this much. There’s a box/arrow icon of the kind which suggests “put this somewhere”, but that only links to “share station” and “share song” options. There’s a cryptic three dots/three lines icon, but that just brings up the name of the next track to play. For goodness’ sake, if you’re working off a playlist, why not just list the playlist? I know that’s a premium price option for music rights, but this is a premium price service after the trial. Finally, what about these totally cryptic three dots at the bottom…

Oh, there it is – “Add to a playlist…” is an option along with (repeated) “share station” and “share song” options, and “Show in iTunes Store”, which handily gives me the option of paying more money to keep the tune. No thanks, I’ll just pop it into a playlist please, and a list of my playlists appears. Can I start a new playlist? No!!! Well, I can, it turns out, if I press the top left button to go back to the home page, then click “my music”, then “playlists”, then the incredibly tiny word “New” half way down the screen. This is crap.

I’m expecting there must be a setting somewhere so I can filter explicit tunes, or versions of tunes, but I’m not seeing it anywhere in the Music app settings. It looks like I have to go into “Parental Controls” to do some global restrictions, where I’d prefer to have the choice on the fly to sample safe or potentially sweary streams or playlists, just as I’d choose which station to listen to carefully if there are other people in the room.

Other random annoyances include “You look like you’re listening on another device” when that’s impossible (I’m not installing iTunes on Windows – yuck), not knowing what bits of the interface are buttons or text info, and rarely knowing what to expect when clicking an icon. Liking an artist in a playlist and want to hear more from them? Try clicking the artist name – it brings up five dots, so you can rate the tune (which you can’t then unrate). There’s no “more by this artist” option – you have to go search. I feel like Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man, just woken up in the future and can’t work out how to use the three freakin seashells in the toilet. Laugh if you must, but it’s embarrassing…

Lots I’ve still got to delve into

There’s a lot of content in Apple Music. I am professionally and personally motivated to put up with the “mystery meat” menus and “you just have to learn it” workflows to get into it, so I’ll look more and report back.

The curated playlists look interesting and are beautifully presented. It’s nice to see music videos in the mix, but finding them took a while, and navigating the selections looks like it will take longer.

The world music selection is something I really want to explore, because Spotify has a very poor selection of Asian music, in particular. First impression is not good – searching for (probably) the best selling J-Pop group of all time, “Morning Musume”, brings two random compilations done on a music box (really awful instrumental covers) plus a completely random of “Deep Sleep Music”. Maybe they thought I needed help to chill. I feel like I do.

This is the problem with Apple Music right now. What should be a delight is too often frustrating, and what should be carefully crafted is too often random. There’s a stack of potential, but in the words of a well known song, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

PS: Apple fans! Want a more upbeat review with pictures and everything? MTV have a great one.