Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Assorted Thoughts and Observations About Apple Music

It’s only been a day since Apple launched their newest streaming music service, so the thoughts I have about it are fairly preliminary and would probably comprise several shorter posts. For convenience, they’re here in a bulleted list.

  • Listening to Beats 1’s first hour of broadcasting was the most fun I’ve had with a radio station in a long time. It’s pretty clear that Zane Lowe is stoked about its launch, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The other main DJs — Ebdo Darden and Julie Adenuga — are equally exciting. Their energy makes the difference between listening to the playlist and listening to the radio.

  • Launching with a little-known band feels like it harkens back to the days when Apple could serve an artist their career on a silver platter simply by being in an iPod ad. Those days have faded somewhat, with the company opting for far bigger names to close out their events — U2, Foo Fighters, and Elvis Costello, to name a few.

    In fact, the first hour and a half of Beats 1’s broadcast was a great blend of big-name artists and lesser-known acts. Sure, there were tracks from Dr. Dre, AC/DC, and Eminem, but Lowe also played songs by Courtney Barnett, Day Wave, and Wolf Alice.

    I think Apple is very honest and genuine when they say that they love music. I don’t think it’s marketing spin or a way for them to try to acknowledge the iPod’s role in their current success. In addition to the business case, the amount of attention they’re putting into all of the different facets of Apple Music is a reflection of this love and passion for making music listening better.

  • As I alluded to above, the presence of an actual engaged DJ is what separates a playlist from a radio station. It’s what’s missing from most actual radio stations these days, and what works so well with Beats 1. Not only does it create excitement, it also offers some continuity, or at least an explanation of why different songs are being played. Ebdo Darden played Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis”, and then chased it with “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding. Why? Because “Otis” sampled Otis in a big way, and hearing that connection is important for understanding its context in the song. It allows listeners a way to appreciate the artistry and creativity of both artists.

  • On the other hand, Beats 1 doesn’t depart that much from terrestrial radio in ways it could on the internet. There are still too many station idents (“You are listening to Beats 1”) and ad breaks (though way shorter than typical radio stations).

    There’s also no profanity or objectionable lyrics. I understand that Apple wants to keep this family-friendly, and that some people just don’t want to listen to profane lyrics, but it does feel a little jarring to listen to Dr. Dre’s classic “Let Me Ride” with a bunch of the lyrics reversed because they contain references to drugs and violence. It numbs the song of its intentional bite.

    There are ways of doing a split stream, so an explicit stream can be broadcast alongside a clean stream, both live. Art isn’t always clean and family-friendly, and I think Apple’s insistence that it should be neuters songs that use less savoury lyrics for artistic effect.

    Darden, for example, played Jay-Z’s classic “99 Problems”. With the last word removed, the line “rap critics say that he’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’” has less connection to the lines that follow, wherein he dismantles the notion that he only talks about wealth and women. Similarly, the storytelling in the infamous second verse is harder to follow when some of the more profane lyrics are removed.

    Or you could take Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, with the wonderfully crude chorus “I wanna fuck you like an animal”. Drop the protagonist’s spitting “fuck” and it becomes much weaker.

    You could argue that it’s the artists’ fault for including objectionable lyrics, but I think that there’s a valid case for profanity, and that “99 Problems” and “Closer” are accessible songs that make liberal use of it. Removing it from those songs — as with many, many others — neuters the artists’ intent.

  • All of the Beats hosts seem very excited that they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7. Did you know that they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7? Well they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7.

    Doing a worldwide live music station is a potential programming nightmare, though. When I was in high school, I worked in the sound booth for a local theatre company. One of the other technicians was a guy who used to work as a radio host, and he was telling me that the programming they had for different times of day was carefully controlled, particularly in the evening. Past midnight, internal policy dictated that the DJs couldn’t play anything by the Smiths, for example, because it would be just too depressing for anyone awake at that time of night.

    But it’s even simpler than that. When it’s 8:00 in Los Angeles, it’s 4:00 in London, and midnight in Tokyo. The music someone wants to listen to during their morning commute is probably different to the music they’d want to listen to during an afternoon commute or late-night partying.

    Understanding Beats 1’s role in your music listening is complicated. For some people, like those who get most of their new music from the radio already, it could be the first thing they put on in the morning and the last thing they listen to at night. But for someone like me, who more deliberately chooses music by my mood or time of day, it’s a little more like a place to go when I am more interested in simply having something to listen to. It’s complicated, and I’m not entirely sure what problem Apple is solving with this.

    It’s kind of cool, though, when I know that someone on the other side of the world is listening to the exact same thing that I am. It carries a buzz that’s kind of like the World Cup.

  • Having a library that’s a blend of my own, local tracks and those available through Apple Music is pretty much my ideal approach. It’s something that Spotify tried to do with its local library, but I’ve built my iTunes library over the past ten-plus years, and it’s more trouble than its worth to bring it over to Spotify. Now, though, that functionality is built-in.

  • I’m digging the new psychedelic colour scheme for the app icons on OS X and iOS. For real. I know it’s a bit garish, but it’s also fun and it doesn’t look ugly, I don’t think.

    If you wanted to read too much into it, you’d notice that it uses a similar magenta as the previous icons, plus some blue and some purple, both of which could be seen as representations of the two other aspects of the service, all blended together.

    But, as I said, that’s probably reading way too much into it.

  • Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora must have been dreading Apple’s entry into the streaming music business. By effectively bundling it into the built-in apps, it becomes almost a default choice. I know a few people who have already cancelled their Spotify subscriptions, and I might do just that too. I wonder how their user base will change, and whether they’ll sue on presumed antitrust grounds.

  • The Connect feature seems to be used far more than Ping was, but it also still feels overwrought and “heavy”, as least on my Mac. (I haven’t been able to try Connect on my iPhone yet because a new beta seed hasn’t been released.) It will be very interesting to see if artists actually continually post work-in-progress pieces, non-catalogue music, and those kinds of things. It isn’t like they haven’t been able to do that already, between YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. What compels them to post on Connect? Can an artist cross-post to other social services at the same time? If you know anything about the artist publishing tools for this, please get in touch.

  • The instrumental version of The Fragile is magnificent.

I have a lot more to say about Apple Music and all that it entails. It’s a big, comprehensive array of services and apps. More to come, I’m sure.