Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Thoughts on Beats Music

Beats Music is the newest entrant into the already crowded music streaming service market. Depending on where you live, the space is already dominated by Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, iTunes Radio, Google Music, Xbox Music, and a host of smaller competitors. All of these services do pretty much the same thing: provide a nearly endless stream of music for either a very low monthly price, or for free with ads. These services are also similar in that not all of them are available in all areas (of those, only Rdio and Xbox Music are currently available in Canada).

Beats Music doesn’t appear to do much more than this — in fact, perhaps offering fewer features. There’s no free option, for a start: there’s a seven-day free trial, and then it costs $10 a month, ad free. It has an enormous library of music, offline playback, playlists, and provides suggestions of what to listen to next. Beats is really banking on that last point to differentiate itself, with a slew of discovery features:

  • Tapping the heart on the Now Playing screen, or the heart with the big “×” through it, will help tailor suggestions.

  • There’s a bog-standard algorithmic recommendation engine based on your listening habits.

  • There are several playlists tailored to different activities, like “Breaking Up”, “Partying Poolside” (which is different from plain “Partying”), and “Punching Walls”. Each of these playlists have about an hour of music, which seems artificially short to me. We’re not constrained by the limits of a physical medium any more.

  • There’s a section which features playlists compiled by “curators” like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and KROQ.

  • There’s a novel little feature called “The Sentence”, in which you complete the following sentence using a series of prompts:

    I’m [in, at, or on a place] and feel like [activity] with [kind of person or people] to [genre].

    Some of the suggestions are fairly straightforward, while others are a little quirky: it’s possible to be “in the future” while feeling like “taking a selfie” with “zombies” to “seminal indie”. I’ve tried several combinations and most are very pleasant, though I have a sneaking suspicion that the genre part of the sentence is really all that matters.

  • Finally, you can follow anyone’s public playlists, so if they put together a sweet nighttime playlist, you’ll get all the updates to it.

With so many paths to enable a solid music addiction, you’d hope that these would stand out above the others. And, indeed, I’ve found these recommendations to be a cut above the rest. You do still see boneheaded recommendations (People who like Queens of the Stone Age also like old Kyuss? How very wet this water is.) but it also throws out some pretty solid recommendations. As an example, I love Autechre, so it recommended a playlist of Leftfield music (the genre, not just the artist).

In addition, there are some really great playlists to introduce you to artists, so you can get an overview of their entire career. There are playlists with an artist’s influences: Arcade Fire apparently digs Springsteen and the Rolling Stones; similarly, there are playlists with artists who were influenced by a given artist: Radiohead apparently influenced Bloc Party and The XX. The home screen will feature any of these at a time, based on listening habits. Like any good recommendation engine, it gets better as it’s used more.

Then again, it also recommended a Pitbull album. There’s dog shit on every beautiful trail, isn’t there?

That’s a lot of different ways to discover new music, and that seems to be the primary reason you’d choose Beats Music. In fact, it’s really only one of two major differentiating factors, its price being the other. As I mentioned above, it’s only streaming music service I’m aware of that has no free tier whatsoever. You get a week to try it for free, but after that, it’s not like there are ads or skip limits: you simply can’t listen any more unless you pay up, to the tune of $10 each month.

For all the outrage I’ve seen on Twitter, the price is extremely competitive. There are no ads, and there isn’t a complex pricing matrix to study. For ten bucks a month, you get unlimited mobile listening, web listening, offline playback, and no ads. That sounds pretty fair to me. Sure, there’s no free tier, but perhaps the more robust discovery aspects will be enough to sway you.

It’s not all perfect: the library, as ever, has substantial holes in it, and there’s no way to blend in your own music (as with, say, Spotify). There’s also no desktop client yet. Finally, there’s the question of how much you value your music collection, and how much you trust a third party to take care of it. Today showed some launch day hiccups, with users unable to access the service for about an hour (even, it turns out, offline content). First world problem it may be, but I’m the kind of first world denizen who would like uninterrupted access to my music collection.

That said, Beats seems like it would be a hell of a complement to nearly any other streaming service or a local library. Its recommendations are solid, and I love the app’s UI. I’m looking forward to its launch in Canada. I think I may have finally found a streaming music service that I like.