Two weeks ago, Apple launched their new streaming service, Apple Music. Apple Music is built on the backbone of Beats Music—the streaming service that the popular headphone company launched last Winter--which Apple bought last year--and also was a service I was a subscriber of. So upon the day that Apple Music rolled out, I gladly rolled my account on over and began a three month trial of Apple Music. There's things about Apple Music that I really like, and there's things about Apple Music that I really hate. There's also things about streaming music in general that makes me feel weird, but we'll talk about that later on. First, let's talk about what I like.
Because Apple Music is built off of Beats Music, the core of the service is very familiar to me. Curators, Apple Music Editors, and Activity sections, all of which contain playlists that have been curated by their music editors—actual, human music nerds making playlists for people. By in large, these playlists are exceptional. They're virtual mix-tapes, and even go as far into interesting fields as “Rappers Criticized by Bill O'Riley.” Not kidding, that's an actual playlist on the service.
The other killer features is the way Siri is designed to work with the system. If you have an iPhone, you can do almost anything you want with Siri and Apple Music. This is great if you, like me, enjoying listening to lots of music in the car. You can even say to Siri “Play me the top ten songs of 1967” or “Play the number one song of May 1978” and it will play—going as far back as to 1951. There's other tricks to the Siri control that I'm still playing with and finding out, but so far that might be the biggest advantage Apple Music has over the other streaming services.
Naturally, as I was in the car at the nearby Sonic having a milkshake, I did what anyone would do. “Siri, Play 'These Eyes' by The Guess Who.” As the song began to play I slowly stared out the window, looking at the dark, charcoal grey clouds that began to cover up the beauty of a Summer's day. My thoughts turned to her, and her alone. No longer was I thinking of the wonder of the chocolate shake I was treating myself to on that day. I heard she married, may even have a kid. Sheila, what went wrong between us? You never told me. Maybe I'll throw this shake away and spend the rest of the day alone on the couch, listening to The Cure. Um, what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah. Apple Music. Anyways....
Granted it's only been two weeks, and I'll have till September to make my mind up on if I want to keep the service. There's some major issues I have with how Apple Music works that is keeping me from being completely on board. One feature Apple has prided themselves on is how at long last, all your music can live in one location. All the music you stream, and all the music you own—either bought from a digital retailer, or ripped from your own CDs. To get the most out of Apple Music, you must enable iCloud Music Library.
In theory, iCloud Music Library is how Apple will mirror EVERYTHING in your personal iTunes collection. Either matching it with titles on their service, or uploading your own ripped CDs and adding it to your collection. I noticed this working when I shortly turned on Apple Music on my phone, it began to mix and match with music I had already synced to my phone from iTunes. So that night, I kept trying to turn iCloud Music Library on for my iTunes. However, some server problem kept it from clicking over, so I went to bed and thought nothing of it.
This was a blessing in disguise, as I woke to reports of iCloud Music Library screwing up people's libraries royally. Wrong album art, breaking up albums into other tracks, duplicate songs. Some reports said words to the effect of “Anyone who is meticulous about how they tag and curate their personal music—this will be a nightmare.” You can guess where I fall on the meticulous scale. Anyone who is finicky as I am knows that iTunes can sometimes be a real pain for getting your metadata and album art right. It can usually ID the CD, but unless the album is on iTunes, and the spelling and grammar match the iTunes offering exactly—it won't tag it with the right art.
I noticed this on my phone, on my copy of Barry White's “All Time Greatest Hits.” An album that is on Apple Music and iTunes Store? Can't find any album art for it at all? “The Best of Marshall Crenshaw?” Replaced with the cover art for his late 90s Demo collection. The worst case is when it replaced the art of “The Four Tops: The Definitive Collection” with some generic “Detroit Soul!” album cover that looked like it was photoshopped together in all of 30 seconds. There's also no option to go in and fix this issue. Whatever Apple makes the cover, you're now stuck with. I've not turned on iCloud Music Library to match my iTunes yet for this very reason.
As amazing as the Siri voice commands for the service are, there's been moments when even that has proven to be a headache. As we got closer to celebrating our nation's birthday, I asked Siri to play “4th of July” by the band X. I asked that exact phrase “Play 4th of July by X” to Siri several times, and it never worked. The problem was clear on the screen of my iPhone. Siri heard me say it perfectly, but the programming that runs Siri read it as “Fourth of July” not “4th of July.” This is a small—seemingly pointless problem—that is another bizarre oversight. Because the X songs is listed on the album—and any other X collection as “4th of July,” Siri could not equate “Fourth” meaning “4th” and said the song could not be found.
I know it's not just a flaw in how voice commands work, as I asked Google to pull the song up for me, and it did. “Look up the song 4th of July by X” is what I said, and as the voice search interpreted my words, it did say “fourth of July” on screen, but in what seemed to be a fraction of a second, it had corrected itself and found the song—with the correct spelling in the search box. It's all these little “devil in the details” parts of Apple Music that seem like flaws that should have been corrected before the service went public. It's the key thing that will keep me from going to a paying subscriber once my free trial runs out in September.
Hovering above all of this is the giant storm cloud that is my feelings about streaming music in general, even though I was a happily paying subscriber of Beats Music for a year and a half, those feelings have never really gone away. You're renting music. That bothers me, along with the idea of low payouts to artists. Now, I'm not saying this to worry about people like Taylor Swift—though she deserves to get paid along with everyone. What I worry about are the independents, the up and comings. The kid whose life changed when he heard The Ramones, then started a band in his basement. They deserves as much a chance for a career in music as anyone else.
All of this is at constant war with my inner music lovers overwhelming joy at having access to (almost) ALL THE THINGS! My relationship with music is at the core of who I am as a person. It's one of the things that defines me. It's been that way all my life. That's why I've spent decades curating a personal music library that covers a wall. That's why music is the first thing I look for in anyone I want to pursue a relationship with. Honestly—as cold as this may sound—my relationship with music has been far better to me than some of those I've tried to have with people. It's everything to me.
I'd be stupid to act like streaming is going to go away, it's not. Apple didn't launch a streaming service to fix the business, they did it to keep their share of the market as sales of digital downloads drop. Y'all know I'm a vinyl guy, and I hope for a long time to come records and record stores will still be around. So even though I have paid to participate in streaming music, it still makes a few funny feelings in my gut.
Do I have the answers? No, I don't have the answers. I'm not sure anyone does. Tidal—the streaming service owned by Jay Z—supposedly pays four times as much as any streaming service. Maybe they have the answer that we don't know about. I've not tried Tidal, but I most likely will as I seriously think of looking for another service. They may be doing something right for artists, as his royal purple majesty—Prince--pulled all his music from ever streaming services expect Tidal.
There is much to love about Apple Music, the curation, and that Siri control—when you're not asking for songs by X—is amazing. However, unless those killer flaws, for me anyway, are fixed by the time September rolls around. I doubt I'll keep the service. It's not worth the pain of not being able to keep my iTunes the way I like it. It's worth the three months free, but if you're as meticulous as I am about how my music is cataloged—keep iCloud out of your iTunes.