Apple Music streaming: Clunky, cool and catchy

Apple music playlists explore a lot of interesting niches that fans will enjoy. But some may wonder: Why would they ever buy music again?
Apple music playlists explore a lot of interesting niches that fans will enjoy. But some may wonder: Why would they ever buy music again? Mark Hames

It used to take a lifetime to build a personalized music collection. Now, you turn on your phone, and whichever streaming service you’re using – whether it be Spotify or Tidal or the ballyhooed new Apple Music, which launched June 30 – you’ve got 30 million or so songs at your thumbtips.

The question is: What to play? Innumerable options await anyone willing to cough up a $10-per-month fee, or listen at no monetary cost while enduring occasional ads, the choice made by more than two-thirds of Spotify’s 75 million active users worldwide.

Apple comes late to the streaming party. The service is in some surprising ways poorly designed, overbusy, confusing and clunky. But Apple Music is also loaded with smartly compiled, frequently refreshed and imaginatively curated programming that’s poised to outflank its competitors.

There are a lot of buttons at the bottom of your Apple Music screen, and after you leave behind something good, it can be hard to keep track of where you left it. There’s a customized “For You” feature, and a “New” page, which contains plenty of music that’s not new.

There’s a “Radio” tab with Beats 1, the hyped 24/7 “global radio station,” plus lots of Pandora-style algorithm-driven genre channels. And “Connect,” the not-so-interesting social element. In addition, there are “Playlist” and “My Music” tabs to integrate your own iTunes into the holistic streaming experience.

Check out DJ playlists

Some things I’ve heard on Apple Music make me think it’s not going to be so easy to let go of it at the end of that three-month free trial. (During that time, Apple, lest you think it is a company made of enlightened altruists, intended heinously not to pay royalties to artists ... that is, until superwoman Taylor Swift stepped in to stop the madness.)

The “global radio station” aspect of Beats 1, headed up by former BBC DJ Zane Lowe, is overblown. Isn’t everything on the Internet “global”? But while it’s essentially a millennial-targeted pop station, the programming is refreshingly free of the intense formatting that makes most American radio such a drag.

For sure, you'll hear Swift and Drake, but you also might hear Fela Kuti, the Alabama Shakes or British electronic synthesist George Fitzgerald. It’s by no means dumbed down.

And then there are the celebrity deejays. Elton John’s weekly Rocket Hour featured Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” as well as Miguel and Wale covering “Bennie and the Jets.” I could have done without the Ed Sheeran, but that was a small price to pay.

All the Beats 1 celeb shows are archived, which is how I dug into St. Vincent’s Mixtape Delivery Service. It made me love the Texas guitarist even more.

The “New” section is also loaded with worthwhile stuff. I tend to use the streaming services in a true on-demand way. I’ve got a good idea what I want to hear, and I’m happy to find it there.

So I don’t bother with the mood-enhancing playlists (Chilling Out, BBQing) meant to function as background music. But The Curator Playlists section is compelling. Pitchfork has worthies such as “Forgotten ‘90s Grrrl Gems” and “Starter: Todd Rundgren”; Mojo proffers “Nat King Cole: Jazz Genius” and the punky “Made in Britain: Sound of a New England, 1977-1983.”

My curatorial fave, though, is the Fader, who does a great job with “New Songs to Make You Like Country Music” (with Sturgill Simpson and Kelsey Waldon) and the producer-focused “Beat Construction.”

I liked the “For You” section even better. With its genre and artist bubbles that you click on to explain your tastes, it seems hokey. But the selections are intriguing. You get me, Apple! I’ve enjoyed computer-generated suggestions such as “Nicki Minaj: Straight Spittin’,” “Elvis Presley: The ’70s Singles,” and “Sampled: Curtis Mayfield.”

You’ll also see mixes that go deep on narrow niches like Bob Dylan break-up tunes, or songs that influenced the British post punkers Gang of Four. And we suspect the service strives to make you feel like quite the hipster when they pair suggested artists like Frank Sinatra and Husker Du side by side.

How easy is it?

Apple Music is far from perfect, though. From what I’ve tried so far, it seems far easier to build personalized playlists and embed them on Spotify. I’m a convert to Sonos, the wireless home-stereo system, but since there’s no Sonos deal with Apple yet, I’ve mainly been listening on earbuds or tinny speakers.

And how easy is it to use Apple Music? Simple, in theory. Not an app, per se, on Apple devices, it just appears on the bottom of the screen when you upgrade the latest operating system. That sounds easy, but in my case, it wasn’t.

And then there’s this – When you add a song or album to your own music library and see it sitting there next to music that you purchased from them you may find yourself asking: Why would I ever purchase music again?

It’s a dilemma. Eventually, music consumers will have to choose, unless they’re willing to shell out for two different services that essentially have the same 30 million songs, albeit organized in different ways.

And while I’m in no hurry to get rid of Spotify and all the self-made playlists I’ve compiled there over the years, I’m having so much fun playing around with Apple Music so far that I can’t see myself giving that up, either.

Spotify vs. Apple Music

Apple Music, which is late to the tune-streaming business, launched June 30 to go head-to- head with giant Spotify. Many will argue over which $10 a month service is superior, but early reviews promise for Apple. To be sure, the service has a goofy sign-up system, and can be clunky and confusing compared to the oh-so-sleek and easy Spotify system of building play lists. BUT: Apple’s cool “for you” button that suggests albums and beautifully curated playlists based on your taste blows Spotify out of the water. Will Spotify respond?

Roland Wilkerson