On Beats 1

I absolutely love music.

I love listening to and discovering new artists. I love seeing live shows. I love when someone says “You know who I think you might like…?”

I don’t watch any television shows, though I do watch more NFL games than I care to admit. I don’t watch movies. I don’t have Netflix or Hulu, though I sometimes watch TED Talks on YouTube. If I’m awake, whether I’m programming, commuting, playing video games, eating, showering, whatever… I’m listening to music.

I’m giving Apple Music a try for the same reason I try everything else Apple does: I think they have good taste, and I think the more products of theirs you use, the more likely you are to enjoy the next. I’ve got everything from an Apple Watch to an AirPort Express to a few shares of their company, They make what I find to be pleasant, well-considered hardware and software, and above-average, generally non-creepy (ahem, Google) services. They’ve done more for music, perhaps, than any company has in the last twenty years. In addition, Rdio has been giving me some trouble lately, so I wanted to check it out.

Honestly, I find Apple Music to be ambitious, complex and convoluted. iMore seems to think so, too, as Serenity Caldwell put together a massive FAQ about the service, how it works, how it differs from iTunes Music, and more. I think the ambitiousness shows when you take a look at Apple Music on iOS and realize how much stuff they try to cram into a tiny, barely noticeable ellipsis button. They try to make the experience similar on iTunes on the Mac, too, which might not be the right approach.

Long pressing a suggestion in the For You tab of iOS’ music app brings up this Action Sheet. It takes up half the screen and it’s the only way I’ve found to access the ‘I Don’t Like This Suggestion’ option, so many users may never find it. I have no idea how to access this option at all in iTunes, and Apple’s Support Document on the subject doesn’t seem to help.

I think part of my confusion as a user comes from the fact that for the last few years, iTunes was where I went to listen to music I had and Rdio was for the music I didn’t, and now that distinction is crumbling. No longer can I be sure that what’s in iTunes is “mine” without making a bunch of smart playlists or buying a bunch of the albums I’ve been streaming.

I think that’s a function of my need for control, and it feels odd ceding that control over my iTunes Library to Apple. In order to use Apple Music, if you’re merging your own library with random tracks and albums from the iTunes Music Store, it seems that ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is the best mentality you can have. “If I ever need to cancel, I’ll figure it out then, I guess…

But Beats 1? That’s another story entirely. I think Beats 1 is absolutely revolutionary, and I think it has room to get truly magical.

Discovery

According to my last.fm profile, I’ve scrobbled (recorded plays of) ~65 songs a day for the last ten years, and some plays have surely slipped through the cracks. Most of the music I listen to is album-at-a-time (and sometimes, if an artist only has a few albums, the whole discography straight through). I generally listen a few times until I form a solid opinion and move on, but I hate feeling like I have nothing new and exciting to check out.

I actually feel like I’m being “unproductive” if I listen to the same album on repeat too many times because of new music I’m missing out on. I’m constantly looking for new ways to discover music. The “Similar Artists” feature in Rdio has worked okay for me in the recent past, but my best recommendations have come from friends with varied tastes who know what I like and send recommendations my way. As cheesy as this will sound, that’s sort of what Beats 1 DJs Zane, Julie and Ebro have become.

Within a few minutes of listening to Beats 1, Zane Lowe had my attention: he was yelling about the music he was sharing with everyone, rattling off dozens of cities and countries around the world in which Beats 1 was streaming and even played Pharrell’s Freedom twice back-to-back.

Many familiar facets of the radio were there, like censored music, promos for other shows and borderline-obtrusive Beats 1 Sounders. Advertising is present, but very short and tasteful (literally a deep-voiced man saying “Beats 1 is made possible by American Express, McDonald’s, and Candy Crush Saga”), though it should be unnecessary for a company with nearly $200b in the bank.

What Beats 1 lacks that the radio has in spades is horrible, overplayed music. Zane Lowe introduced me to a few bands in the first two hours of the station being live. A few hours later, Julie Adenuga introduced me to a few more. I’ve listened to Ebro Darden less than the other DJs due to a partially-underground commute during his 6pm Eastern block, but I’ve enjoyed his taste and learned of a few artists from his show, as well.

Zane has no reservations about talking over the first or last seconds of a song, and also frequently will chime in right in the middle, to either offer commentary or shout out some countries that are “TUNED IN ON DEVICE.” I totally understand that even for people who love hearing someone enthusiastic about what they do, this can be a lot, and Zane’s style is not for everyone.

After initially wondering why he had to talk over the music, I came to find it quite charming. It’s like sitting with a friend and playing music for them: you don’t play them a full song and sit there in silence: you talk to them about it, you might cut it off early to show them something else, etc. You might even restart a particularly great song so you can enjoy it again.

The three main DJs on Beats 1 have played varied music that never gets airplay on traditional FM radio and broken some rules around how to present those songs. Between cracking corny jokes and cracking up laughing at them, Julie plays a few songs in a row “in the club” after making references to getting your ID ready and how lucky we are to be able to skip the queue with her.

Ebro does the “borough check” where he plays a bunch of songs in a row from NY-area musicians and rappers, making shoutouts to the Queens and Brooklyn (and, if we’re lucky, North Jersey) neighborhoods that birthed the artists. It all feels organic and fun. It genuinely sounds like all the DJs love what they’re doing, and are humbled and inspired by their global audience.

Control

M.G. Siegler, in a post he wrote about Beats 1:

There’s something different about hearing a song you love on the radio. It just sounds better.
I know that sounds absolutely crazy. And, in a way, it is. I mean, a song is a song. It should sound the same no matter how you hear it. Or maybe over radio it should actually sound worse given the relatively low fidelity of radio.

I’d have to agree: not because of the audio fidelity, but because of the excitement of having your taste validated; of feeling like you won the lottery because there was just as high a chance that the song that came on is one you didn’t know or like; of knowing that anyone else tuned in is getting to hear something you love.

Pandora always seemed very narrow to me. I figured that some of the reason was because they only had a small amount of data on me (the artist[s] I used to seed the station and then likes / skips from that point on). I tried “Alex FM” on Rdio recently and was even more disappointed. Rdio has data on nearly every song I’ve played for the last few years: with all that data, surely they could put together a solid playlist of music for me.

What I found with Rdio was that the “Favorites” setting was too random for me — I don’t use shuffle and would prefer to just listen to full albums if I know the songs already — and the “Adventurous” setting was tailored for someone, surely, but not me. Right in the middle was fine, but didn’t introduce me to much that I liked and played mostly things I already knew I enjoyed. I think the service works fine, but I expect Rdio to be able to work magic with the data they have on me, and so it didn’t live up to my expectations.

With Beats 1, I have no control and therefore no expectations. While this means the “recommendations” aren’t always up my alley, it also means I’m expanding my horizons and learning about a lot of new music. Most of the music played is stuff I didn’t know about before I started listening to Beats 1. A lot of it has been good and introduced me to breaking artists or, in the case of grime, entirely new genres of music. I’m listening to expand my horizons: the selection is pretty heavily geared towards dance, rap, hip-hop, rock and indie, but the DJs all seem to expect that you know who Drake and Rihanna and Taylor Swift are, so they’d rather play Jamie xx, Skepta, Leon Bridges and Jungle.

Programming

A lot of people take issue with Beats 1 claiming to be “Worldwide, Always On” by saying they only have 12 hours of programming a day, which repeats: I think Apple’s set things up perfectly. In US Eastern Time, Zane is on and noon and Midnight. Julie is on at 3pm and 3am. Ebro is on at 6pm and 6am. If you’re asleep at 3pm Eastern, you likely won’t be at 3am Eastern.

A full 24 hours of programming means I wouldn’t be able to hear whomever got the show in the middle of the night here. By setting up the schedule this way, they’ve made it easy to listen to the programming and be sure you don’t miss anything.

Each of those three main shows has an interview every day, which strikes me as very ambitious. Hearing Ed Sheeran talk about how his tour is going, or how Tinie Tempah reacted when he found out that his new single hit number 1 is a great way to break up the music and help draw attention to the artists — a very clear, announced goal of Apple’s through this whole process — as you listen to their stuff.

Also, every night, there’s a show hosted by a musical artist during which they share songs they like or playlists they made. Hearing the music Joshua Homme or Elton John love is fascinating, and St. Vincent’s Mixtape Delivery Service has been absolutely stellar: she takes a call from a fan and puts together a playlist just for them. Her conversation with her fans is natural and thoughtful, and her taste in music is varied and interesting.

Room to Grow

I love that, for all Apple has done with Beats 1 already, they can still do so much more. All the songs played are listed in playlists in the artist’s (or DJ’s) Connect Pages, but the commentary is lost. I think this is intentional by Apple because:

  1. I don’t know how complex it is to work out licensing for downloads of radio programming.
  2. It goes against the “globally connected” nature of the service if you can timeshift the programming to your liking: I think Apple really enjoys the “worldwide” aspect of what they’ve built and wants people to see certain programs as “must-hear” programming people will go out of their way to tune in for.

In lieu of offering downloads / streams of the full shows with commentary, I wish there could be a “bonus track” on these playlists that explains the DJ’s rationale: any artist could do this currently, if they wanted, via Connect.

I’d love to see more creative advertising around deals on iTunes albums and apps. For instance, I think it’d be awesome if a company could advertise their $0.99 app and users could download it for free with a tap, only if they came from the Beats 1 stream within 30 seconds. This kind of advertising isn’t really possible with terrestrial radio.

I’d love a Beats 2 (and Beats 3?) that played more varied music (classic rock, country, etc.), or had DJs in other major music cities around the world. I’d also love more stations in other languages. For being a global service, all the DJs speak english and other than a few very rare tracks, the only non-English songs that get played are by the French-speaking Stromae.

I wish you could choose from a clean or explicit version of the station which would otherwise play identical music. This seems complex considering the DJs are interacting with and sometimes talking during the tracks during the recording, but I have faith in a way for Apple to figure this out, though they might not have much of a financial incentive to do so.

When a song is playing, you can tap the ellipsis button to add the track to My Music. Once it’s finished, you’re on your own, as the option isn’t there. Why?

I‘d love a way to see the full list of songs played, and at what times, from an official source, not the amazing unofficial @Beats1Plays. I’d love Apple to record videos of the daily interviews and post them on YouTube, Vimeo or even Connect. I’d love to embed an Apple Music Player in this post, or on my Tumblr, that has songs I’ve liked recently, or a favorite playlist.

I’d love more information in iTunes (as versus on beats1radio.com) about what DJ is on now and who’s up next, to know if shows were new or replays, and to see a bit more information about the artist / album that’s playing. When You’re listening to Beats 1, the only portion of the screen that changes is the song title / artist at the top. All the space below is completely wasted and static, a huge missed opportunity.

Apple could do so much with the space below iTunes’ title bar.

There are still so many things Apple can do with Beats 1 and I hope they’ll knock some of these out over the next year as they refine the service.

Conclusion

My fear is that over time, the service will degrade: good interviews will run out. Zane’s enthusiasm will start to bother people who once found him charming. Ads will get more intrusive. The main DJs will leave and be replaced with lesser talent. The up-and-coming, established artists hosting their own shows will be replaced with has-beens. I hope Apple positions itself to potential hosts as a global streaming service reaching hundreds of thousands (millions?) of listeners around the world, and artists realize that it’s a great way to get the word out about their music. For now at least, Apple seems to have found a way to ensure top artists record hour-long blocks for Beats 1:

Apple seems absolutely hellbent on charging money for things they should offer for free to drum up interest in their products (see iCloud Storage Prices vs. what Google offers), which blows my mind. Hopefully iTunes Match and Apple Music are aggressively priced such that Apple has included the cost of running and staffing Beats 1 and can keep the service just the way it is.

And while those concerns are very real, I could not be more impressed with the ambition or execution of Beats 1 and I cannot possibly heap more praise onto it than I have here. I can’t imagine ever listening to FM radio again, since I can stream Beats 1 to my phone from anywhere. My hope is that Apple builds on the strong foundation they’ve laid, and I hope I’ll be able to get LOCKED IN with Zane, Julie and Ebro for years to come.

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