Apple Music Review: The Bohos take on the Robos

I just wanna go back, baby.

Back to the way it was.

D’ Angelo, “Back to the Future” (Black Messiah, 2014)

Julie Adenuga, Ebro Darden and Zane Lowe: Beats 1 DJs.

I have been using Apple Music for several weeks, and wanted to share some initial thoughts on its differentiation, functionality and usability. Though a nascent, as yet imperfect product, Apple Music’s new take on classic radio, Beats 1, via mostly live programming and celebrity-curation, makes it a significant competitor in music streaming, well worth listening to, if it can quickly fix its user experience of the streaming service.

First things first: Apple Music and Spotify share similar catalogs and many common features. For both services, users can search or browse for artists, albums, tracks and playlists. At launch, Apple has sub-optimal user paths, quirks and bugs, of which I’m sure it’s aware, and which Spotify has ironed out. Nevertheless, there’s a non-trivial degree of commoditization here, especially given price parity for premium individual subscribers. (Rather than offer a free, ad-supported version of the service to drive user adoption like Spotify, Apple has opted for a clever, free radio station, but more on this later). In Apple’s case, the playlists seem to be curated solely by Apple Music experts compared with Spotify’s innumerable user playlists, brand playlists (e.g., Pitchfork, Guardian, Blue Note Records, etc.) and company music expert playlists. The Swedish company’s latest moves are, in essence, big data-driven playlists, which are more intriguing as a concept than good listening.

The company-curated playlists on Apple and Spotify are wide-ranging, covering genres, locales (countries), day parts (breakfast), and time periods (80s). They are both akin to well-stocked recipe sites, but suffer from the same issue, a high class problem: an abundance of choice and overlap to the point of cognitive overload, like trying to select one of the umpteen number of the Who’s greatest hits albums.

Given Spotify’s social and music-wiki foundation, it has far more playlists and keeps publishing new ones, which would appear to be a distinct advantage. Armies of music nerds like me create playlists like “Rod Temperton Hits” or “Reid Miles Blue Note Jazz”, which could take a smaller set of “ordained” music experts years to cover. These user-generated playlists are often more obscure than Apple Music’s “Intro to Kanye West”, though don’t count Cupertino out yet: it has already published numerous clever playlists, including some jazz ones featuring famous “leaders” (like Herbie Hancock and Lee Morgan) as “sidemen”(on other artist’s albums), which appeal to listeners who have moved well past “Kind of Blue”, “Getz-Gilberto” and “Time Out.” Well played, Apple, literally and figuratively.

Spotify’s social nexus is robust and foundational to its service. It integrates with Facebook’s social graph, allowing users to follow not only other friends and users, but also artists, media entities and brands. Desktop users (though not mobile ones) can view a real-time feed of what their ‘friends’ are listening to. Though I don’t have data on this feature’s popularity, I have occasionally clicked through to listen to what certain people, my un-famous influencers, are ‘spinning.’ It’s a curiosity more than a fount of discovery.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that artists are actively using their publicly-accessible profiles. Hence, users rarely see artists’ playlists or what they’re listening to, which would seem to be a great, missed opportunity. Instead, the artist profiles often seem to be the province of managers or label PR executives. This is no bueno and illuminates a core Spotify brand problem and product issue: a lack of authenticity, personality and a voice. A big data technology vessel — hyper-efficient, yes, but with no heart or soul. A Mr. Roboto.

Apple’s social feature, Connect, is currently focused on Apple-curated playlists, which include nameless curators as well as artists and DJ (from Beats 1). So far, it is disconnected from users’ ex-Apple social networks. Critics have complained that Connect is a half-baked, redux version of a defunct iTunes social feature called Ping, but I think it’s fundamentally different and too early to tell if it will take hold. I’d bet that Apple’s Jimmy Iovine (a guy you bet against only if you’re looking for a significant tax write-off) and Music CEO Ian Rogers intend on evolving this social feature to users and improving the currently convoluted UX, but have gambled that users are more interested in celebrities’ taste and voices than they are in their friends’.

It’s actually an opportunity that has eluded much of the social media-inebriated digital music business. It speaks to a core difference between Apple Music and Spotify: the influence of celebrity tastemakers, and the impact of words and voice. It’s a lesson we see time and again across creative businesses, and comes down to this principle, using another industry as an example: people are more likely to trust what’s hot in fashion from Grace Coddington, Cathy Horyn, Pharrell and Kanye than their friends and neighbors. People might “like” their friend’s outfit in social media, but it doesn’t cause anywhere near the stir of what Caitlyn Jenner wore to the ESPYs, her speech and who styled her. It’s star power and a degree of credibility that fan the flames of interest…and purchase. It’s why every star-studded event has a red carpet, and celebrities can charge significant fees for appearances. They should, as they “move the merch.”

Why should or would music be any different? Apple has built its service on this premise, and it feels momentous, even if it doesn’t put the service in the pole position. In a way, Apple Music’s core value proposition — tastemakers sharing their taste, literally in their voices — represents a return to the way things were, but with a celebrity quotient magnified by social media’s power. The celebrity as DJ is not new: Bob Dylan’s show on Sirius is one antecedent, but Dylan’s show was inaccessible to the core music audience of 13–25 year olds, perhaps in more ways than one. It required a Sirius subscription and featured an eclecticism that, from the shows I heard, sounded fascinating, but was often far from contemporary pop: I am a jazz vocal fan and can appreciate Dylan’s appreciation of Pete Rugolo’s arrangement of June Christy’s “Something Cool”, but I’m older Gen X and a music nerd.

What feels new is that nearly the entire station’s (called Beats 1) programming is built around the notion of the “celebrity DJ”, including DJ celebrities AND celebrity DJs. Apple Music is clearly trying to evolve past the iTunes DNA as a distribution channel, recalling a time where people looked to their local record store and radio stations for what they should be hearing. Apple Music and Beats 1 have a POV, delivering relatively heterogeneous programming via a traditional medium: a single streamable radio station, that is frankly knocking my socks off. (For clarity, Apple Music also offers a range of programmed genre stations.) It is traditional in the sense that it’s a single station featuring a range of radio programs without allowing users to customize or skip songs. It’s the anti-Pandora.

Everything old would seem to be new again, but Beats 1 differs from most current US radio stations (and iHeartRadio) in its format eclecticism and current lack of commercials. Plus, it’s streamed worldwide. Listeners in 100+ countries hear the same music, a point repeated ad nauseum by its apparently awestruck, awe-shucks DJs. In a smart touch, each show’s playlist is posted promptly, enabling users to stream or download the tracks for “offline listening.” That Apple has not quite figured out how to promote this feature, or at least make it easier to find, is one instance of a range of user experience issues.

But, significantly, Beats 1 is available to everyone at no charge, a clever counter-punch to Spotify’s free tier.

On Beats 1, we find Ebro Darden, a DJ steeped in hip hop culture with a long tenure at Hot 97 in NYC, who will play Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and Living Colour adjacent to Action Bronson and Kanye West…and it works, manifesting the fact that Steve Stoute’s “Tanning of America” is a multi-directional street. Darden will interview a new artist like D.R.A.M., not only discussing the latest single (“Cha Cha”), but also the artist’s influences (Rotary Connection and Musiq Soulchild) and play the songs. Elton John’s Rocket Hour will feature the contemporary group Slaves’ “Cheer Up London” right after Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”, and he comments why he selected those tracks and why he’s a Kanye West fan. Josh Homme follows up AC/DC’s “Rocker” with the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’.” I’ve been even more delighted and informed by Zane Lowe and Julie Adenuga’s respective shows: they play an eclectic set of songs that would have trouble finding a home on terrestrial radio, and don’t typically appear in often homogenous “Top Hits” playlists. Other artist-helmed shows by Disclosure and Pharrell’s programs have also been ear-opening, with the latter featuring unreleased songs by such as-yet unheralded artists like Jamie Woon.

The power and appeal of these DJs, and Beats 1 radio, goes beyond that celebrity-curated playlists and “exclusive content”; after all, both Spotify and Tidal have those. There’s something that feels “new” about these DJs adding color commentary to the songs, giving them context, even though it was part of FM radio’s charm for decades and continues on college and sometimes satellite radio.

Writing criticism about music might be like “dancing about architecture”, but as music in the digital age quickly devolved into tracks, files and playlists, younger listeners began to miss the context that used to inform music’s “appreciation”: liner notes, art work, stories, lyrics, radio DJ patter, even magazine and newspaper articles, and later videos. With the advent of MP3s, we surely benefited from convenience and hard drives stuffed with free, low sound quality tracks, but at a substantial cost that, to my mind, used to make music more interesting: music in the MP3 era has become the equivalent of kung fu action scenes without the plot. In these instances, without knowing the what, why and how, beholders become numb and bored quickly. In music’s case, they move on, and sales plummet, not just because of rampant piracy.

And with digital music streaming services pre-Apple Music, we have had curation, but lost the curators. We couldn’t hang the DJ even if we wanted to, because it’s all processors and algorithms powering countless playlists.

Critics of this critique might argue that there’s an inherent value to music itself, and that much of the supposed nonsense of modern-day celebrity, or even DJ curation, detracts from the appreciation of “real music.” They might claim that who is dating whom, drunken exploits, elaborate stage shows, gatecrashing acceptance speeches, their Instagram feed, etc. detract from the actual music, which should be appreciated as a pure art form, hopefully in the highest possible fidelity. I have heart for such arguments, but I can’t think of many cases in which music can be, or has been, appreciated in such a vacuum.

Even jazz, a musician’s music, lies comfortably in the bed of context — of knowing the continuum of antecedents as well as the “shape of jazz to come.” Its reverence largely emanates from reference. Broadening the genre horizon, and surveying a wide range of critics’ darlings over the past 100 years, they all had some type of ex-music appeal: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, early Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Sly & the Family Stone, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Prince, U2, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, Jay-Z, Kanye, etc. It’s not that they were model good looking, but they had something interesting about them — a story and a visual, perpetuated by themselves and others — that helped inform how their music was heard. They often caught critics’ imaginations as much as their ears. Yes, music might have been the centerpiece, but the settings, room and company made helped make the party a place you’d want to hang out for more than three and a half minutes.

It’s likely that this appeal — part visual, part narrative — combined with electronic amplification, mechanically reproduced music and the growth of mass media (radio, TV, magazines), that caused music to become such a huge business before things fell apart in the early 2000s. Context counts, and it’s something that digital music has frankly lost, and that Apple Music, perhaps unwittingly, is bringing back to the fold.

Whether successful or not — and I’m betting on the former — Apple Music represents an interesting leap forward in music streaming. It would just go to figure that as with Amy Winehouse, Apple’s re-conceived & remixed throwback — an admixture of radio, celebrity, taste and patter manifest as Beats 1 — would feel so thoroughly contemporary without its core audience (Gen Y) being aware of its heritage and references. They can’t be nostalgic for what they never experienced, and they don’t care.

I certainly am aware of how things were, but no matter: Apple Music’s initial foray into streaming is making music interesting and exciting again, adding to Spotify’s innovations. I can’t wait to see what else Apple and Spotify have in store, and hope they both survive and thrive. It would be great to see the music business (especially artists) rise again after a stormy 15 years.

Jonathan Cohen is currently VP of Strategy at Critical Mass and Founder of Expereal, a quantified self iPhone app. He formerly led music strategy at the ad agency Translation and held a similar role at Arnell Group. His views expressed here are his own and do not reflect his employer’s.

Full disclosure: I worked at Translation for over two years in the mid 2000s, then partly owned by Universal Music Group, where Yahoo! Music was my client. Ian Rogers, the current Apple Music CEO, worked for Yahoo! Music at the time, and later became its GM; we have met, but haven’t spoken in years (beyond a tweet or email or two). I interviewed Ian in 2006 when I was working on an agency sneaker pitch, but only because he was steeped in skateboard culture; it was unrelated to his music business roles. Translation’s CEO Steve Stoute worked under Jimmy Iovine at Interscope, but I have no relationship with Iovine, whom I met once in 2005. My wife worked at Spotify for over 2 years, but left early this year (2015), and I still have many acquaintances who are still employed there. I currently subscribe to both Spotify and Apple Music, and like both services.

Marketing and Brand Consulting for Lifestyle, Fashion & Luxury. Father of tween daughters. Music Passionate. Mediocre Guitarist. Brooklyn, NY / Los Altos, CA.