Beats Music, released Tuesday, is the first of three big, new, different music services expected to launch this year. In our testing so far — on iPhone, Android and the web — we encountered a rough start: The iOS one forgot my profile over and over again, pages loaded without content, I had to delete and reinstall, and playback hung for seconds or minutes.
Today, some of those launch day bugs have been resolved at various points throughout the day, although we are still encountering 404 errors on the web version, which has never been able to remember to keep us logged in between sessions; the Android version won’t log us in at all; the web version again stopped working too; the IDM playlist kept playing on an iPhone 5s when we were trying to play a “sentence;” and Beats Music is no longer accepting new registrations, it says, due to high volume.
Still, we’ve been able to take a deeper dive into Beats Music here and there over the past couple of days.
The short story: the new Beats Music really is doing things differently, which is nice. Music needs new ideas, always — after all, it’s already been ten years since some of us started clamoring for music recommendations on our devices, and that situation continues to evolve.
However, this is not going to be a slam-dunk.
Innovative, Fast Onboarding
To solve the so-called “cold start” problem that affects many services, wherein it takes a while to figure out what the user likes, Beats Music lobs a bunch of Music Popcorn-style genres onto the screen for you to like, love, or banish. Then you do the same with artists, on another screen. Mileage definitely varies here — sometimes when we installed Beats Music (I had to “onboard” myself six or seven times on my iPhone, a problem that continues even now), we’d receive artists we had little interest in. Sometimes it worked better than others — when it works, this is a great way to get things started in a music app.
Cheap for AT&T Wireless-Subscribing Families
Ten bucks per month per user is the industry standard for on-demand music services such as Beats Music, so that price is no surprise. Rdio too offers a family plan (without being tied to another service like AT&T), but Beats Music goes one better if you A) subscribe to AT&T Wireless, B) are willing to stick with AT&T Wireless, and C) have multiple household members who want their own account. In that scenario, Beats Music is the best deal around, in terms of on-demand music services, at $15 for a household of up to five people.
If you pay for an on-demand music service, as you have to with Beats Music because it lacks a free version (update: It is offering the “sentence” feature for free on iPhones for an unspecified length of time, with a five-skip limit), you typically get good-sounding music. Indeed, Beats sounds great on a fast connection, indicating that it kept the high-quality streaming that MOG (upon which Beats Music is partially based) made a priority.
Easy to Collect Music
The Beats Music apps are especially good at letting you add music to your own Library within the app, from just about anywhere. This is a key part of discovery — collecting. Beats Music does that well.
(Also — and this is a neutral point, so we’ll stick it here, but it’s still sort of interesting — the Android version of Beats Music requires you to share your location with the app, while location detection is optional in Beats Music for iOS.)
Playlists, Album Recommendations
At its core, Beats Music is a collection of playlists and album recommendations. These were created by a team of at least eight music experts, many with FM radio experience, with attention to sequencing the songs, so that one flows into the next. As advertised, these playlists are nice to listen to.
Easy, Transparent Offline Playback
The same easy menu that pops up when you tap something also lets you store that thing locally, on your device. We also like that Beats Music is transparent about how much storage you have for that music — 3.5GB in total. Even better, the app tells you how much free storage your entire device has, making it even clearer that there’s a caching limit, as we believe there is with all services. However, offline playback is not available in the free trial version.
We like how the play progress bar goes around a circle, and the rest of the user interface, generally speaking.
After playing around with Beats Music for two days, we do not like the following:
We already listed issues with the various Beats Music apps we have running on various machines, but they bear repeating. This service has seven days to hook most of its customers, and well into Day 2 for all the early adopters, we’re encountering performance issues. Beats Music CEO Ian Rogers says he thinks ads are an interruption, which is why there’s no free, ad-supported version of Beats Music — but so is dead air, as any radio DJ knows.
Beats can always buy more servers and fix these bugs (and it looks like they already fixed the one that kept the Heart button activated from song to song, and the one where it was asking me what I like to listen to yet again, while I was already listening to Pelican, and had already been through the onboarding process several times).
For most people, this is a Seven. Day. Trial.
Time is of the essence. Oh — and as we’re getting ready to publish this review, the app has once again forgotten who I am, and wants to know which genres I like for the sixth or seventh time… I’ve lost count. And all of these issues appear to be happening to everyone else on my Twitter and Facebook, so it’s not just us.
No Free On-Demand Version
This one’s simpler: There is no free version of Beats Music, and
no apparent plan to offer one (update: It turns out that, for an unspecified amount of time, after the free trial runs out, Beats Music plans to offer a free version on the iPhone only that will only access the “sentence” feature, a la internet radio) even if you shop at Target (for a one-month free trial) or subscribe to AT&T Wireless (for a 90-day free trial, starting 1/24). Both Spotify and now Rdio are available for free in on-demand form — and they offer almost the identical music catalog that Beats does, and have interesting playlists and apps of their own.
No Artist Radio
One of people’s favorite ways to listen to music, and one that is available on just about every other standalone music streaming service, is artist radio. Beats Music doesn’t have it. There’s no play button next to artists after you search for them; instead, you proceed to their playlists or, mostly, their albums.
Occasional Odor of Condescension
Beats Music is designed for people who are not music experts, because it is curated by people who are “music experts.” They know more about music than you, me, or anybody else, because they are In Charge. This is a novel approach in these democratized times. While it’s helpful in many cases (like when you’re looking at music you don’t really know much about), it can feel really condescending when you actually do know about whatever Beats is trying to enlighten you about. Besides, of course, we all have access to, like, the entire internet if we want to find out what experts and other people think we should be listening to.
Hey look, there are introductions for me personally to Sonic Youth, Tortoise, and Dinosaur, Jr. — three bands I’ve been listening to and collecting in various formats for around 20 years. And woah, there are some “deep cuts” from My Bloody Valentine, a band I know by heart, and which has released almost no albums relative to other bands. The only deep cut I can think of by them isn’t on Beats Music or any other service (it’s that live ballet accompaniment, and it is amazing). I hung out with Colm at All Tomorrow’s Parties, okay!? I don’t need my iPhone to teach me about his band. I have a feeling other serious music fans (i.e. people who pay for music) might feel the same way about some of this stuff.
If Beats Music is going to adopt an “Oppa Gangnam Style” (a.k.a. “older, respected brother”) attitude — which, again, is quite helpful when you don’t know about the music it’s telling you about, but because it is designed to present you with exactly the kinds of music you do know about – it should include a checkbox for “Yes, thank you, but I have already mastered this particular thing you are trying to teach me — I’ll add this playlist or album to my library, but let’s move on now.”
I played around mostly in the indie, experimental, and electronica areas. According to Evolver.fm’s resident hip-hop expert Nate Ashcroft, “The playlist pre-made by the Beats team (Tupac and West Coast rap mostly) that I listened to was good. Although they were good, I was confused why they had made the initial page a lot of old school West Coast rap. It was interesting because the artists I was able to choose from were mostly pretty dated so it makes me wonder why that is.”
Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody/Napster have been gobbling up territory all over the globe. Beats Music is only available in the United States at this point. Sorry, rest of the worldwide web.
One great thing about Rdio is that you can have the app running on your computer(s) and your phone(s), using any of the apps to control the music playing on any of the other apps so that you don’t have to resort to this or use one of these Spotify remotes to tweak the volume or switch the track. We’re sort of hoping more services adopt this feature as an industry standard, but Beats Music didn’t, so you’ll have to walk over to whichever device is playing your music in order to control the app.
Does the “madlibs” thing really work?
I’m not the only one who gets a huge kick out of Beats Music’s “sentence” feature, which generates algorithmically-generated playlists based on what you say you want to do — for example, “I’m at the gym & feel like running with zombies to hardcore hip-hop.”
But does it really work? Sometimes it seems to, and sometimes, you wonder. Overall, it’s a nice feature, and ambitious. But people might wonder what it’s actually doing.
It feels sort of like “Songza Premium”
Beats Music’s main offering is handmade playlists, assembled since 2012 by Beats’ team of music experts. This concept is not new — not even in the context of an on-demand music service.
The first — and by no means last — company I saw try to make a business around them was Uplister. That was 14 years ago. Today, 8tracks offers free curated playlist streaming in a variety of apps for free, or without ads for $4.16 per month. Songza Premium costs $4 per month, and pays a team of 30 employees and 55 freelance music experts to make its curated playlists, according to what Songza co-founder Eric Davich told me this week. Sound familiar?
Oh, and in addition to being cheaper without ads, both of those services are available for free on the same platforms where Beats Music’s curated playlists are not available for free. True, neither of them is an on-demand music service, but among the general public, that distinction could be lost due to Beats’ playlist emphasis, which it’s making at a higher price point than the other playlist services.
For the record, I’d been thinking of Beats Music as a sort of “Songza Premium” even before I saw what noted venture capitalist Fred Wilson said about it on Twitter:
— Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) January 22, 2014
On top of that, some of Beats Music’s playlist features have been done before in an on-demand context. Just about every service offers personalized recommendations similar to Beats Music’s “Just for You” feature, and they also include lots of playlist and album listening ideas, all tailored to your taste, as with Beats.
“While other services have playlists from some outside curators, Beats makes them easier to find, and seems to me to make better use of them than its main competitors,” writes Walt Mossberg on Re/Code.
If “making playlists easier to find” and “making better use of them” are the main differentiators between Beats Music and its more established competition, it shouldn’t be too hard for the other services to adopt features from Beats, as tends to happen as new entrants join a market — and then to offer them for free, as Beats tries to charge for them.
Too Much Hype Is Scary
Remember all of the hype surrounding Twitter’s first-ever music app, and then the backlash that followed? It’s hard to say what’s going to happen with Beats Music at this point, but it certainly has the “hype” part down, as its executives have been trash-talking the other services for the past couple of years, and it has unleashed high-profile advertisements with chief creative officer Trent Reznor and that awesome football player everybody keeps talking about.
And that’s before the February 2 Super Bowl, for which Beats Music has big plans. Whatever incredibly expensive ads it shows there will surely ramp up the hype even more — and this, after anyone using the service now already knows it has some pretty serious issues. If Beats Music can’t fix the issues before the Super Bowl — or even if it fails to show signs of serious growth over the next few months, after that — the same kind of snark hurricane that settled over Twitter #Music after it failed to immediately take over the world, following a high, early chart position in the app stores just like Beats Music has right now, could strike again.
Again, it only has seven days to make a first impression, before most users will have to decide whether to pull out their credit cards. For some, two of those days have already passed, and the apps are still buggy, slow, or unable to connect at this point.
There Are People There… But Where Are They?
You don’t see the names, let alone images, of the Beats Music DJs – just playlist bylines like “Beats Hip-Hop,” which could just as easily have been made by one person as the next (which could actually be part of the reason to keep the names vague).
But if curation and personality are the big differentiators here, why not give these folks some prominence, the way Epitonic, Uplister, and other services have done when employing this concept — or why not even go all the way, and put these curators “on the air,” so they can share more of their wisdom beyond just picking songs that sound the same as the ones on the other services? Many of the Beats Music curators come from the radio world anyway.
Then you’d have something like this 1992 recording of the best show at my college radio station. If what people really want from an on-demand music service is DJs with personality and expertise, this comes closer to delivering it than playlists created by people without names or voices:
Update: Beats Music is not admitting more users, for now, and will add an extra seven days to the free trial for those who registered this week:
Update from Beats:
Huge thanks to everyone for making our launch day yesterday so successful. We’ve been blown away by the love that made us the #1 Music App in the iTunes Store.
Due to the extremely high volume of interest in our service some users are experiencing issues. Most people are unaffected but our priority is to give everyone a great experience. We prepared for issues like these, have a plan, and are going to hold off on letting more people in while we put this plan in action.
For those of you that claimed your name in the lead up to launch, we still have your username reserved and we’ll be in touch with your invite. We appreciate your support.
Everyone who registers this week will get an additional seven days added to their trial.
We’re staying focused on bringing you the best music experience from the people who know what song comes next. Stay tuned, and thanks for being excited about Beats Music.