January 22, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Beats Music: The Good, The Bad, and College Radio

beats music

Beats Music can fix presumably launch-related errors like this page that currently loads when I try to log in on the web, but it has other issues too, as well as some really nice touches.

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.

The Pros

We like these things about Beats Music after extensive testing and years of anticipation.

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.

Great Sound

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.

Shiny Shiny

We like how the play progress bar goes around a circle, and the rest of the user interface, generally speaking.

The Cons

After playing around with Beats Music for two days, we do not like the following:

It’s Buggy

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.”

U.S. Only

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.

Non-Unified Login

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:

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.

Ian Rogers
CEO

  • New Noise Santa Barbara

    Great article Eliot! Come back to Santa Barbara in October for our conference? I think your point re: highlighting the ‘curators’ is very interesting- I noticed that too. We are supposed to be stoked on their tastemaking, why not make them the new Nic Harcourt (or at least a few of them? We can’t ALL be rock stars). BTW- why isn’t Nic Harcourt a curator? Ha. 2) I think it definitely feels like Sonza premium, which is GOOD IMHO. I dig Songza. Over the few days, I have found I use Beats in the same way as Songza via my Sonos but with on demand option which is rad 3) Sonos: they are my favorite but I have a tech beef. I know the reason in theory you can’t stream from these apps (spotify, beats, rdio) direct to my Sonos, but I SHOULD be able to. It’s annoying having to use the Sonos app with its (how does one say politely… “limitations.” Even if I could just connect to ONE room at a time via my preferred streaming app, I would be more than happy. 4) I think Beats needs more social (obviously). I know there are plans. BUT- I want to share my own playlists and be able to vote up playlists I think are deserving in an easy way that gets me personally invested in creating awesome playlists (and sharing them). If the community thinks Eliot’s My Bloody Valentine playlist is the shit and way better than Beats, I want to know that when I am searching for MBV. Feel me? Also- why not have a “BTW- you are missing” function? I thought your point about the deep cut is valid. I’m sure they would be stoked to know that is it missing- there should be a user directed wiki style “can you order this for me?” Much like your local record store back in the day (I’m over 30). Alas. Fun times. I love the new music world we live in. I also want better liner notes, lyrics, photos , tix links etc. It shall come- just a matter of time I know.

  • Alan

    I’m already missing MOG and it’s not even gone yet. :-(

  • Jeremy Silver

    Great review Eliot! So honored that you should recall the work we did at Uplister on curated playlists and playlist sharing. It’s amazing how much change there’s been in 14 years but in some ways we’re still trying to relearn those same lessons. Music is so personal, making a “service” connect emotionally is really hard – personally curated playlists are a great way to do that – but then make them personal! Good luck to Ian and the crew – it is becoming a fascinating, contested space. We cant wait for Beats to launch outside the US. But there is a fundamental problem with subscription services that pay artists and rights owners pro-rata. The more it works and users listen – the less they earn. It would be interesting to see if a few of these guys would be brave enough to put the prices up with new value-adds so that the artists might end up making a little money out of it all. But then of course there are a lot of other reasons why that doesn’t happen…

  • http://pleaselikeme.tumblr.com statelypenguin

    Nice review. Have you noticed that album tracks are out of order? I haven’t searched through every album but I noticed it on several that usually the opening track was there but after that it was a crapshoot.

    I also keep reading about a web player but I can’t find it anywhere. Finally, I want my last.fm integration. Not having that is a dealbreaker.

    I’ve had Spotify since it was available in the US. I switched from MOG, which had a decent interface but seemed really buggy and took FOREVER to stream tracks. But Spotify doesn’t seem to really care about the UI, and I get the impression that Beats really does. If they get a web/desktop player, and integrate last.fm, I think I’ll make the switch.

  • Mark Langston

    While I’m a big fan of the UI over Rdio’s (my current service) the dealbreakers for me is the ability to start a radio-stream from a song and the sound quality.

    Being able to long-press on a song in Rdio and start a station based on that song, as well as the ability to control the tolerance of sticking close to the artist to being adventurous, is something that I love about Rdio. I still prefer the UI over Spotify’s utilitarian and generic interface but the small text and spacing on the side menu of Rdio is more noticeable after using Beats Music, that’s yet another example of the magazine/editorial look that’s prominent in so many UI’s and websites these days.

    But the biggest no-no in my book is the sound quality. Reaching to Beats Music support they suggested I ramp up the sound settings to high quality and proceeded to tell me that Rdio has the lowest quality streams in the industry.

    After changing to HQ Beats did finally match Rdio’s sound quality but only when I was on WiFi. The moment I got in my car (where I consume 75% or more of streaming music) where 4G and LTE had to do the heavy lifting the sound quality dropped dramatically.

    Comparing the same song and switching back and forth the difference was astonishing. Almost like Beats automatically turned down the volume and Rdio raised it back up. What’s weird is it wasn’t happening all the time but more often than not it sounded bad while Rdio sounded incredible no matter what. I either got a signal or not but regardless of the cellular bandwidth the quality of the audio never took a dip.

    There’s also a ton of chill-out music (the Luxury Grooves compilation albums was a prominent omission…for me) that’s not there as well as some EDM and electronic that I’ve created playlists around that aren’t available via Beats. I’m sure they’ll have this stuff figured out soon but I’d just assume not give up the music I have access to now for a promise no one’s made to me.

    I do believe Beats Music is an awesome service and having celebrity playlists and The Sentence are great additions but above all they have to sound good and compared to Rdio (again, on 4G and LTE) it’s not even a contest.

    Maybe when they get this figured out in the next 6 to 12 months I’ll consider switching.

  • Jay

    Disappointed to hear the catalogue will be largely the same as Spotify et al…my problem with existing streaming services is they don’t have half the songs I’m looking for. Typically if I search for an artist their masterpiece is missing but I can listen to their ignored later albums to my heart’s content. The hiphop selection sounds woefully unimpressive for a company with Dre involved.

  • dubstep

    I didn’t even hear about this from MOG, I had to see a random comment about it on another forum. MOG was fine. It worked, it had the features I wanted, and I don’t really understand why they’re shutting it down. Since Beats has no artist radio, I am not interested. I signed up for Google Play. If Beats wanted to lose subs, they’re doing it right.

  • Anonymous

    I just tried the Beats Music website and it sounded really awful. I could not find any way to improve the audio quality.