January 27, 2014 at 3:42 pm

How Beats Music Playlists Are Like Mixtapes (And How They’re Not)

Music fans curious about the latest music subscription to launch in the United States, Beats Music, have been kicking the tires and trying to decide whether it’s more deserving of their $10 per month than the other options. Reviews are mixed. Some people dig it while others do not, as with any new product.

Most professional technology writers weighing in on Beats Music — the ones of us who focus on music, anyway — have paid for or received free access to most or all of the music subscriptions for many years. The world needs expert reviewers for obvious reasons, but they don’t pick the winners. People who have other jobs do that when they flock to a product until it hits critical mass and takes over the mainstream.

And that is precisely what Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody, Slacker, Napster, Yahoo Music, Listen.com, Virgin’s music service, and all the other music subscriptions we’ve seen over the past decade or so need to have happen, generally speaking, with music subscriptions. Former Rdio CEO Drew Larner said Rdio would be “wildly profitable” with 25-30 million paying subscribers, but none of the on-demand music subscription services have approached that kind of scale.

To do that will take creating a music subscription that works not only for hardcore music nerds and professional tech writers, but also for people who don’t spend most of their time thinking about music,  technology, or music-and-technology. These are the people who made the CD, cassette, FM radio, and other mainstream music formats so successful.

I know one of these non-tech-reporter people pretty well, and was interested to see how she interacted with Beats Music during the now-extended seven-day free trial. The first thing she found that she really liked was a “Best of 80s Indie” music playlist. She liked it so much, she went back to try to listen to it again, the next day. Her reaction was enlightening:

“Wait, it starts with the same song?” she said. “I really like ['80s Indie Vol. 3], but I want to hear something different.”

This had somehow eluded me when I wrote our review of Beats Music – that these playlists don’t change, and that these days, people (even “civilians”) expect them to. However, Beats Music’s “Best of 80s Indie Vol. 3″ will presumably always start with Love and Rockets’ “No New Tape To Tell,” followed by “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” by The Talking Heads, and “Under The Milky Way” by The Church.

In that sense, Beats Music’s playlists retain a positive implication of a mixtape (“someone who thought they knew what they were doing tried their best to pick these songs and put them in an order that makes sense”) as well as a negative implication (“Are you kidding me that Best of 80s Indie will always play exactly the same songs, in exactly the same order, every single time, like a cassette instead of an internet thing?”). It also lacks one positive mixtape emotion (which some would say was the whole point): that this playlist was created for you, specifically. The mixtapes on Beats Music were either created for everybody or nobody, depending on how you look at it.

beats musicWhen Best of 80s Indie Vol. 3 starts to feel stale, her best option on Beats Music is to try to track down more ’80s Indie-type playlists, to add those to her collection too. My first instinct for finding more was to go to the Beats Indie page and look for some fresher playlists also themed around the ’80s indie music scene there, so I scrolled through page after page to find more ’80s Indie among the introductions to various bands, but to no avail. I did, however, stumble across “Indie Gems” compilations for 2006, 2002, 2000, and 1998 (I guess the intervening years were lackluster for indie music).

Then, I tapped back to the search function, and found all three volumes of this playlist by searching all of Beats Music for “80s indie” and scrolling down to the playlist section.

So basically, if she wants to listen to ’80s indie music on Beats Music, she can add those three playlists to her library and then access them later. They’ll never change, so far as we can tell, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you approach the question of wanting to listen to some ’80s indie music when you don’t have anything specific in mind.