Turning inner space into outer space

July 3, 2015

Apple Music could help streaming music go mainstream

The Beats 1 radio station in iTunes

Napster is now a distant memory, but in its heydays between 1999 and 2001 when the site freely shared pirated songs, it was the scourge of the music industry. Apple opened the iTunes music store in 2003, made it easy to download paid-for music, and now Napster is a distant memory.

Over 10 years later, the music industry is again struggling to keep up with technology. Streaming services have become the more popular way to listen to music, but between ad support and small monthly fees, many musicians are paid less than ever.

So can Apple come to the rescue again? A new Music app and beefed-up iTunes software built on technology obtained in the company’s buyout of Beats may be cause for some cautious optimism.

If you have tried services such as Spotify or Rdio, you already have a good idea of how streaming works. Typically you pay a monthly fee of around $10 for access to millions of songs that you can play whenever you want. These services usually have a free tier with limited selection as well.

Apple Music isn’t hugely innovative, but it does have key features that could make a difference.

One of these is called Beats 1 — a worldwide radio station with live DJs who spin tunes around the clock. They even take requests. If you have iTunes (a free download for Mac or Windows) or the Apple Music app, you can have a listen for free. The music is an eclectic mix, and it’s definitely youth oriented — so oldsters be warned.

(Beats 1 and the other radio stations didn’t work for me at first on iTunes. The solution was to sign out, then sign back in.)

What makes it interesting is that with talented DJs picking the music, millions of listeners can discover new tunes. After all, even if you do pay for a streaming service, you’re going to wind up playing the songs you’re familiar with. Beats 1 opens the door to exploration.

Another feature that’s intriguing is called For You. You have to sign up to get this, but the first three months are free so why not? If you’re afraid you’ll forget to cancel, here are instructions on how to turn off auto renewal in the app.

For You reminds me of news apps like Flipboard and Prismatic. The more you use it, the more it gets to know your taste in music and is better able to come up with suggestions you will enjoy.

You start off by tapping on the genres you like, then go to pick your favourite artists. This helps For You pick out an initial set of playlists. After that, when a song is playing that you like, you can tap on a heart icon to give the app further guidance.

While the playlists are chosen by some sort of computer-generated algorithm, the playlists themselves are created by humans. That means you get a nice set of songs that blend together well. I’m hoping it also means that you don’t get a lot of repetition — algorithms seem slow to notice that you’ve moved on to other interests.

Jim Dalrymple has put together a good primer on how to use the For You like system.

These two features alone won’t lead the music industry to the promised land of economic sustainability, but there is one advantage that only Apple can deliver — sheer volume. The company continues to sell millions of iPhones, and every one of them has Apple Music on the home screen.

Another thing going for it is the trend toward using Internet-based services for entertainment. If all you did was pay $8 a month for Netflix and $10 a month for Apple Music (or something like it), you’d have pretty much all the diversion you could handle. That’s a pretty good deal.