31 August 2015

Apple Music: the music is not enough

About two-three months ago I got a new idea into my head: I wanted to try out Spotify, which is not yet available in Romania. So what if I sign up from work, where proxies show that I’m connecting from France? Surprisingly it did work at first: I logged in with Facebook at work, then came home, installed Spotify’s desktop app and I was in! I couldn’t sign up for a paid account without a valid card from France, but for now I just wanted to get an idea about streaming. I’m not a big music consumer by any means; even though I have favorite artists and tracks, I don’t play music constantly. In fact, I generally work and concentrate better in silence, especially when I’m writing. Music is either distracting, when it’s some random track on the radio or TV, or it grabs all my attention if I put on something I really like.

Unfortunately, that trick didn’t last very long: a couple of weeks later, Spotify randomly logged me out and refused to let me back in, complaining my current country isn’t supported. I don’t feel like wasting my time trying to trick it again with proxies, so I gave up and uninstalled it. Fortunately, that was around the time when Apple Music launched. It was immediately available in Romania, so I jumped at the opportunity to test it.

As with Spotify, there is a distinct thrill in having access to a huge library of music, a sense that you can listen to almost anything you like, explore artists and genres you wouldn’t encounter otherwise. I was also pleasantly surprised by the price shown at the start, apparently a subscription in Romania will only cost 4.99 €. Coupled with the fact that most services aren’t available here from day one or are more expensive, Apple Music would have a solid advantage.

Apple Music Romania pricing

But in time the novelty wore off and the annoyances grew more irritating. There have been numerous reports of syncing problems caused by Apple Music: conflicts with Music Match, deleted songs and corrupted metadata. I’m happy I haven’t enabled iCloud Music Library from the start – theoretically it should sync your library between desktop and iPhone, but I haven’t quite understood if that would involve uploading the songs from my PC to Apple’s cloud and downloading them on the iPhone, something I didn’t want – I prefer to sync them selectively. Later, when things became somewhat clearer, Music silently refused to enable the iCloud Library for no apparent reason…

Unfortunately this is just barely scratching the surface. I listen mostly on the laptop, so that means using Apple Music in the bloated, confusing iTunes interface. iTunes can be tolerated when it’s used roughly once a month to backup my iPhone, but not as constant music player. I have no idea what the tabs at the top do, I just use search when I want to play something. The context menus are horrible, they don’t even work on right-click like any normal Windows software, borrowing instead Apple’s dumb Mac system with a single mouse button for Jobs knows what reason. I haven’t figured out why there are separate options for ‘Play Next’ and ‘Add to Queue’, since they seem to have exactly the same effect (adding at the end of the current queue). You can’t queue an entire album or selection of songs, instead you need to add each one-by-one! If you ‘heart’ a song, it’s not visible in the interface unless you hover over the title. And there’s no list of favorite songs anywhere, no playlist with hearted tracks like in basically any other music player. The list could probably go on for much longer, but I stopped trying to make sense of it.

As many have suggested, it would have been a good idea to release Apple Music as a standalone app, separated from other legacy features. Or better yet spin off each function in its own app: one for backups – there’s already a lite version of sync for Windows – another for photos, a local music and video player (the original iTunes) and finally the streaming service. There have been timid steps in this direction on iOS with the unbundling of Podcasts, but apparently Apple doesn’t think desktop users deserve a better experience. A standalone app would pose a smaller entry barrier for users, would be easier to learn and to maintain – maybe even making updates independent of iOS!

There was a report about the number of users released recently, closely followed by an official Apple statement. At 11 million active users, the numbers are impressive for a service launched barely two months ago, but weak compared to the potential 700 million Apple devices – if not more. It’s certainly possible that people are holding off waiting for the initial problems to be solved, but I feel it’s unlikely since there won’t be another trial period after these three months are over.

Another more likely explanation it that demand for (paid) streaming services is simply not very high. I can see two reasons why users are still reluctant about music subscriptions. First there’s the licensing issues, niche catalogues or albums unavailable to providers because rights holders are refusing the terms offered. I quickly identified one of Apple Music’s missing pieces in a track by a German techno band, which was also missing on Spotify – but freely available on YouTube. The Beatles catalogue is also notoriously missing from Apple Music. Why pay a monthly fee for music then if from time to time you need to go elsewhere anyways?

The entertainment value of music is, despite Taylor Swift’s proclamations, relatively low. This point could be skewed by my personal attitude towards music, but look at it this way: reading a good book keeps people interested for hours or days; a movie is typically one hour and a half long, a series five to six times as much – and both mediums capture people’s entire attention for that time. Whereas a music track is three minutes long, an album around 45 minutes – and while listening, one can easily do something entirely different. Between radio, TV stations and YouTube, music is literally everywhere, a constant background in our modern lives, but we are carefully selecting what books and movies to consume. Under these circumstances, would you rather pay for ‘unlimited music’ or TV and books?

Despite my less than ideal experience with Apple Music – or should I say iTunes? – I became more interested in on-demand music than before. Even if it fails to attract massive numbers of customers to paid streaming, at least Apple Music will generate public interest, which can translate into indirect gains for the music industry. I began researching which services are officially available in Romania and quickly settled on Deezer. As noted above, its library is also incomplete – curiously, the track missing from Apple Music is included here, but others are unavailable, like random tracks from an Evanescence album. But they have a decent web player (even if it still relies on Flash) and a gorgeous modern Windows app, where free accounts are apparently ad-free! – possibly more of a sign of Windows 8’ low adoption than anything else. It fits my limited musical needs perfectly – and I might even register for a full subscription if I ever feel the need to regularly listen music on my smartphone.

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