By Dan Moren
September 29, 2015 12:50 PM PT
Apple Music: To renew or not to renew?
Time’s up, pencils down. Apple Music’s free three-month trial comes to an end tomorrow, which means it’s decision time: are you going to sign up for the $10/month streaming service, or is that hard-earned money going elsewhere—to another music service, or perhaps back into your bank account?
Like most of you, I’ve been trying out Apple Music since it launched back on June 30, and considering from time to time whether or not it’s proved its worth as part of my life. I’ve found elements of the service that I like, but also plenty of places where it could be improved.
So here I am, with a day left to go, weighing my options. Granted, what I want out of a streaming service is, of course, not the same as what everybody might want, so consider this merely me thinking through my own decision process.
On-demand catalog access
This is what I’m looking for from any music-streaming service. I hear a song in a movie or a coffee shop, and I want to give the whole thing a listen. Previously, I relied on either YouTube or the free tier of Spotify, but Apple Music has in general come through—I’ve run into one or two incidents where the song in question wasn’t on the service, but it was usually a pretty obscure track or album that couldn’t be found at other services either.
Of course, this alone isn’t enough to necessarily justify paying $10 a month, since there are free alternatives that are just as competent. So Apple Music is going to need to sweeten the pot a bit.
It is pretty cool to ask for a specific song—”Hey Siri, play Black Dog by Led Zeppelin”—and have it start playing without any additional work. (Much as I enjoy my Amazon Echo, Alexa more often than not returns a 30-second preview of a song when I ask for it.) Of all the features of Apple Music, this felt the most futuristic; to my mind, it’s the best level of integration that Apple offers between the music-streaming service and the rest of its technologies.
In general, Siri worked pretty well, albeit with some caveats—more on which, below.
Early on, I didn’t really spend a lot of time adding tracks from Apple Music into my personal library. Because, as I’ve said before, it felt weird mingling the two: like putting library books onto my own shelves.
I grew out of that reluctance a bit as time went on, and found a couple albums that I liked enough to add—in particular I wanted to make them available for offline listening while I was taking a lot of plane trips.
I still haven’t gone hog wild in adding tracks to my library—partially because I’ve been unsure whether or not I’d continue to subscribe to Apple Music, but I’ve at least developed an appreciation for the feature.
Lack of Handoff
I still don’t entirely understand this absence. Handoff between iTunes and the Music app seems like a no-brainer.
Maybe rights issues play into it somehow? Seems weird, since all we’re talking about is metadata: note where I am in a song and then, when I walk into my house listening to a track on my iPhone, let me seamlessly switch to playing it on my Mac. This makes perfect sense for a company that talks as much about integration as Apple does, and yet…nothing. (The closest I’ve come is trying to play a song on a second device and having Apple note that it’ll stop playback on my first device. AHA! So you do know what I’m doing elsewhere, huh?)
This is one of those areas where I think Apple missed an opportunity to go beyond being simply another solid music streaming service and put a particularly Apple spin on things. The company likes to talk about what it can do with the close integration of hardware, software, and services, and yet, low-hanging fruit like this is still on the vine.
Another missing feature I don’t quite understand. Sometimes I’ve wanted to play the entire catalog of an artist, something you’d think would be pretty easy on a music streaming service. In fact, it’s pretty easy on Spotify, which puts a big “Play” button on an artist’s page.
And yet, when you navigate to an artist’s page on Apple Music, the only option is to play their albums individually or start a radio station based on them—which plays songs from other artists. (You can, however, do this via Siri, it seems, but it’s silly there’s no clear way to do it on an artist page.)
Okay, I know I put Siri integration under “The Good” already, but I’m still annoyed by Apple giving priority to songs on Apple Music over songs in my own library when I ask Siri to play them. I’ve got a lot of songs with one-word or generic titles, and almost without fail Siri decides to pull up a random song from Apple Music instead of playing the one in my library. So then I have to go back and specify the artist (tougher on things like soundtracks, where I sometimes can’t recall the composer immediately). This just makes no sense as a use case, and it’s one reason I’m looking forward to turning off Apple Music.
Even after three months I still find Apple Music’s interface cumbersome, confusing, and overburdened. It’s often hard for me to find features I want—in the Music app on iOS I still have trouble remembering which button to hit to view all the tracks on an album; instead I end up hitting the Up Next button, which is what the album button used to look like.
Then there’s jumping back and forth between My Music, Apple Music, and the iTunes Store on the Mac—I’m almost never in the one I want to be in at any given moment.
I could forgive a lot if Apple Music worked seamlessly, and really, it’s not too bad. But I still run into hiccups in playback, songs that sometimes wouldn’t play, and so on. A lot of that can be chalked up to network problems, the kind of thing that could affect any online service, and it seems as if it has gotten better in some ways. But I still find myself cursing at my phone as often as I’m delighted by Apple Music—possibly more.
Apple put a huge emphasis on curation in Apple Music. There’s the For You section, which suggests albums, artists, and human-built playlists that you might enjoy. There are also various genre-, activity-, and editor-based playlists, all of which purport to provide you with human-constructed collections of songs.
I played around with a lot of these intermittently—mostly towards the beginning of the trial period—but my interest definitely waned as the months went on, in large part because there was just too much. I found that in general if I found myself searching for a particular song, I’d often give a listen to the playlist that it appeared in, but most of the time that only lasted a song or two before I retreated to my own library.
So, in sum: it’s a fine feature, and occasionally leads to interesting discoveries. Is it compelling enough that I use it frequently? Not so much.
I’d love to tell you anything about Connect at all, but I turned it off a few days after starting the trial and haven’t looked back. I don’t bother it, it doesn’t bother me.
The feature previously known as iTunes Radio hasn’t changed too much with the switch to Apple Music. I use it about as much as before, which is to say not very much at all. Plus it’s one of the few Apple Music features that’s still available if you don’t subscribe, albeit with limited skips.
Much like Connect, I just don’t use it. I checked it out from pure novelty when it started up, and haven’t listened since. But I’ve never been a big music-on-the-radio guy, so it does nothing for me. Either way, like iTunes Radio, it’s still available without a subscription, so it doesn’t really factor into the decision anyway.
So what next?
All things being created equal, I think I’m most likely to let Apple Music lapse, just to see if it ends up being something that I find myself missing. In the meantime, I’ll probably buy a couple of the albums I’ve been enjoying on Apple Music from the iTunes Store. There’s a good chance that the siren song of Apple Music can lure me back, but the last three months haven’t sold me on the service. And hey, that’s what free trials are all about.
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