Thank you for the music

Thank you for the music

Dan Deluca 

Monday, July 27, 2015

The playlists are the thing. Since music became digital, devalued, and shareable - a transformation expertly detailed in Stephen Witt's new book, How Music Got Free - there's no shortage of the stuff.

It used to take a lifetime to build a personalized music collection. Now, you turn on your phone, and whichever streaming service you're using - whether it be Spotify or Tidal or the ballyhooed new Apple Music, which launched on June 30 - you've got 30 million or so songs at your thumbtips.

The question is: what to play? That's the entertainment anxiety of the streaming age.

With so much to choose from, where do I start? Innumerable options await anyone willing to cough up a fee of US$10 (HK$78) per month, or listen at no monetary cost while enduring occasional ads, the choice made by more than two-thirds of Spotify's 75 million active users worldwide.

Apple comes late to the streaming party - but it has the significant advantage of being the world's richest company, possessing the credit-card information of more than 800 million iTunes users.

The service is in some surprising ways poorly designed, overbusy and clunky. The elegant simplicity of Steve Jobs-era design seems to have gone missing with Tim Cook in charge. But Apple Music is also loaded with smartly compiled, frequently refreshed and imaginatively curated programming that is poised to outflank its competitors.

There are a lot of buttons at the bottom of your Apple Music screen, and after you leave behind something good, it can be hard to keep track of where you left it.

There's a customized "For You" feature, and a "New" page, which contains plenty of music that's not new. There's a "Radio" tab with Beats 1, the hyped 24/7 "global radio station," plus lots of Pandora-style algorithm-driven genre channels. And "Connect," the not-so-interesting social element.

In addition, there are "Playlist" and "My Music" tabs to integrate your own iTunes into the holistic streaming experience.

I'll get deeper into logistics. But first, some things I've heard on Apple Music that make me think it's not going to be so easy to let go of it at the end of that three-month free trial.

The "global radio station" aspect of Beats 1, headed up by former BBC DJ Zane Lowe, is overblown. But while it's essentially a millennial-targeted pop station, the programming is refreshingly free of the intense formatting that makes most commercial American radio such a drag.

Then there are the celebrity DJs. Elton John's weekly Rocket Hour featured Bob Dylan's Thunder on the Mountain and Miguel and Wale covering Bennie and the Jets.

The "New" section is also loaded with worthwhile stuff. I tend to use the streaming services in a true on-demand way. I've got a good idea what I want to hear, and I'm happy to find it there. (And unhappy when I don't.)

The Curator Playlists section is compelling. Pitchfork has worthies such as Forgotten '90s Grrrl Gems and Starter: Todd Rundgren; Mojo proffers Nat King Cole: Jazz Genius and the punky Made in Britain: Sound of a New England, 1977-1983.

My fave, though, is the Fader, who does a great job with New Songs To Make You Like Country Music (with Sturgill Simpson and Kelsey Waldon) and the producer-focused Beat Construction.

I liked the "For You" section even better.

With its genre and artist bubbles that you click on to explain your tastes, it seems hokey. But the selections are intriguing. You get me, Apple! I've enjoyed computer-generated suggestions such as Nicki Minaj: Straight Spittin', Elvis Presley: The '70s Singles, and Sampled: Curtis Mayfield.

One way Jay Z's Tidal service (which appears likely to be the one wiped out by the Apple Music tsunami) has sought to distinguish itself from Spotify is by recreating the look of a record store. Apple does a better job than either of them.

Apple Music is far from perfect, though. From what I've tried so far, it seems far easier to build personalized playlists and embed them on Spotify.

I'm a convert to Sonos, the wireless home-stereo system, but since there's no Sonos deal with Apple yet, I've mainly been listening on earbuds or tinny speakers.

And how easy is it to use Apple Music? Simple, in theory.

Not an app, per se, on Apple devices, it just appears on the bottom of the screen when you upgrade the latest operating system.

That sounds easy, but in my case, it wasn't. Trying to upgrade my phone while connected to my laptop proved to be a harrowing experience that required an hour on the landline with Apple support.

Streaming's chief selling point is convenience. It's all there for you, whenever you want it.

But while wi-fi is supposed to be everywhere these days, is it really?

It's not hard to max out your data plan in a hurry if you're firing up these streaming services while away from your router - on the bus, beach or bike.

That would be particularly easy with Apple Music because there's so much cool stuff to check out.

As a music-discovery service, despite its flaws, it already tops Spotify - which, in the spirit of competition, is running its own three-months-for-99- cents special.

It's a dilemma.

Eventually, music consumers are going to have choose, unless they're willing to shell out for two different services that essentially have the same 30 million songs, albeit organized in different ways.

And while I'm in no hurry to get rid of Spotify and all the self-made playlists I've compiled there over the years, I'm having so much fun playing around with Apple Music so far that I can't see myself giving that up, either.


Thank you for the music Thank you for the music Reviewed by Ajit Kumar on 5:41 PM Rating: 5

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