Review: Apple Music is great to listen to, but confusing to use

Apple’s ability to get exclusive deals with artists is a huge advantage. The software itself still has some rough edges

 
Trent Reznor performing
Trent Reznor performing at the Pemberton music festival in 2014. Apple’s ability to secure exclusive deals with artists like Reznor is a huge strategic advantage over rivals like Spotify. (Andrew Chin/FilmMagic/Getty)

Apple Music is officially here. As Yoda would say, begun the subscription music streaming service wars have. Or something to that effect.

How does Apple Music compare to rival services such as Spotify? Quite well out of the gate. Apple’s service has—not surprisingly—a deep catalog and a wide breadth of features. In fact, if there’s a downside it may very well be that there are too many features. It’ll take a while to get used to them all, but here’s my quick take after a few hours of fiddling.

Apple Music requires updating your device to iOS 8.4, which is a relatively quick install. Once done, you’ll notice the formerly red “Music” app is now white. Launching it gives the option of proceeding to whatever music you had on the device before, or jumping into the streaming subscription service.

Apple Music is free for the first three months, then $9.99 each month thereafter. There’s also a family plan that provides six accounts for $14.99. There’s not going to be any ad-driven free version after that, at least not at this stage, which differs from many competitors.

From there, it’s a matter of fine tuning. Apple Music asks you to select your favourite genres and representative artists:

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Navigation comes in the form of five icons at the bottom of the screen. “For You” suggests albums and curated playlists based on your inputs.

I punched in heavy metal and rock as two of my preferred genres and got a number of great playlist suggestions such as “Motorhead: Deep Cuts,” “Intro to Nine Inch Nails” and “Rush: ’70s.” The lists were supplemented by album selections from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Faith No More and Soundgarden. Taken together, it’s like Apple Music was reading my mind.

I like the idea of such lists as they’re great ways to introduce listeners to new types of music. Spotify has similar recommendations via user-created lists, but Apple Music seems a little more authoritative:

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I found the “New” tab to be less useful as it presents a round-up of current hot tracks and artists, headlined of course by Taylor Swift—she of the guilting-Apple-into-paying-royalties-during-the-free-trial-period fame.

I like Swift as much as the next dude in his forties—which is why I don’t see myself getting much mileage out of this particular feature.

The next tab over—“Radio”—takes you to the Beats 1 live radio show, hosted by New Zealand-born DJ Zane Lowe. It’s an eclectic mix of content, featuring everything from AC/DC and Dr. Dre to new indie artists and dance music:

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I’m not sure how I feel about Beats 1 just yet as it’s all over the place, with no apparent focus on genre or artists. It may change as time goes on, but for now it’s not much of a selling point.

More interesting are the other “stations” under the Radio tab, which are randomized playlists within a certain genre or focus—pretty standard fare for music streaming services.

“Pop Hits,” for example, serves up the likes of Pitbull, Miley Cyrus and Maroon 5, while “On the Floor” deliver dance tracks from LCD Soundsystem, Calvin Harris and David Guetta:

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The “Connect” tab is where things potentially get interesting, as it’s where artists can curate their own playlists and add extra stuff for fans. Apple Music automatically connected me to a number of my favourite artists, based on albums I already had in my collection.

Greeting me was Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails with a bunch of instrumental and extra tracks from The Fragile, perhaps his best album. “I sequenced these instrumentals, unused tracks and anomalies into mirroring the ‘real’ record and thought I’d share it with you here,” he writes in the entry. “I’ll probably add to this over time as I unearth more material.”

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This is the sort of exclusive stuff that could act as a big selling point for Apple Music. I’ll certainly be hooked if more of my favourite artists release material like Reznor’s.

Besides the extra stuff, tapping on an artist you follow under “Connect” brings up a full list of their albums, tracks and videos. It’s a nice hub where you can stay up to date on what they’re doing.

Finally, “My Music” brings up the familiar library of whatever content you have on your device or on iCloud.

Overall, Apple Music is a more fulsome and complete experience than it perhaps should be given its newness, although with the resources and experience Apple has in music, it’s probably not surprising.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues, one of which is navigation. While hitting “Connect” is an easy way to bring up pages of artists you already follow, finding new ones is trickier.

Take Taylor Swift at the head of the “New” tab, for example. Tapping the small image of her album 1989 starts playing it in the tiny stream along the bottom while hitting the large picture of Swift bring up the album itself.

Scrolling down from there reveals a link to “More by Taylor Swift,” which then brings up her catalog—but not her “Connect” page. You can only get there by tapping her tiny, tiny name under album titles.

Conflicting rights also seem to be an issue, with not all content being available for download for offline listening. Either that, or downloads are only possible through certain modes. Play Swift’s album from the “New” page, for example, and there’s no offline option. But play it from her home page and it’s there. Huh?

Confusion is very much at play in Apple Music. The interface is too busy with too many things going on. There are are too many options and they’re often inconsistent with each other.

And that’s not even touching on what happens when you want to add tracks to “My Music,” which requires turning iCloud storage on and then either replacing or merging whatever you already have stored there. My previous experiences with iCloud have been terrible, so this is something I’d rather stay away from.

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All told, Apple Music is off to a good start with content and features, but future iterations are going to have to work to minimize the busy-ness and inconsistencies of the service.

Apple is known for the simplicity and user-friendliness of its products, so it’s surprising that its music subscription service isn’t easier to navigate. With luck, some of that deficiency will be fixed by the time users have to actually start paying for it.

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