Monday, July 6, 2015

Signifying Sound and Fury's Apple Music review: discovery limits and metadata woes

It's all shiny and colorful now...but what's on the inside?

This week saw the release of the long-awaited Apple Music, a music streaming service. Although I’ve never tried a streaming service before (besides Pandora Radio, which is a very different model), I decided to try out the free trial period, and I’ve been playing around with it this week.

Although the New York Times’ initial reaction stated that the Apple music’s design was strong, I would argue that there’s some big problems with discovery and metadata (which is a big part of discovery), among other small issues.


The first thing a person encounters when signing up for the service is a bunch of bubbles with artist names. I thought these bubbles were weird—setting aside the limited genres, even when I kept hitting the “more artists” button, I was surprised at how few artists were featured. Also, once you’ve selected some artists as your favorites, liked bubbles stick around on the screen while the new artists come in, limiting the number you can pick. Why did I need to pick favorites among such few artists? Pandora’s system, with thumbs up and thumbs down when you here the song, makes much more sense. Supposedly, the new heart system (you can heart both songs or albums), similar to Pandora’s system, also leads to more personalized “For You” results, despite me adding lots of hearts, I haven’t really seen any change in my “For You” recommendation tabs. Also, even when I have gone back and un-liked on artist I initially had liked, the recommendations did not change. And why can’t we heart by artist, as well?

While you can always search for artists or albums (though this was difficult to find, too), the other main problem is the limited ways to browse to discover music. There are only two ways I can see to browse music: the “For You” tab (a list of playlists and albums created by your preferences and supposedly your “hearts”), and the “New” tab (a curated list of new music). Why aren’t there any other ways to browse music? It’s pretty easy to browse by genre in the iTunes store; why can’t this functionality be used for streaming music? And if I browse music genres in the iTunes Store, iTunes doesn't make it easy to stream that music; you have to go back and search in Apple Music (which involves a couple of other clicks). Also, why not, like Spotify, allow Apple Music users to see playlists from friends (note: you can share playlists, but it is limited and hard to do) or search user-created shared playlists? (Apple Music also has lot of “radio stations” that I haven’t explored yet, but those again are curated lists).


But a larger issue here is metadata. Pandora is meticulous about their metadata, creating an entire genome of metadata about a song. As I already know from the data I normally get when I download an album, Apple’s metadata is limited to say the least. I frequently change genres and have my own list of genres that I use because my own collection is so big, I need to discover it again myself. Some of my albums I’ve even recently bought don’t have album covers uploaded, to say nothing of the beaten-up albums I bought used at library sales (which form a large part of my collection). I don’t know how well Apple can coordinate good radio stations or playlists when their metadata and genre distinction is so bad. One of the worst offenders: iTunes thinks that “Artist1 (feat. Artist2)” does not mean that "Artist1" is the artist of a song; sometimes iTunes even creates a different album for these qualified statements of responsibility.

Apple Music albums seem to have even less metadata than the iTunes store version of the album, such as the day the album is released, the popularity of tracks on the albums (which I find very useful), or reviews. Wouldn’t it be easy to just transfer that information over? But of course, neither platform includes musicians on the record or composition credits or liner notes.

Other problems

Besides the main problems of browsing and metadata, there are some other problems:
1. I was forced to sync my music with iCloud, which I have resisted until now. This sync took a very long time because I have a lot of music, and was not very effective; Apple is very bad at matching your songs to the versions they hold in the cloud, probably because of the bad metadata.

2. I signed up for the family account, but it was not intuitive at all how to add other people to account. In fact, I discovered that other family users have to be Apple users to share the account; so this option won’t work for people with iTunes on their PCs (iTunes homesharing was removed, too).

3. One creepy thing: Apple Music Connect figured out which music artists I’m already following on Twitter. On the other hand, if they are going to be that creepy, why couldn’t they use that information to tell which artists I already like to add to the "For You" recommendations?

4. Unlike many people, I’m not connected to the internet all the time, so streaming doesn’t work the best for me on the road. Apple Music, however, does allow users to download songs for listening later, which would be awesome except that my iPod touch is too old to have the latest OS or iTunes app.


My take-away for Apple Music: like other streaming services, you can find a lot of music, but it is hard to use, doesn’t allow for music discovery beyond their narrow scope, and does not use metadata at all well, even metadata that is already available to them. Right now, I’m planning on enjoying many albums I haven’t yet had the chance to hear (from lists I’ve curated myself from friend recommendations and new music podcasts), but at the moment, I don’t plan to renew once my free trial is up. On the other hand, maybe even the bad service is worth $10 a month—though I’m not optimistic that much of this money will trickle down to the artists making the music.

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