ramblings from a body of somekind

Apple Music review

October 11, 2020

  • music
  • tech

Like a lot of other people, I listen to music, and one of the ways I listen to music is via Spotify. As an end user, I have very few complaints about their app. From time to time, it is buggy and doesn’t quite behave as well as it should do. Their app is constantly changing, but not necessarily for the better - for example, their tablet app has less features than their mobile app, which suggests to me it is for casually perusing their library and selecting the odd track rather than a primary music player.

The thing that really eats away at my core as an avid music listener and someone who wants to support this industry is that it is well known that Spotify has some pretty poor pay-out rates to artists. Less than 1 cent per track. It’s certainly not the worst (hello YouTube), but there is competition in the market and there are those that offer better pay. Apple Music seems to double Spotify’s offerings.

As someone who is pretty much in the Apple ecosystem at this point, I figured I might as well give Apple Music a try, considering I wouldn’t mind trying something that could pay artists better than Spotify’s offerings.

I setup a free trial of Apple Music on my phone. The first screen it offers - outside of ways to yank my money out of my wallet - is a “Tell us what you’re into” and possibly what is one of the worst ideas for setting up user’s personal music preferences I’ve ever experienced.

I am greeted with a bunch of red circles with a bunch of genres that I possibly love or don’t love. Tap once to “like” that genre (this makes the circle bigger) and tap twice to “love” that genre. To indicate you hate it, press and hold onto it so that a timer countdown at the top counts down how long you must press down on it for it to disappear. And leave it alone if you feel indifferent, I guess? Something that stuck out is that these circles are grouped horizontally so I have to pan left and right to see the whole view. This is on a portrait screen.

The problem I have with this is that I have quite an eclectic taste in music - I like Wu Tang Clan, 1000 mods, The Cardigans, CHVRCHES, Herbie Hancock, Fatboy Slim, Gorillaz, Go West, George Clanton, Alpha Chrome Yayo, Judas Priest, MF DOOM, Mecha Maiko, Eyeshadow 2600 FM, Oneohtrix Point Never, etc. The list goes on. That is a lot to wade through and categorise.

But more importantly, I don’t know what genres Apple would classify each of these - it sounds daft, but different systems place artists under different categories. Some systems place artists under multiple genres. Some only place it under one. Some have broad categories, some have very defined categories.

It seems as if Apple Music has incredibly broad categories that encompass a wide range of artists, so I might end up with a ton of artists that I don’t really like. Furthermore, I like to listen to some of these genres, but I’m not actively seeking out these categories (like Reggae or Rock- I enjoy these categories, but there is a time and place for me to listen to these genres).

A more intuitive flow would be to let me search for my artists and like them to build a profile of the kind of music I like. But whatever, I play Apple’s game and I try to choose genres that I like. Sure enough, because I said I “liked” reggae, I get a flurry of reggae artists in the circles I mention above- only a small number whose names I recognise.

Same goes with “Dance” - for me, that would be Fatboy Slim, Armand Van Helden, Artful Dodger, The Chemical Brothers, etc. What do I get? A bunch of artists who do “Dance” but it might not be the “Dance” I think of. I do recognise Calvin Harris, and I do like two of his albums, but it’s not something that I break out every day - or every month for that matter.

So I select “More Artists”, and like some sort of gambling machine, all of my artists have disappeared (the artists that I’ve tapped on in the circle have gone into my “YOU” pot where Apple seems to have decided I will like/love these artists forever) and some more artists appear from the side.

Same problem. I barely recognise any of these, and yet again there are so many artists that Apple is showing me that I have to try and hit “More Artists” again. It doesn’t help that previously I might have chosen genres that I really didn’t care for only to find one great artist, but that was because the system is so unintuitive that I could never have guessed this was going to happen.

So I’m about to hit “More Artists” again only to find out it is greyed out. I’ve hit my limit, apparently. The Apple Music pachinko machine can only give me so many artists despite there being a massive number of artists in Apple Music to select from. After feelings of frustrations start to dissipate, I hit “Done” and Apple has finally given me recommendations.

And of course, the recommendations are so incredibly generic that I could get a similar bunch of artists if I bought one of those “NOW! That’s what I call ” compilation albums that gets released (at least here in the UK). Maybe I could’ve fine-tuned it had it offered me more artists to my liking, but whatever.

I have no idea about how Spotify does things from a “first time” user’s experience. As an existing Spotify user from certainly a decade ago, I can just search for artists, albums, and tracks that I liked. I can then add them to my library or “love” them as an indicator to Spotify that if they automatically generate a playlist, put this song or songs that sound like this on the playlist.

It’s a system which must be a software equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine because using Spotify is effortless and painless - just browse, add songs to your library, and oh! Spotify has given you a bunch of daily mixes or discover weekly that you can find that are similar to songs or artists you love.

If Spotify is a Rube Goldberg machine behind the scenes, then the Apple Music must be compressed air behind their catalogue of music. I can search through Apple Music’s gigantic library and find all sorts of artists, but there is little correlation between what I’ve “loved” or added to my library on Apple Music vs what Apple Music spits out in terms of personalised content.

It’s all based on that awful “Tell us what you’re into” system that doesn’t reflect what I like to listen to musically. It’s shocking that Apple can’t even devise something as basic of a playlist that revolves around a query like “find all songs that were in this year and match this genre”. These are the kind of queries that is trivial for databases to run.

Talking about liking and loving songs on Apple Music, this is where the UI falters. So I’m browsing the Apple Music catalogue, finding artists and albums and songs that I like. I generally play music first to make sure I’m adding the right song into my library.

The downsides with a music library that is infinite is sometimes you can end up catching similar songs that you don’t want - censored versions of a song, or maybe a version done by a cover band with a quarter of the production costs of the original for easy stream money.

On Spotify Mobile, when I play a song, the track is highlighted green and I can swipe the track to the left to love the song or swipe to the right to add it next to the current playlist. It is intuitive to pull off and that is the two most common things I like to do (especially liking a song after I heard it).

On Spotify Desktop, the speaker sound appears to the left of the track. If I want to like the track, I have two places to do so: to the right of the speaker or where there is track details. On the desktop app, I like to move across the track’s time bar when listening to a song before I add it to a playlist, for the aforementioned reasons. When I move my mouse over the time bar, the line turns green to indicate that I can interact with my mouse. The green line indicates that if I do a left click, I will be interacting with the time bar. I think you’d agree this is intuitive design 101.

On Apple Music, each track has a plus icon next to it to indicate you can add it to your library. However, if you have the audacity to listen to the track, you can’t just add it with that same button. That button now turns into an indicator that Apple Music is playing your track. You have to press and hold down on that track to bring up a context menu to like the song.

You also get the option to “love” a track. Still to this day, I can’t tell the difference between “adding a song to your library” and “loving a track”. Oh, and loving a track does not add a track to your library. Confused yet? In Spotify, clicking on the heart icon is adding it to your library.

The desktop app is far more worse, however. It’s very clear that Apple Music on the desktop has its roots in the old horrid iTunes app.

The app gives you a little intro window to try and tempt you into an Apple Music subscription. The intro window doesn’t have a call-to-action of just signing into my Apple Account like every other service does. I had to dismiss the window, then click at the top menu bar to login, and then manually login with my credentials instead of it taking my account details from the OS where I’ve already had it stored. It’s all very cumbersome to get going on the desktop.

As cumbersome as that was, that was the painless process. Despite being a desktop app, it still suffers from the problem where the add to library button also serves as a playback indicator (They didn’t have enough space to work with on my Retina MacBook Pro?).

The absolutely horrible thing about the Apple Music app was the track time bar. The track time bar has this incredibly thin touch area where if you mis-click, you are dragging the window. There is very small visual feedback that your mouse is over this touch area.

This is where I discovered that the app still has the iTunes Mini Mode as I managed to drag the app’s window to the point where it got horribly confused and transformed itself into Mini Mode without any other key presses. Bear in mind, at this point, all I was trying to do is skip ahead in the track. The only way I had to “undo” this transformation was to click on the close button - an action that is predominantly for actually closing a window in macOS (and other OSes). Here it opens Music in full-screen mode.

Along side that was that the whole “cloud syncing” process took a nearly a minute to do (Spotify is near instantaneous, despite how enormous it’s library is), the confusing interface of the old iTunes past and it’s desperate attempt to modernise the Music player app, and for some reason the iPad not having the Music app.

It had been less than 24 hours and I had to endure all of this mess and I still didn’t get any good personalised playlist - just Apple Music reminded me what I added 5 minutes before. I cancelled my Apple Music subscription and came back to Spotify.

It’s kind of sad using Apple Music. All the while I kept thinking to myself “this is the kind of experience I’d expect from Microsoft” - this archaic, clunky experience where nothing quite meets up and nothing is quite as intuitive.

But even still, it’s expected of Microsoft to botch things up - their products are the masters of their software looking like Rude Goldberg designs. The fact is that all of their software is incredibly overengineered because of decades of backwards compatibility support to make sure all their previous customers don’t loose out too much (and thus convincing them to stick with Microsoft).

They cannot go the Apple path of sheer minimalism over years of customer support, as Windows Phone 7 illustrated perfectly. If they “reset”, Microsoft risks loosing their USP and their market-share. Once a dominant player in the smartphone industry, they are now whispers amongst tech enthusiasts.

Apple doesn’t really have that baggage… OK, true, iTunes was the biggest money-spinner for Apple back when iPods were the thing, and I guess they still have to support customers who bought tracks and continue to buy tracks as well as support customers who have iPods. But then I look at Amazon Music as an example of how a company has managed to seamlessly merge both the digital track buying world with the cloud music world and wonder why Apple couldn’t do that?

I think what shocks me the most is that Apple has a history of great and simple design. They almost bend over backwards to make things as stupidly simple as possible, and yet this entire experience was one of complete and utter frustration of menus, weird flows, and trying to decipher what the developer was thinking. The whole experience has made me strongly consider Apple’s modern design from a very cynical perspective.

The world has changed since the iPod days, and now Spotify reigns supreme. Partially for the amount of artists it has, but mainly for it’s UX and how easy it is to discover new artists, albums, and songs on their platforms. It is a shame that Spotify pays an absolute pittance to their artists, but luckily there are other ways and means to support artists - actually buying their album helps a lot, as well as buying merchandise from the artists.

There’s also artists on Bandcamp - a lot of them are featured on Spotify for visibility and a hope that the algorithm or community playlists feature them, but if you do find some artists that you like, and you find their albums on Bandcamp, do give them a purchase there - the artists get a massive profit from each sale (especially the indie, self publishing ones) so if you can, do your best to support artists on there too.

A blog by rootfs.ext2.gz. He has opinions and things. Maybe follow him on Mastodon or Twitter? But, you know, only if you actually enjoy any of this.