By Taylor Hatmaker
Whether you're jamming a dusty cassette into a Honda’s busted-up tape deck or clicking and dragging a digital playlist into coherence, music feels personal. In the digital age, we risk losing that art if we take it for granted.
The on-demand streaming model means we can follow one whim after the next after the next, ferreting out songs we already know and stringing them onto the end of a queue. We're beyond spoiled for choice. The meaning gets lost in the shuffle — literally.
Pandora's music genome project, a pioneer of Internet radio, had the right idea, sequencing the sonic DNA of its catalogue to figure out what to play next. But Pandora never felt cool enough to trust. Consider that one misstep — say, a Justin Bieber single rearing its ugly head in a deep house set — would get any human DJ kicked out of the booth.
Enter Beats Music, the latest streaming music service, co-crafted by industry masterminds Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. They don’t use words like "genome" and "algorithm" when describing their newly hatched product—they say stuff about "people," "emotion" and "life." Whether you think his headphones are a rip-off or not, Dre is cool. And Dre wants to tell you what to listen to.
Okay, I’m listening.
Looks Good, Sounds Good
Beats Music, available now on Android, iOS and on the Web — the Windows Phone app hits on Friday — is a visual extension of the Beats brand, and that’s a good thing. Beats Music bought beloved digital music app MOG last year, so its polish and features may feel familiar for MOG users. The service offers everyone a 7-day free trial that doesn't kidnap your credit card info, after which you can opt into a paid subscription for $10 per month. There's no free option, though AT&T customers do get the option of a discounted "family plan" and a 3-month free trial — but be careful with those data overages.
There’s a Web interface for Beats Music, but this is clearly a mobile-first product. I hope that they’ll give the Web UI a little more love later on, since I prefer to stream music from a computer to my home stereo system, and I’m probably not alone.
The Beats Music app is dark with red, magenta and violet highlights — a refreshing departure from the ubiquitous, inoffensive blue icons colonizing a good 2/3 of my iPhone’s homescreen. It looks cool, like it was designed by someone who probably wears nice shoes and doesn’t talk about algorithms. You can stream music over Wi-Fi or your 3G/4G signal — watch your data if you choose the latter — and you can store cached files locally for offline play.
You can opt for a high quality stream, and by streaming standards, what I listened to sounded pretty great with my everyday over-ear headphones. It’s not audiophile-level stuff, but since you’re presumably going to use the app on a smartphone, you shouldn’t be using the word "audiophile" anyway, so stop it.
When you fire it up for the first time, you’ll be tasked with choosing a few genres you like by tapping floating, colorful bubbles. Since Beats had some major connectivity problems yesterday, I actually went through this screen a good five times, so let's hope that was just a launch day quirk.
After choosing a few artists you like, you’ll be whisked to a screen boasting music that’s "Just For You," largely genre-based playlists culled from the hints you just input. These suggestions are pretty superficial, but it gets better.
Curation . . . Like, By Humans
The word "curation" has to be one of the worst tech buzzwords in the history of the worst tech buzzwords, but Beats Music gets a pass. The app’s founders are serious about curating music for their listeners, and it shows. Dre and company have identified this as a major failing of music apps like Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.
But until I started experimenting with Beats Music, I didn’t realize how right they were. Streaming services as we know them support a kind of piecemeal approach — we rummage around for stuff we want to hear, play it and then wonder what happens next. But if you ask Dre, or anyone who properly cares about music, what you’ll hear next is just as important as what’s coming through your speakers right now.
In that way, Beats Music is like a human DJ — leading you from familiar places to unfamiliar ones all while keeping you in the proverbial groove.
Beats boasts an entire staff of folks who curate its sonic catalogue by genre. You can drill down into genres and subgenres, and at launch these compartments are already populated with some great playlists.
For example, the Beats Indie channel is stocked with playlists like "Best Indie of 2013" but also stuff like "Indie Rock Forefathers, Vol. 1" and "Early Darkwave Jams" so you can travel through a genre and learn about it in a linear way, or from the inside out. Beats Indie launched with 512 curated playlists, complete with thorough descriptions — and that’s just one genre. Awesome.
As the service grows, I’m hoping that user-generated playlists won’t clog this system up without plenty of human oversight. I’m content to trust the pros on this one.
Spotify has dabbled with this sort of feature, adding themed playlists and the like, but the thoughtful way Beats Music handles music discovery already blows its rivals out of the water. Both services combine on-demand streaming with customized radio stations, but Spotify emphasizes the former, while Beats Music seems best so far if you just let it do its thing. It’s a relief not to have that "oh shit, what I do play now" moment, which apparently happens a lot if your music discovery engine is broken.
Another great discovery tool is Beats Music’s focus on playing the right music for what you’re doing. You can access this two ways. The straightforward way is by swiping right to the “activities” section and picking something like "BBQing," "Chilling Out," "Breaking Up" or even "Starting a Riot."
The zanier way is by swiping right to a tab called "The Sentence," where you can input a mad-libs style gonzo formula that describes what kind of mood you’re in.
For example, right now, I’m "at my computer" and feel like "getting it on" with "robots" to "electronic," which coincidentally is a way I feel a lot. Speaking of getting it on, thank you Beats Music for your comprehensive curation of music to get-it-on to. If you’ve ever awkwardly fumbled among your playlists for sexy music — and you know you have — you’ll appreciate this feature.
Beats Looks Like A Bright Direction
I’ve been in a music funk for going on three months now. I subscribe to a handful of Beats Music’s competitors, and apparently having instant access to over 20 million songs isn’t enough to mend that. I’m proactive about reading music blogs and finding new stuff, but I listen to music all day. That’s a pretty long playlist to pull together.
But here's Dre:
A great DJ picks the right song and knows the only thing more important than the song playing right now is the song that comes next. A great DJ gets bored before you do and knows when to switch gears to keep you listening.
So far, Beats Music has kept things fresh for every waking hour of my last 24 or so that the service has been accessible. No Pandora awkward internet radio misfires (seriously, stop with the Coldplay — I’m losing friends). None of Spotify’s depressing oops-your-playlist-ended-and-now-it’s-awkward moments. No digging into my old hard drives and begrudgingly opening iTunes.
If Beats can keep its service up, make its business model work and keep its curation pools brimming over with batches of fresh new music, Beats Music might just be a beautiful thing — the one I’ve been waiting for, at least. In the meantime, I’ll be on a boat, fingerpainting to hair metal with your mom.
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