The Simplest Apple Music Fix

There’s been a lot of talk about Apple Music in the past week (the link is to a good example).

I actually like Apple Music. It mostly works for me. I have what I think is a reasonably large music collection (but I’d guess I’m just on the upper bound of average, maybe). I listen to lots of music, both stuff from my music and from Apple Music.

I find the biggest problem is the concept of “my library” vs. Apple Music. I often listen to music and click the little heart to “love” a song, whether it’s on Beats One, or an artist radio, or just because I was checking out a new song I heard on a podcast.

The problem is, I have no idea how to find those songs again. When you create a playlist in iTunes, you can only find tracks that are in your collection. So, if you want to do anything with that song, you have to first add it to your collection, then you can heart it.

If you heart it before you add it to your collection, your collection doesn’t count it as “loved”.

There’s lots of really odd behaviors around rating/hearting/interacting with songs that are not in your library.

I think the simplest fix would be that if I’ve done anything to a song (heart it, rate it, add it to a playlist), that it’s part of “My Library”. If iTunes (or the Music app) want to have a switch/toggle to only show music that’s local to your collection, go for it. But the fact that I can’t just treat Apple Music’s library like my own library forces me to think about the order of how I act with music, and that’s more friction than I should have.

In doing that, it would also change the way search works. Why not have search just graphically show you which music is on your device vs. in the cloud?

There’s too many places where I have to think about whether I’m dealing with Apple’s music or my music.

Just take that away.

The Apple Music Strategy

Since Apple’s (poorly) staged announcement for Apple Music, there’s been a lot of “so what” and “big deals”—It’s just another Spotify. I think that’s partially correct, if you think that the logical outcome for the streaming music business is that everything is streamable.

But I don’t think that’s where the music business is going, at least not in the short-term. Not if the labels have anything to say about it. (And today, they do.)

Instead, I think Apple’s strategy (paid streaming only, Beats One radio station, artist outreach) is a 3-pronged approach to become the preferred and select distributor of new music for most artists, and be the only game in town (or at least one of a handful) where you can find every song you want.

Even if you can’t stream it.

Paid Streaming

Apple is only doing paid streaming. No free tier. That’s, potentially, a huge knock against them when it comes to the likes of Spotify and Pandora, with their free, ad-based streaming level [1]. Spotify has 20 million paying subscribers, with another 55 million free subscribers [2]. That’s a lot of people listening for free, paying only with eyeballs and earholes. And, as of 2014, Spotify, with it’s 20 million paying subscribers, was not a profitable business [3]. Now, that’s not to say I think Spotify is going to go out of business tomorrow. Just that it sets the table for why Apple is doing only a paid tier.

Taylor Swift famously pulled her album off of Spotify (and other streaming platforms) because she didn’t think her music should be free:

It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is [4]

So most (major) artists don’t want streaming, and don’t make money off it. Follow any of them on Twitter and they’ll tell you how little they make from streaming, particularly from free streaming. [5] Apple offering only a paid tier is a great way to ingratiate themselves with the labels and the artist—see, we love you, we won’t make you deal with this silly free streaming bit (free trial aside). [6]

Apple gets to walk up to the artists and labels and say “Everything is paid, oh, and Spotify’s 55 million accounts? We have 800 million iTunes accounts.” Apple has 800 million iTunes accounts, most of which likely have a credit card.

Apple comes to the game with the potential to bring 800 million paying customers to the music industry.

Oh, and the Apple Music app will come pre-installed on every iOS device. Of which, there’s been a billion sold.

Let’s even cut it in half and say there’s 500 million active iTunes subscribers. That’s 10x Spotify’s total base. Cut in to 25%. 200 million possible paying customers for Apple Music, 10x Spotify’s paying base.

All of whom just have to click a button to start paying 10 bucks a month for music. It wouldn’t shock me to see Apple Music pass Spotify in the first 6 months.

Doesn’t matter that Apple is late to the game. They’re going to be the biggest player in streaming music by the end of 2016, at the latest.

Beats 1 Radio

If streaming is going to be so important, and users will have all this music at their hands, what’s up with Beats 1 Radio? Besides Russ ‘3 commas’ Hanneman on Silicon Valley, who cares about radio on the internet?

Well, loads of people still use Pandora to discover music. Or listen to something to point them to new stuff (podcasts, youtube, friends). There’s still some need for serendipitous discovery of music. Beats 1 is Pandora, with a human DJ.

Oh, and with shows from major artists, who will come on to promote their own albums, or albums of other artists.

I’m sure both Pandora and Spotify slip promoted artists into their recommendations, but they have to do it subtly. They would jeopardize their existing base if they were obviously shoving paid artists into their algorithmically generated playlists.

“You’re listening to Arcade Fire. Here’s the new one from Taylor Swift.”

Beats 1 can do that. Even if it won’t be as cynical as that, Beats 1 has human DJs. They can promote new songs all the time. They can break artists and new music. Artists can debut new songs and albums on their own shows.

It’ll likely become commonplace for an artist to put together a couple of shows for Beats 1 as part of the lead up to a new release. With an easy one click “add this to your library” button right there to generate more streams for the artist.

Artist Outreach

Beats 1 and paid streaming are two ways to draw artists closer to Apple. And to help Apple start to disintermediate the labels. That’s why Apple has launched Apple Music Connect. It’s another Facebook or Twitter for artists (or their representatives) to reach out to their fans directly, keep them engaged between albums, and oh yeah, remind them that there’s a concert coming out, or that an album from the back catalog happened to have come out 3 years ago today.

I don’t know if it’ll be successful, but it’s an attempt to help bring artists closer to the process, and maybe (over time) show them that they don’t need a label.

The Magic Sauce

If you’re Taylor Swift (or really, any artists), what do you need to launch your new album now? A radio show on Beats 1 (that you promoted across Facebook and Twitter) to get customers streaming it within moments of it being released? Sure, some advertising in the iTunes store or on TV and traditional radio helps too.

But, as the music industry, you’re trading dollars of selling albums for streaming. And, today, that’s not a great tradeoff.

This is where Apple helps the music industry save the day. What if Taylor Swift (or Kanye or Drake or The Shins or whomever) says “sure, you can stream my album, but not until it’s been released for 6 weeks”. The old VHS/DVD rental window.

Now it comes together.

An album gets released, gets real promotion, and for some period of time, you can only buy it physically in stores, or online (at iTunes, Amazon, etc.).

Apple will have hundreds of millions of subscribers who can hear a song on the radio, or Beats 1, or wherever and will be the only place in town to actually hear it (via the iTunes Music Store).

I have to think the music industry is looking at that as a way to stem the erosion from paid music to streaming. The artists get rewarded for their new music, get paid (less) for streaming their older music, and can use their older music as a loss-leader to get people into the newer (paid, non-streaming) albums.

Personally, I think when you look at all of these factors, I don’t think Apple is looking at Apple Music as “oh shit, we need to get into streaming”, but more “oh shit, there’s a bank vault’s worth of money here, if we can get a big enough streaming base.”

If Apple can quickly grow their streaming base, with the paid streaming lever, and the iTunes Music Store, they’re positioned, I think to change the music industry again. From a lot of people’s perspectives, it’ll be a step backwards (“paying for music?!”), but I think it’s the logical next step for music. Apple will have everything (almost), whether it’s brand new music (paid albums/tracks via iTunes Music Store), everything else (paid albums/tracks via iTunes; streaming via Apple music), or serendipitous discovery/promotion (Beats 1 radio, algorithmically generated radio stations).

I’d be willing to bet, we’ll see some of this by the end of 2016. We may start to see the underpinnings when Apple Music launches tomorrow.

  1. I don’t pay for Spotify today. I’m an old-school idiot who uses free Spotify to sample music, and then buys the stuff I like off of iTunes and Amazon for fear that the man may someday shut down Spotify. (I’m old-school because I buy downloadable content. Weird.)  ↩
  2.  ↩
  3.  ↩
  4.–1989-spotify/  ↩
  5. Though someone is making the billions of dollars going from streaming services to the music companies. I wonder who that is. I wonder who it is that signs these agreements with the streaming services that result in billions of dollars for the labels, and pennies for the artists. I wonder.  ↩
  6. Of course, last week, Taylor Swift and Apple had a little back and forth about Apple’s decision to not pay artists during the three month trial of Apple Music. Apple relented (as they should have from the start) and will pay artists during the free trial period. As you might have guessed, the quid pro quo of that decision is Taylor allowing 1989 to be streamed on Apple Music.  ↩

It’s Not That Apple Forced an Album Into Your iTunes …

it’s that they chose U2. With the Beats staff on board, you’d think that someone would have pointed out that U2, while iconic, hasn’t been relevant for years.

I know there’s a long relationship between U2 and Apple, and making the U2 album a free album purchasable through iTunes would have been an amazing gesture. But, if you want to give people a “gift” (and, really, use it as a lever to get credit cards for Apple Pay), there are loads of other artists that would have had more resonance.

(My guess for artist with most cross-cultural appeal: Lorde.)

Want to Watch a Movie? Don’t Upgrade Your iPad Before You Get On a Flight

Here’s just a little tip for you. If you plan to watch an awesome historical movie rented from iTunes on your flight home, don’t upgrade your iPad to the latest version (for me, 6.0.1) before you get on the flight.

Or, if you do, at least connect to the internet and make sure iTunes reauthorizes your iPad to watch the movie.

Otherwise, you’ll get on the plane, hunker down to watch it, and instead, get a nice error message of “Cannot Open” over and over again until you give up and realize it ain’t going to happen.

Thankfully, I’ve got another leg of my trip and I found wifi in between. Open up the Videos app, and all of a sudden the iPad remembers it’s allowed to play the movie.

Now I need to go learn about the history of our 16th President and how he ended the vampire plague.

Getting Started with iTunes Match

With iOS6 and the iPhone 5 out, and with iTunes 11 on the horizon (coming in a few weeks), I’m expecting more folks will start using iTunes Match. iTunes Match is pretty straightforward, but there are some little things I think are helpful to know before getting started with iTunes Match.

The most helpful thing is to get your library under control. As best as you can, you’ll want to make sure everything is well named (i.e. get info for all of your “Unknown Artist, Unknown Song” tracks). There are loads of apps out there to help you tag your tracks without a lot of manual intervention. The best is probably TuneUp. It’s pricey, but it’ll help you get as many of your songs tagged properly.

The reason for getting your songs tagged is simple: when you’re using iTunes Match, you need to have some way to identify the song you want to download to your iPhone. If you can’t tell by the name, you’ll have to preview the song, which means downloading it anyway. So, tag your music (or at least the music you care about) to make it easier to grab over the air.

Once your music is all nice and neat, you might as well use iTunes extensive album art library to make your music pretty. There’s a simple way: make a playlist of all your music that has no artwork. That’ll look something like this:

missing artwork

Then just click on that playlist, select all, and right-click, and choose “Get Album Artwork”. Or you can choose “Get Album Artwork” from under the Store menu.

Now that you’ve got your music well named and full of pretty album art, you’re ready to get things onto your iPhone or iPad. If you follow along with Apple’s advice, you’ll just go into the Music app on your phone, click on a song or album and download them one at a time.

That is perfectly fine if you have a limited set of music (a few albums, maybe a few hundred songs). Once you want to get a few GBs of music on to your phone (you know, your iPhone you spent a bunch of money to get 32 or 64GB of memory), this whole one at a time method sucks. It sucks hard.

There’s a solution here, though. And it’s an easy, old school one: turn off iTunes Match. Get all of your music ready, sync it to your iPhone/iPad the old school way over USB/WiFi. Get your gigs of music onto your iOS device, then turn on iTunes Match. iTunes Match will say “hey, I’m going to replace your library” and you’re good.

iTunes Match will now utilize all of the music that is on your phone, and you can just use iTunes Match to bring over new music as you get it, or when you get the inkling to listen to something you didn’t sync to your device originally.

I think if you follow these basic guidelines, you’ll very much enjoy iTunes Match the way it should be—without thinking about it. It’ll just work.

Even if you don’t want to use iTunes Match, you should still pay apple the $20/year or whatever it is, just so you get a full backup of all of your music. That’s worth it, in and of itself.

Seriously, go do that right now.

iOS6 and iTunes Match: What’s New? (Not much)

Back in May, we hit the semi-anniversary of iTunes Match. About 4 months later, after the release of iOS6 and Mountain Lion, where do we stand?

For the most part, we’re almost in the same spot. In May, the outstanding issues really amounted to:

  • Occasionally flaky album art updates
  • Play counts not syncing from iOS devices
  • Some smart playlists not working the way you’d expect
  • A somewhat unintuitive way to manage adding songs to your iOS device

What’s Better?

Album art seems to be almost completely fixed. I haven’t noticed what the change is—whether it’s just the initial syncing of the art when you grab the music or doing some smart syncing behind the scenes—but things are definitely better. I have yet to see missing or incorrect art, even when listening and skipping through music without a data connect (i.e. on the subway).

Smart playlists just seem to work now. At least mine seem to. The ones that always seemed out of whack before (“recently added” songs) seem to update appropriately and they match what’s in my iTunes, which means maybe they’re reflecting the authoritative library date, rather than when they were added to the iOS device. Or, I’m just lucky enough that they sync up right now. Still, it’s a good sign.

One thing I’ve noticed anecdotally is that metadata (ratings, last play date, etc.) seems to sync much faster than it did before. I could very well be crazy, but it seems like both iOS and iTunes are pushing out their changes reasonably quickly, and that means things seems sort of magic. You update a genre or a star rating on iTunes, and before you have time to think about it, it’s already on your devices. That’s good and sort of the promise of iTunes Match — “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“.

What’s the Same?

Play counts still don’t sync. The first track you play might update its play count. Nothing else does. I don’t get it. I don’t get why other meta data updates but not play count. This is very distinguishable from magic.

What’s (Arguably) Worse?

Managing music on the device seems to have taken a step back. You still have to flip the switch (in, which isn’t a huge deal) to show all music, or just what’s local. When I want to play something not on my device, I flip the switch and then go to the album (or playlist) it might be on. Except now there’s no sign that it’s not on my device. The iCloud icon shows up only on the “collection” level — album, artist, playlist. It doesn’t show up on a song by song basis. I can click the song to play it — but does that cache it and save it to my device (it does). Or, I click the iCloud icon and it will download every song on that list that’s not on my device … which may include things I don’t want at this moment.

I don’t think this is a huge deal for most people. You’re either a song buyer or an album buyer, and in both cases, if you want it on your phone, you’re getting everything in that bucket. But, it is something to be aware of, and it’s certainly something that deserves a nicer interface than what we’re given in iOS6.

The Gist?

iTunes Match is solid. It does what you want almost all of the time. If you’re someone who is careful about the care and feeding of your iTunes library, you might notice some of the little hiccups, but I don’t think the average person will. I think for most folks, they’ll end up with their music in both places.

With iTunes 11 coming next month, we could see another iteration of iTunes Match features.

Six Months of iTunes Match

It hadn’t occurred to me until I saw a thread on Ars Technica, but iTunes Match has been out for six months now. I’ve written a bunch about it, but I figured, once again, it’d be good time to give a quick recap.

First things first

$25/year for a full backup of all of your music is worth it.
$25/year for a full backup of all of your music, while simultaneously making it available to all of your iOS devices—iPhone, iPad, Apple TV—and your other Macs and PCs, is a steal.

At this point, there is simply no reason not to buy it. Even if you don’t want to use iTunes Match on your iOS devices, it is still worth it for peace of mind, to simply have another location to have your media backed up. Go buy it.

A few things are still flakey

There are a couple of things that are still not quite perfect. For most people, these will go completely unnoticed. If you buy all your music from iTunes, or have never spent much time tweaking and caring for your ID3 data, tagging your music, or creating nested levels of smart playlists, iTunes Match is going to work like magic for you.

But if you are one of those people who curates your music carefully, you’ll find a couple of small annoyances.

Album art still doesn’t sync perfectly

I don’t understand why, or why this is a challenge to solve (I’m sure there’s a reason, but I can’t get my head around it …), but Album Art still only syncs intermittently. And only seems to do so when you’re playing music, which means if you’re listening somewhere that you don’t have a good signal (wifi or otherwise), you’re going to occasionally get some stuttering UI performance in the Music app.

Play counts don’t update

Play counts still intermittently update. Not a huge deal, but if you use a lot of smart playlists, it can bug you. It bugs me. Mostly because …

Some smart playlists still don’t quite work

If your smart playlists are based off of “Most Recently Added”, they sometimes seem to end up based off of the “most recently added” to the iOS device (when you really want “most recently added to my iTunes Match library”). Smart playlists seem to sometimes ignore the “don’t show videos or don’t show music that isn’t on my device”, which can lead to playlists where you end up downloading stuff you didn’t want.

Annoying, but probably not something everyone will bump into.

A couple of “nice to haves”

There are a couple of things that would be nice to have, that haven’t been added yet. I expect that, in the future (with Mountain Lion and iOS 6 on the horizon), we might get a set of new features and enhancements, so in a couple of months (maybe at my 9 month review), I’ll have nothing to say.

But, until then:
* We need a better way to manage music on the iPhone/iPad. Going into settings to flip the switch between “Show all music” and “Only show music on this device” is painful. That switch needs to somehow be in the Or maybe just a different UI paradigm entirely.
* In something that I think I’m the only one to ever notice, sometimes iTunes loses track of “where” a song is, i.e. is it in iCloud or on the computer. That tends to happen after music has been automatically downloaded after being purchased from the iTunes Store. It’s just weird. And it cleans itself up … sometimes.

Buy it

If you’ve bothered to read this far, and you haven’t bought iTunes Match yet, just go do it.