Jimmy Iovine has been touting the need for better curation in music streaming for more than a year.
Iovine noted in February 2013 that Apple, Google and Facebook have plenty of data on their users' musical tastes, "but no one is using [that data] to curate." And he argued the point again last month, on the same day it was announced that the first of those three companies would be buying Beats, the business Iovine cofounded with Dr. Dre.
"What's going on with some of these other services is they're purely based on algorithms, and algorithms can't do the job alone," Iovine said during an interview at Recode's Code Conference. "So what happens is you have young people listening to certain radio stations on the Internet, right, and for some reason they just don't understand why they're not getting the feel they're supposed to get, so it's not all the hype they heard about quote, music."
"You have to have the right sequence. You have to have the right feel of one song leading into another," he added.
That pitch, or some version of it, helped persuade Apple and its CEO Tim Cook to acquire Beats for $3 billion. Part of the purchase was a bet on the talent at Beats, including Iovine, a longtime record producer and executive with plenty of clout in the entertainment industry. And part of it was an investment in Beats' hardware, such as its ubiquitous headphones. But the emphasis in Apple's public and internal statements was on Beats Music, the streaming music service that Iovine and his team developed to solve the music-curation and discovery problem.
"We think it’s the first subscription service to really get it right," Cook wrote in a memo to employees after the deal was announced. "Both Apple and Beats believe that a great music service requires a strong editorial and curation team, and we will continue to expand what we do in those areas."
That pitch is also what convinced me to register a username with Beats Music before it launched in January, and it's what convinced me to ditch my premium Spotify membership, and pay the $9.99 monthly subscription fee to use Beats Music instead. Every time I hear Iovine explain the thinking behind Beats, I find myself nodding my head. Listeners have more music than ever at their fingertips, but the experience of listening to it is worse, and the tools for discovery are lacking.
Yet, in my experience using Beats Music for about four months, the service fell short of Iovine's pitch.
Beats Music makes a positive first impression. The setup process attempts to be more playful (tap on bubbles with genre names to pick your favorite music), the visual design stands out from the competition and there's a novel feature called "The Sentence" that lets you set up a radio station by filling in a few keywords (e.g. I'm "in the shower" and feel like "kicking back" with "your mom" to "Beats Music.")
I tend to agree with my colleague Chris Taylor, though, who wrote that these features border on feeling "gimmicky." As he put it, "I'm not sure I'm going to want to select little bouncing circles or play a game of mad libs every time I want to listen to music."
Based on Iovine's comments, these features are really just window dressing. The centerpiece of Beats Music is the curation. Instead of just seeing an endless list of artists, the main page presents you with "handpicked" playlists, including names that sound like VH1 specials: "Classic Rock's Best First Song on Debut Albums," "Slash: Best Guitar Solos" and "Introductions" to bands like R.E.M, Wilco and Grizzly Bear. You can also scroll over to a Highlights tab that picks out the best of a genre or theme, or you can browse through a list of curators ranging fromPitchfork to The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
At first, I was practically giddy with excitement to dive into the various playlists. It reminded me of how I discovered music in the pre-Napster days: magazines such as Rolling Stone and endless music countdowns on VH1 and MTV. Using Beats Music, I stumbled across some lesser-known tracks from bands and record labels that I like, and yes, I was prompted to listen to a few albums from start to finish that I hadn't heard in years. But I really didn't discover any new artists, a complaint I've heard from other friends who've used the service.
More than that, I quickly realized there was a key element missing from Beats Music: social.
It took more than three months for Beats Music to add the Find Your Friends feature, which lets you follow your connections from Twitter and Facebook, like you would on services such as Spotify. Even now, this social integration appears to be an afterthought: The "curators" are front and center on Beats Music; your friends are buried in the background.
Curation, be it from artists, DJs or music publications, is undoubtedly useful for discovering music, but nothing in my experience compares to the power of finding out what your friends and acquaintances are listening to. Music is an inherently social experience; Beats Music is not.
When you open up Spotify, you'll see an activity feed showing what your connections are listening to, and a Discover tab that features recommendations based on what you and your friends like. This allows for a bit more serendipity in music discovery. For example, you might discover a new guilty pleasure from a friend that an algorithm or curator would never recommend because you would never have admitted an interest in it.
Spotify also highlights music from some of the same outlets Beats partners with (e.g. Pitchfork,Rolling Stone, etc.), and curates playlists for summer jams, weekend hangouts and more, though this is certainly not as much of a focus as it is for Beats.
Some like Iovine might argue that professional curation is more important to music discovery and the listening experience than the social component; I would argue the reverse. At the very least, however, it seems fair to say that any quality music-streaming service in the future should have both, which raises a more basic question: Is it harder for a service such as Spotify to bulk up its curation, or for a service such as Beats Music to improve on social?
As it stands now, Beats Music faces two challenges on social: The first is scale, and the second is execution. Beats Music has just 250,000 subscribers, which means most new users will only find a handful of connections on the service. Apple, with its more than 800 million iTunes users, should be able to help grow that number quite a bit. However, Apple doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to social media and music. Its Ping social network didn't end well.
Even if you assume Apple and Beats can improve the experience of using Beats Music, time is an important factor, here. Every playlist you make, every song you favorite and every person you follow on Spotify or any other music-streaming service is one more rope that ties you to them, and makes switching to Beats Music that much harder.