Apple Music First Impressions

When I got my HomePod last week, the setup cards prompted me to start an Apple Music trial. Despite launching in 2015, my free three months of Apple Music had not been used on my Apple ID. I am not invested in music; I don’t have eclectic tastes or favourite artists. I like anything in the charts. As a family, we buy a few compilation albums a year and that’s about it. We are content with sharing that library and listening to some stuff from YouTube.

This means, on price alone, it didn’t represent value. Our yearly spend on music is in the region of £40-50. A single Apple Music subscription is £10 a month or £120 a year. You can buy a year upfront and save £20. Either way, it’s not cheaper than our total bill from casual album purchases.

It gets worse when you consider Family Sharing. iTunes purchased can be shared for no additional charge. A family Apple Music plan is £15 a month, £180 a year. iTunes music can be shared limitlessly, it’s DRM free after all. Apple Music family tier covers six people; a little awkward for our seven-person family but workable.

All these evaluations were made before the HomePod existed of course. When I got mine, I knew I couldn’t give it a fair shot without going all in, at least giving Apple the satisfaction of finally consuming my 3 month subscription gratis.

HomePod can work with your iTunes Match library but it really does benefit from the subscription access to any song in the world. HomePod is a natural device to start an automatic personalised playlist and just let the music wash over you all day long.

I’m relatively happy with the service. Apple Music did not ruin my library of downloaded albums in iTunes. If anything, it was almost too conservative. iCloud Music Library uploaded a sizeable chunk of my library that it really didn’t need to do, including some tracks that I’m pretty sure originated from iTunes Store. For unknown reasons, these songs were not detected by the Apple Music matching algorithms. I have started manually deleting the ‘uploaded’ tracks and bringing them back to my library by adding them from the Apple Music directory.

Outside of complaints I have with the Music app (and Apple’s iOS designs) as a whole, the ‘For You’ and ‘Browse’ sections are nicely arranged. I thought I knew what Apple Music offered from my journalistic interests, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of curated playlists available. I think I’m Apple Music’s ideal customer in terms of my music interests; mainstream pop. Most of the recommendations are on point.

My biggest disappointment, and complaint, does not come from the smart side of Apple Music. It’s the content directory that is a let down. It’s stuck in the past, just like the iTunes Music Store. The archaic concept of a standard album and a deluxe album are still in use. It’s a digitisation of a physical CD inventory, not a modern reset.

If I stumble across ‘Shake It Off’, there’s a good chance the Music app will tell me I don’t have it in my library. I do, it’s on the Taylor Swift album ‘1989’. Of course, my library contains songs from ‘1989 (Deluxe)’, not ‘1989’. This is stupid and the duplication should have died away long ago. A ‘Deluxe’ album has no need to exist on an unlimited music streaming service.

These artefacts of compact discs show up again when looking at an artist page. What a human would think of as an artist’s albums, and what Apple Music lists, are completely different. EPs, singles, specials, deluxe, originals are all shoehorned under one name ‘Albums’. There is no way to filter these out. This really makes finding what you want hard. When you know what you want to find, all this backwardly organised catalogue gets in your way.

There has to be a better method than packaging everything up with the same ‘album’ label. This is not a hard problem, I thought to myself. In fact, it’s already been solved … by Spotify.

After my trial began, I wanted to get all of Ed Sheeran’s albums into my personal library. I went to Search. I typed ‘ed sheeran’. It found his profile. I tapped the link to See All albums. I was promptly presented with a very long list of things that no human would describe as his ‘albums’. 57 individual items. It is good that all of this content is available on the service, but it should not be misappropriated as an album. With the Music app’s presentation of large artwork for each, two per row, it took me a while to scroll through and dig out what I actually was looking for. What made this harder was Sheeran’s publisher chose near-identical artwork for content released around the same time. You need to squint to find the actual albums in the sea of miscellany. It really was like Where’s Wally.

I was disappointed. The sheen of the Apple Music experience vanished. A few hours later, I thought to myself someone really should do a better job at this. Intrigued, I loaded up Spotify. Lo and behold, Ed Sheeran’s albums page is as you would expect. Humane.

The Spotify screenshot is long gone off the top of the viewport. The Apple Music equivalent scroll view is (probably) still on screen.