The Only Apple Music Article You Need To Read
By Scott Creney
So when you first join up there’s all these goddamned floating circles and you’re supposed to pick your favorite genre of music from a bunch of categories that are so broad & vague as to be meaningless: alternative, electronic, pop, rock, oldies, etc. But you can’t see all the bubbles at once and whenever you pick something that particular bubble gets bigger and blocks out other bubbles from getting in there and basically the whole fucking process is such a mess that I almost gave up before I even got started. And even in the end I had to pick a bunch of stuff I wasn’t crazy about or else I’d never get to listen to Apple Music so I went ahead and chose the Pixies b/c I like them better than FKA Twigs but now Apple Music keeps trying to get me to listen to the Pixies and stuff on 4AD.
Which I guess is fine. I like the Pixies, and I like a lot of 4AD stuff, but right out of the gate something about this revolution, this perfectly curated experience that Apple’s promising me, straight up stinks.
Also, compared to Spotify—hell, compared to Beats Music—the layout of this shit is ugly. All that overabundant white space and red lettering makes it looks like a goddamn air hockey table. And when music’s playing, the album cover takes up less than half the space at the top of the screen while the bottom is painted a vague, unrelenting gray.
I currently have a Spotify subscription. Before that I used Rdio for a long time—it was fine, I’m still not sure why I switched. I think it’s because more people I knew were on Spotify. I was just starting to enjoy Beats when Apple bought it and more or less shut it down. So right now I’m at Spotify. Most of us are. We have our playlists and ‘our music’ and our history and our friends, and if we go to Apple we’re going to lose all that, so if we’re going to take the time to recreate all those playlists and rebuild our (virtual, fictional) libraries, there has to be some kind of incentive, right? Well for Apple that incentive is The Vision Of Apple’s Curators. Actually, we should put it in quotes. ‘Curators.’ Because like a middle-schooler with a new curse word, Apple can’t go 30 seconds without saying the word ‘curator.’ Or as Trent Reznor (that’s right, THE Trent Reznor–that’s how fucking COOL Apple is, they got Trent Fucking Reznor—because no one’s more down w/the kids that Trent Reznor, right? This afternoon I spoke to a bunch of teenagers who had never heard of Outkast—OUTKAST!—(on the bright side, they didn’t know who Jay-Z was until I told them he was Beyonce’s husband) but Trent, he’s got his pudgy little fingers on the pulse of Young America. And I guess Jimmy Iovine has his finger on the pulse of Old America? And you throw Dr. Dre in there to get the, ahem, Other Kids, and BOOM, Apple = Awesome)…
Anyway, so yeah, Trent says what’s missing in all the other streaming services is ‘a system that adds a layer of intelligent curation.’ Which sounds all well and good until I hear Zane Lowe, former BBC Radio 1 DJ and current DJ on Apple Music’s live radio station Beats 1, start shouting over the playout of this song:
Lowe’s screaming about how Royal Blood is the best rock band in the world and how they’re inspiring kids all over the world to pick up guitars and start rocking, and I can’t help but wonder when the intelligent part of the curation is going to kick in. And then I wonder how many unknown bands are going to get curated, how many on small labels, how many who don’t sound like bland ultra-accessible plastic? And yeah, I get that the marketplace can absorb any act of rebellion and turn it into neutered profits/prophets, but for some reason I don’t think Apple’s interested in even attempting any of that. And then I click over to my recommendations (a picture of a heart w/the words ‘For You’ underneath) and see that Apple’s still recommending that same Nick Cave album Beats Music was trying to get me to listen to a couple years ago.
Look, everything in music right now is a goddamn mess. It’s all scattered chaos and these companies can’t sell music like they used to so they’re trying to sell the promise that they’ll be your gatekeeper. That they, and only they, can help you navigate that overwhelming feeling of paralysis you get when faced with an infinity of options. Apple Music all but guarantees that you’ll only ever listen to music you like. Even the stuff you haven’t heard yet will be stuff that you like. And they’ll be able to do this because they’re smarter than their competitors, because the people who work for Apple know more about music, love music more than the people who work for Spotify. And so their algorithms will be better, will be smarter, more accurate, and always make you happy. Because they understand that anyone who likes Neil Young’s On the Beach MUST like Bruce Springsteen, right? Classic rock guitar-playing white guys who are down-to-earth and write songs about average people.
I love On the Beach. Can’t stand Springsteen except for a handful of songs.
Or take that Nick Cave album Trent, Dre, and Jimmy keep trying to get me to listen to. It should make sense. I listened to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate nearly every day during my Beats Music trial. And Nick’s a literate songwriter just like Leonard, right? Inspired by the Bible, makes poor life decisions, sizable cult following…
But I can’t stand Nick Cave. It’s all a cartoon to me (The Birthday Party, at least, was a fun cartoon). And that’s the problem with all this curator/algorithm stuff. It’s all bullshit. Because our response to music isn’t geometry, it isn’t a formula, and it damn sure isn’t logical. I understand their motivation. If the music industry can’t sell music, then there’s only so much it can sell. And what Apple’s selling (and by extension Spotify, Pandora, et. al.) is a map. But you’ll get a lot further with Allmusic—-or an old copy of the Spin Alternative Record Guide (available here for a penny plus shipping), Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, Trouser Press, even the latest Rolling Stone Album Guide are great places to start.
Truth of the matter, there’s some great playlists to be found in Apple Music. But you’re going to have to work really, really hard to find them. And oddly enough, you have to go to the ‘New’ menu and scroll down until you find the three playlist menus: Apple Editors, which is useful; Activities, which is bullshit; and Curators (there’s that word again), which is slightly less bullshit. The Apple Editors part is broken down by genre, and the stuff within each genre is pretty representative—you’re bound to find something good you haven’t heard before, with a focus on both newer & more canonized stuff. But the Curators part is the biggest ripoff, a dozen or so of the bigger websites/magazines, but it all feels really half-assed. P4K’s ‘Best New Tracks of 2015’ has one track—Jamie XX’s ‘I Know There’s Gonna…’ I know that’s not the full title, but that’s all there’s room for on my tiny little iPhone screen. This small screen is a recurring problem on Apple Music, esp. when looking at playlists. So in order to find out what the P4K playlist ‘Everything’s Bigger’ is all about you have to choose it and then read the description (an introduction to Speedy Ortiz—I guess b/c choosing one of their two albums is too hard for people). Rolling Stone has a playlist ‘Best Graduations Songs of…’ That’s all there is, and even once you choose it, you just get ‘Best Graduation Songs of the Last…’ And there’s not even a description for that one. The playlist’s ‘Featured Artists’ are Miley Cyrus, Nickelback, Nicki Minaj, so maybe the rest of the full title is ‘Best Graduation Songs of the Last Day Before You Decide To Kill Yourself.’
Just kidding. Nicki’s great. Beez in the Trap, y’all.
So yeah, there are some great playlists. Do a search for Dub and get a half-dozen great ones—’Experiments in Dub’ finds the common connecting thread in Sly & Robbie, Pylon, Renegade Soundwave, Mad Professor, and Cabaret Voltaire. You aren’t going to get that on any other streaming service. Someone in Apple knows their music. But again, you have to look in the right places and know where to find it.
So there’s the aforementioned Beats 1 (which isn’t the worst idea, a radio station that seeks to unite rather than divide, a radio station that could—given the right direction—function like Top 40 did in the US during the mid 80’s and pull together disparate audiences [though we have to remember that even during its pinnacle there was no room in US radio for Minutemen, Replacements, Husker Du, etc.—remember that the marketplace only ever creates an illusion of choice), but you also get a bunch more. There’s eight other ‘Featured Stations’: Pure Pop, Sound System, The Mixtape, All-City, On the Floor, Country, NPR News and Culture, and ESPN Radio. Then below that you get a series of genres that’s more diverse than what Spotify offers but still doesn’t go far enough (the jazz stations are: Jazz, Smooth Jazz, Crooners & Cocktails—someone forgot the skronk). Also, if anyone knows what genre of music ‘The Mixtape’ is supposed to be playing, please e-mail me: [email protected]. So far all I can come up with is ‘Old Songs That Scott’s Heard Before.’
But here’s a serious question: If I’m able to skip a song I don’t like, can you really call it radio? Because with the exception of the news stations and Beats 1, I can skip through all these stations as much as I want to. Which is pretty much the opposite of radio, whose strength (and weakness) is making you hear stuff someone else wants you to listen to, and hearing it long enough until you maybe learn to like it.
And so then I’m listening to ‘Indie Classics’ and it plays ‘The Third Time We Opened the Capsule’ by Kitchens of Distinction (ask your grandparents) and I think maybe I’ll see what KoD is available in Apple Music, but there’s no way to do that w/o searching for it and typing in the band’s name. You’d think there’d be an option to go to the artist’s page like you get with Spotify, but there isn’t.
Oh yeah, Apple’s also selling their extensive catalog, including the streaming exclusives of T. Swift and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (which pop up EVERYWHRE). But Spotify has Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom and AM doesn’t. So I guess you have to choose between this:
And lastly, and this is the reason I’m sticking w/Spotify, Apple Music is only available for now on your phone or on your desktop via iTunes (but not for me b/c I still have Windows Vista and so my computer won’t d/l the new iTunes update), which is so arrogant & shortsighted on AM’s part that it almost buggers belief. Every other streaming service can stream on desktop, it can stream on Roku, it can stream on non-Apple phones & tablets & e-readers, but Apple’s the only one that can’t? And they expect people to switch?
But y’know, and I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier, YouTube has ALL of this shit for free. And all kinds of non-official stuff as well. And that same group of teenagers I was talking about earlier? Not one of them had heard of Apple Music. And not one of them has a Spotify account. They all use YouTube. Because it has what they want and it’s free. But I think Apple’s ok with that. Because those kids aren’t their target market—they and all the other streamers are chasing after the music junkie, the person who wants to hear everything and hear it as conveniently, and as ad-free, as possible. They want the dedicated music junkie.
But here’s an idea that none of the streaming companies have thought of yet. And I’m going to offer it up right here for free (literally—I don’t get paid to write this shit). Instead of starting up a company that offers EVERYTHING, start a company that only offers some things. Go underground. Find the stuff that isn’t being championed the way it should be. And don’t offer anything else. Instead of chasing the majors, chase the indies. Charge a little bit less if you’re able to. Instead of promising the listener you’ll help them hack through the weeds, tell them you’re only going to give them grapes. There’s a historical precedent for this kind of thing.
Back during the late 70’s a guy named John Foster ran the college radio station at The Evergreen State College (KAOS) in Olympia, Washington, and he decided to institute a policy that was considered extreme, if not downright insane, at the time. 80% of the music KAOS played had to have been released on an independent label. He had a reason. I don’t remember Foster’s exact quote, I read it in a Gina Arnold book many years ago, but it was something along the lines of, Once you eliminate all the things you can listen to, you start to discover all the other stuff that’s out there.
And it turned out a lot of it was really, really good.
Not too much later, the policy was changed to 100%. Not only that, but other college stations across the US started to do the same thing, and as a consequence, they ended up playing a lot of the emerging US underground music of the time and gave those artists enough of a platform that they could travel around the country playing shows, usually to the handful of people involved with the radio station. The network continued to expand—the bands feeding the radio and the radio feeding the bands—until it became an industry in its own right, running parallel to the mainstream until Nirvana came along and the mainstream absorbed the underground into itself.
So there’s an idea. Start a streaming company that eliminates all the stuff you’ve already heard of. God knows there’s enough cool and interesting music out there. And most of it’s already on Apple Music, but you’re not going to find it unless you already know where to look.
Because no matter how many times I listen to The Bastards of Fate,
Apple Music still thinks I want to listen to Animal Collective.
And in the end, the choice between Apple and Spotify and Rdio is the choice between Pepsi, Coke, and RC. The choice was made a long time ago, you just get to pick the color. The illusion of consumerism as a personal statement. If you really love music, you’d be better off buying a drum machine and making your own.
I leave you with some words to ponder from a psychologist named Adam Phillips:
There is a strange, magical idea that you can consume without digesting, that you can eat without swallowing, as though there were no process. Again, a psychoanalytic analogy comes to mind: it’s the difference between a mother who needs to feed her child, and the mother who waits for the child to have an appetite and then feeds it. It’s an absurd cartoon, I agree, but capitalist culture is force-feeding us whether we’re hungry or not. What this means is that we never know when we’re hungry, and we don’t have the space to figure out what it is we want. It’s driving us all mad.
Apple Music isn’t going to help you figure out what you want. Neither is Spotify or anyone else. The best ways to find new music are still the same as they’ve ever been: time, patience, and other people. And none of that shit costs you money.