By Interim Executive Director Casey Rae
I’d love to tell you that I’ve explored every single feature on the newly-launched Beats Music streaming service, but I’ve pretty much been stuck on the Mojo Magazine-curated “New Psych Revolution” and “BritFolk Treasures” playlists.
I mean, the fact that these playlists exist—and are AWESOME—already proves one of Beats honcho Jimmy Iovine’s points about curation. Like a lot of lifelong music obsessives, I am hard to please and allergic to algorithms. I’m also easily bored, which means commercial AM/FM playlists give me hives. Most of the time I am perfectly cool with choosing my own jams, but sometimes I want to be exposed to something great that I hadn’t necessarily been thinking of. Sadly, today’s DJs are highly circumscribed and the ‘bots just don’t get the job done.
So there’s a lot of room to even marginally impress me.
Beats has been hyped as a feature-rich streaming music service, with several ways to discover and explore. If you know what song or album you want to hear, you can just do that—in this way, Beats is similar to existing on-demand services like Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody. But Beats also has tons of expert-curated and mood-centric playlists. And once I pull my head out of this psych-rock vortex, I fully intend to challenge the ‘bot.
Attention has also been paid to the fact that Beats is a true subscription service, meaning you have to pay ten bucks a month to access their catalog (which is comparable to Spotify). Rumor is that the lack of a free tier will mean more money paid to rightsholders and artists. But don’t break out the bubbly just yet: for the individual musician, this still means a fraction of a penny per-play.
Perhaps sensing competition, Spotify and Rdio have expanded their free listening options—Spotify now allows ad-supported listening on any device, and Rdio is going free with its desktop version. There’s probably a strong argument for attracting more customers this way, but it could make it more difficult to retain those who are already paying for the ad-free version.
Meanwhile, Spotify is starting to do what FMC has been banging the drum about for years: offering artists access to data and integrating direct commerce. (For a killer overview of what streaming services can do to make their platforms more attractive to artists, check out this article at Music Think Tank by my colleague Kristin Thomson.) Just this week, Spotify announced a plan to let musicians to sell tickets and merchandise on their profile pages. Even better, the service does not take a commission, and links back to the pages where the goods are for sale. Interestingly, this is all made possible through a partnership with Topspin—the company founded by current Beats CEO Ian Rogers. No word yet about any Beats plans to facilitate direct-to-fan sales through its service.
Speaking of Beats, did I mention these playlists are awesome? Deep cuts and “intros to”; “behind-the boards” playlists featuring well-known producers; “family trees” with connections to connections to connections; TONS of metal and prog rock and jazz an old-school funk and R&B… good thing it’s a snow day here in DC. I could be here for a while.
The discovery functions in Beats are broken down into three main categories: Genres, Activities and Curators. Prepare to go down some serious musical rabbit holes.
Genres is a list of main music styles, with a healthy number of sub-genres. Within those, you’ll find range of playlists currently unrivaled by any other digital music service. You want pre-Berlin Bowie or Berlin Bowie? How about deep cuts from Bathory? Fred Frith Collaborations? A “family tree” for krautrock pioneers Can? Intro to Arvo Pärt? You can tell they put real time and effort into assembling these tracks.
Activities are playlists for moods, feels and stuff you might do while listening to music. A partial list includes BBQing, Breaking Up, Cooking, Drinking, Getting it On, Partying AND Pre-Partying, Starting a Riot and so forth. Within these categories, you’ll find all kinds of stuff. For example, Being Blue includes sadsack songs from noted miserablist Eliott Smith, among others. There are also celebrity playlists for most categories; this one features Joey Santiago’s Favorite Sad Songs (perhaps he’s bummed about Kim Deal leaving the Pixies?).
Curators are “branded” lists from well-known media outlets and celebrities. That’s where I was digging on the Mojo collections. Our pals Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis from Sound Opinions have one, as do usual suspects like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. Provided that these playlists are kept fresh, there should be no shortage of discovery options from trusted authorities.
But what about that blasted ‘bot? Well, like non-interactive service Pandora, Beats has a way for you to “train the algorithm”—but instead of “thumbs up” there’s a cute little heart (and an X’ed out heart for stuff you don’t like). It’s too early to tell if this will build a better ‘bot, but I’m willing to feed it some recommendations to find out.
Another thing that we at FMC pay a lot of attention to is how emerging platforms treat the “invisible genres,” styles which are often underrepresented in discussion of digital music services. Classical and jazz artists and fans in particular, have been badly underserved on platforms more or less designed for a pop marketplace. Some of this is an issue of metadata (how the music files are “tagged”), but there’s also a lot of room for improvement in terms of recommendations. Just because I dig Cannonball Adderly does NOT mean that I’m down with Kenny G. Listening to Bartok does not prime me to hear Mozart for Babies. When it comes to the playlists, I can say unequivocally that Beats is light-years beyond the competition. I’ll need to spend more time doing searches to determine whether they’ve made any advances in organization. But it ain’t a high bar.
As a consumer, I’m ready to give Beats Music two thumbs up based on its curation alone. It would be great to see them incorporate direct commerce so musicians can have more economic incentives to participate. I’d also love it if artist-focused data and analytics became more commonplace on ALL music services. But from a fan perspective, Beats rocks. If you wanna kick the tires but aren’t ready to commit to the monthly rate, you can try it out free for seven days. Let us know what you think!