Beats Music hands-on: Will design and personal touch make it music streaming king?
The music streaming space is already crowded, with Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, iTunes Radio, Google Play Music, Last.FM and others having already edged out their place on customers' credit card statements and home screens.
Now there's a new player in town, and it is attacking the competition head on through beautiful design and human curation, despite arriving late to the game. The makers of the famous Beats headphones have introduced Beats Music.
The Beats Music project is spearheaded by famous music producer and entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine, with help from the rapper Dr. Dre, naturally. Already available in the US, the service is due to be available in the UK in the near future.
The service is accessible via iOS, Android, and is coming soon to Windows Phone, or via the web, priced at $10 a month. That's the same as Spotify and Rdio cost Stateside, although it hopes to have you hooked with a free seven-day trial. At the time of writing Beats Music has suspended sign-ups for the time being to address bugs.
With so many music streaming services already dominating the market, we looked at Beats Music to see if it really can be a serious player.
At the heart of Beats Music is the human touch. Well-known musicians, music writers, and freelancers have built a long-ranging list of playlists up to 70 minutes long, aimed at every genre, mood and activity. When you first fire up the Beats Music app, you're not asked to build a library of your favourite songs like other services. Instead, Beats Music wants to know your broader tastes so it can serve up what it thinks you will like.
You're initially asked to tap on the genres you enjoy, with choices ranging from just about everything from Jazz, Country, Electronic, Dance, Metal, Folk, Latino, and more. You should tap twice on the genres you love, and then press and hold on the ones you hate. That will tell Beats Music to stay away from them.
Then, Beats Music tries to boil down artists that will strike your fancy from the genres you selected. We're a young, cutting-edge bunch here at Pocket-lint, so our suggestions were filled with the likes of Rick Ross, A$AP Rocky, Dolly Parton for our occasional old-time mood, and Rick Ross and his endless grunting.
That's it for the set-up process. You're then guided to listening to music. Beats Music isn't about just going and searching for your favourite song as you might on Spotify or Rdio. Instead, it wants to play you your favourite song before you've even heard it.
Beats Music builds a "Just for You" section based on the genres and artists you chose in the set-up process. We were guided to an "Intro to Maybach Music" playlist created by the Beats HipHop group. You can play the songs in the playlist in the order you want; it's not like Pandora where you have to wait to skip song to song.
You can then share the playlist, love it, hate it, subscribe, or add it to playlists you've already created. Several other playlists are continuously updated on the "Just for You" page as it gets to know your tastes and as curators build playlists around new music.
One of the cooler features of Beats Music is "The Sentence". It aims to play music based on your mood. For instance, here's a sentence suggested by Beats Music: "I'm running at the gym and want to release my inner child while getting pumped to hair metal." You can then fill in the gaps with pre-listed statements - changing "gym" to "work" or "hair metal" to "rap". There are up-to one million different combinations, according to Beats.
The "Highlights" section lists albums and playlists the Beats Music staff thinks are notable and wants you to hear. Lastly, the "Find It" section lets you sort music playlists by genres, activities, and curators.
Even with a heavy focus on playlists, there's still the traditional seek a song out and add it to your library functionality. However, you can tell this isn't really the focus of the app, as it's tucked away behind the slide-out interface. Beats Music wants to tell you what you want to listen to, instead of vice versa.
Catalogue and design
You would think a new music service would have trouble carrying all the music you enjoy, but that's simply not the case. The catalogue of Beats Music reaches 20 million tracks. To compare, Spotify and Rdio both claim they have "over" 20 million licensed globally. Sadly, unlike Spotify and Play Music, you're not able to upload your own music, so you better be fine with the Beats Music catalogue. Luckily, we didn't find too many holes.
The real stand out of Beats Music is its design on the iOS and Android mobile apps. It uses pleasant grey, white, red and purple colours throughout the interface. There's a lot of intuitive swiping between playlists, but some category and playlist positioning through the app is confusing. The "Now Playing" page has a refreshing feeling, and the webpage feels a lot like Xbox Music's webpage. It works pretty well.
The only real issue with the design is confusion for a new user. People are so used to going out and picking the music they want to hear. Beats Music should do a better job of communicating what it sets out to be - right from within the app. A new user might just want to go search for a song, and it could be confusing where to do this from, instead of picking a playlist that might have the song within.
Is it for you?
Beats Music isn't trying to be Spotify or Rdio, but somehow it needs to prove to users its human-touch ploy is better. It's definitely not going to be a service aimed at everyone. We like searching for our music as we want to hear it, and we want to hear our own tracks. Beats Music doesn't focus on that.
But for a user who wants to discover new music based on their lifestyle, Beats Music has figured that out. If it can iron out a few kinks in the way it presents itself to users, Dr. Dre and Co. might have a success on their hands. They're already selling a ton of headphones, so they have a built-in loyal group of customers that will potentially be interested.
Beats Music has the design, backing, catalogue and resources to get the job done. But, right now, it needs to figure out how to appeal to the masses.