The basic premise of Beats Music, which officially launched today, is that it’s the same as its many competitors‑‑see Spotify, Rhapsody, Slacker, Rdio, Sony Music Unlimited, Xbox Music, Muve, Google Music and, likely later this year, Deezer and YouTube-- it's a subscription service of a large on-demand catalog of music.
But Beats operates like a cross between your friends' meticulously organized iTunes library, a Songza-like custom playlists, and as CEO Ian Rogers put it in an interview with Billboard.biz, “the endcaps at Amoeba Records with the staff picks”. The concept is compelling, but the interface isn’t simple or intuitive enough for the mainstream consumer the company plans to target. The service launched in the app store early this morning. After playing around with it for most of the day, here are the hits and misses:
No scrolling through a feed of live albums and compilations to get to what you want to find. Artist catalogs are divided by albums, EPs, singles, compilations and tracks. Each vertical is easy to sort by date, popularity or alphabetically. Also, the album dates appear to mostly be accurate (looking at you Spotify). Remastered albums show the original year of release. The artist’s landing page shows the latest release, top songs, what Beats has deemed to be “essential” albums, original playlists and similar artists. Plus, no weird karaoke versions (again, cough, Spotify).
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2. It’s Mobile First
It has a flat UI, an attractive play button, is easily swipeable and scrollable and helps to re-imagine music organization and presentation beyond the spreadsheet format iTunes has made the norm. I can't remember the last time I opened Spotify on my phone or iTunes on my desktop.
3. It’s Original
The human curation element Beats has been touting is actually very impressive. Most artists pages come with Deep Cuts, Influences and Introduction playlists. There are playlists for specific producers and labels, moods, occasions and themes. Playlists are organized by activity, including 40 playlists for romancing and 20 for breaking up (how optimistic). There are over 30 genre pages you can follow and explore that span from Punk to Musica Tropical and are diverse but certainly lacking some subgenres.
Beats has partnered with various sources to create original playlists including Pitchfork, Mojo Magazine, Rolling Stone, Rap Radar, Academy of Country Music, Target, Ellen Degeneres and more. Artist and album descriptions are pulled from Rovi, like most other digital music services, but playlists all have original descriptors.
4. Artist Control
Similar to a partnership Spotify announced just two days ago, Beats is using the TopSpin artist link platform to give artists the ability to upload their own images, edit their profiles and add links to their merch.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
While it is easy to get lost flipping through playlists and genre pages, it is not easy to get back to the home screen. At all. The navigation is confusing and nonintuitive. Playback can be slow and cached tracks and playlists don’t always work offline.
Because there is such a heavy push for curation at the forefront, search has effectively been pushed to the side, hidden in the left rail of the incredibly hard to find home page. Also, for the handful of curated label playlists, you somewhat surprisingly can’t search the catalogue by label, a feature others (Rdio) do well.
3) Missing Out
Social sharing is limited. You can follow other users, but there does not appear to be a feed to see what they are listening to, like you can on Spotify. There is no section for new releases. This would be an easy vertical to add between the algorithm based Just For You page and or the Highlights page. The much hyped "Right Now" function, a madlib type feature that allows you to input where you are, what you are feeling and what you are doing to receive a custom playlist in return, is a fun idea but ultimately not as satisfying as the playlisting service Songza.
Perhaps catering to the mobile app explosion, the desktop version of Beats seems a overly-simplified version of the app, thought it is easier to get to search.