Do we need another streaming music service? There's Pandora for people who always want to listen to something new, Spotify for people who want access to a large number of music as soon as it comes out, and All Access for Android users who want to combine streaming new music with the albums they've already backed up to Google Music. Then there's Rhapsody and Rdio for, I guess, the same people who like Spotify. Or is it Pandora users they're going after?
With so many options, it's easy to scoff at the thought of yet another contender throwing their hat in the ring. But Beats Music isn't a surprise entry. If anything, it's the successor to the MOG service that Beats acquired back in 2012, which is scheduled to shut its doors in just a matter of months. MOG started off as a music-centric social network, and elements of that have made it into Beats Music. You need a username to use the service, and you don't just add songs from your favorite artists, you "follow" them.
But when it's all said and done, Beats Music is another music streaming option in a sea of established brands. It definitely looks and feels different from those that have come before, but at the end of the day, it's all about the music. And in that area, the service currently leaves a bit to be desired. Don't be fooled by its pretty looks.
What Does Beats Music Get Right?
The Beats Music interface is spot on. Right from the beginning, it holds your hand through creating an account (though it did crash when I tried to sign-in using Twitter). After creating a username and selecting a photo, the app sprays you with bubbles filled with genres and artists, letting you enlarge the ones you like and pop the ones you don't. If you get distracted in the process, swiping bubbles around longer than you need to, don't worry, you're in a safe place here. To be honest, I enjoyed this part of the app more than anything that followed.
Overall, the interface is consistently solid. The home screen tries to nudge you towards new music, and the sidebar on the left lets you access your playlists and your saved library of albums. Finding music is easy, navigating artists doesn't waste a bunch of screen real estate (unlike Google Music and its cards interface), and the app ultimately looks stylish in the process. Between discovering new music, building up a library, and downloading favorite albums for offline use, there's plenty to do here (though there isn't a widget, if you're big on those).
As for the social network stuff, it's currently very limited. There's a sidebar on the right side of the screen that requires you to follow a number of artists before it becomes useful for anything. It could be nice, but I forgot it was there more often than not.
There aren't many settings to deal with, but Beats Music does provide a useful page that allows you to handle when the app should download music, what quality the tracks should be in, and how much space is being taken up. There's even a big red button labeled "Delete All Stored Music" that, for a streaming app, is the equivalent of firing ze missiles.
What Does It Get Wrong?
One of Beats Music's unique features is the ability to launch a streaming playlist by choosing preferences in "The Sentence." The app lets you pick variables based on where you are, what you're feeling, who you're with, and what genre you're interested in. The format is intuitive, and the options are hilarious. It's just a shame that the end result isn't exactly what we in the biz would call a hit. As someone who established a big preference for hip-hop and R&B during the setup process (not to mention popping pop), I wouldn't think the app would ever think I'm in the mood for Avril Lavigne. There are plenty more artists from the 2000s that I could wake up at my computer with while surrounded by zombies, and for the record, none of the songs below exactly fit the bill.
Before moving on, I really want to emphasize just how sad The Sentence made me. This part of Beats Music is innovative and attractive, but the end result was consistently disappointing. It's as though the app is saying, "Oh, you want to listen to that? How cute. Here's what I want to play." I wouldn't consider "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado and Timbaland something I ever want to listen to with family members (younger, older - it's awkward either way), and the lyrics of "Deep Inside" by Mary J. Blige hardly gives me with the impression that I'm winning. Oh, the song also came out in 1999, but I'll give that a pass. It only missed the 2000s by a couple of months.
The app was also consistently buggy, failing to refresh whenever I tried to change any of the variables in my original sentence. So, most unfortunately, discovering weird combinations was the most enjoyment I found in the entire feature.
The Sentence isn't the only way Beats Music goes about recommending music. There's a "Just For You" tab that nudges you towards artists it thinks you would enjoy. There's also a "Highlights" tab that points out music trends that Beats "experts" considers worth checking out. I didn't find either page all that compelling. Both tended to highlight pop artists. You know, the ones I don't need any help discovering.
That really sums up much of the Beats Music experience. It's great for pop, but even with access to over 20 million songs, it can be difficult to come across tracks that are decidedly less mainstream. I thought I was doing the app a favor by indicating a preference for Rap & Hip-Hop, as opposed to genres like Heavy Metal or Screamo, where even the major bands often evade the public radar. But the app only gave me very mainstream, very poppy music. I never felt that Google Music All Access did a particularly great job of knowing what I'm into, but it did a much better job than Beats Music. If I only wanted to listen to megahits, I'd turn on the radio.
I wish my complaints ended there, but no. At the end of the day, this app was a buggy hot mess. Opening the app without a data connection established consistently left me stranded in offline mode, with no way to disable it once online. No matter how often I tapped on the toggle that appeared in the sidebar, nothing happened, so I ultimately had to restart my device every time this happened (and sometimes even that didn't work). Some other AP writers also suffered from serious battery drain issues, though, fortunately, I at least managed to avoid that buggy aspect.
These are still early days for the service, so while the instability is annoying, it's likely to go away with time. Though, if I'm being frank, I can't say the technical difficulties were all bad. At least they distracted me from the annoying songs the app insisted on pumping through my Bluetooth speakers.
Should You Use It?
There are a few reasons to consider using Beats Music over the competition, such as free streaming and family plans starting at just $14.99, that I couldn't test out since I'm not an AT&T customer. If you are, then these may just be the most compelling reasons to give Beats Music a go. Otherwise, at $9.99 a month, don't bother. It's a looker, but you really shouldn't make any commitments just yet. It has some issues it needs to work through first.