Google Play Music. Spotify. Rdio. Tidal. There is no shortage of music streaming services that not only provide an extensive music selection, but also have good if not great Android applications so you can benefit from their catalogue everywhere you go.
The problem with most of these services is their availability. If you live in the USA, you can have your pick among any of them and there's little argument over the value of a $10 combined Google Play Music Unlimited and YouTube Red / Youtube Music subscription. But stray farther and things become less clear. American (Northern, Central, and Southern), European, and Southeast Asian countries are usually among the first supported by many services, but African, Middle Eastern, and plenty of other Asian nations often have limited options and even fewer good ones.
Take India and Indonesia for example, the second and fourth most populated nations in the world. Prior to Apple Music's launch, available streaming services (with more than a few Million songs) in these two countries were Guvera, MixRadio, Rdio, and the Indian music focused Saavn. No Spotify, no Google Play Music, no Tidal, no Rara, no Rhapsody, no Groove Music. Indonesia has Deezer too, but India doesn't. That's about 1.5 Billion users lost to any of these. China, the world's largest nation with its 1.4 Billion inhabitants, only had MixRadio and local Chinese services. Nigeria and its 182 Million citizens (about half the population of the US) just had Deezer. As a matter of fact, people all over the world have been using SoundCloud to circumvent this lack of access to large catalogues of music, but even SoundCloud has a relatively small collection of mainstream original tracks.
Even without the country limitation, most of these services were still missing something. MixRadio is more of a radio than an on-demand service, Deezer's upload option doesn't seem to have a match algorithm for songs that already exist on the service forcing you to upload everything (correct me if I'm wrong), Google Play Music doesn't have a native desktop client, and the list goes on.
The recently launched Apple Music isn't the perfect answer to all of these issues. It doesn't have a free tier if you just want to listen to your own tracks everywhere like Play Music, it is available in 111 countries compared to Deezer's 180+, it doesn't measure to Spotify's shared playlists and smart recommendations, and it requires iTunes... which you either love or hate. And then there's the "Apple" name attached to it. That alone, judging by the Play Store reviews, grants it lots of hate and Booooooos. But I don't care and neither should you. If Apple is willing to step up and fill the void in markets where Google is marching to the beat of its own drum or too tied by labels and licensing, then I welcome the competition with open arms and a pat on the back.
If Apple is willing to step up and fill the void in markets where Google is marching to the beat of its own drum or too tied by labels and licensing, then I welcome the competition with open arms and a pat on the back.
So Apple Music isn't excellent, far from that, but for a few billion people from China to India to Nigeria to lil' Lebanon where I live, Apple Music is one of just a couple of services that we can use, and for many of us, it's the best option when all pros and cons are diligently weighed against its competitors.
And if, like me, you happen to live on the bleeding edge between Apple and Google's ecosystems, owning Macs and/or iOS devices along with your Android phones and tablets, and you have used iTunes over many years to carefully organize your music collection, Apple Music might make more sense to you, regardless of where you live and whether or not you have access to Google Play Music and other streaming options.
That's what you have to keep in mind while reading this review. I'm aware other options exist. I'm aware iTunes and Apple are far from universally liked. I'm aware that you couldn't care less about Apple Music. But that doesn't stop the app and service from being good, and even great.
From iTunes to your phone
When you start using Apple Music, you either go from scratch with a clean slate or you import your own music into the service. To do that, you have to be an iTunes user, there's no circumventing this step. This review isn't about iTunes so I'll just skip through the horrors and joys of the application. I personally like it. It's been my only music player since 2008 so I'm used to it and I don't find any glaring issues with it. Your mileage may vary.
Using iTunes 12.2 and above on your Mac or Windows computer, you can enable Apple Music and iCloud Music Library, which will start uploading your entire library. Apple matches songs to its existing catalogue, so you won't have to upload every single song on your computer, but most will just be mirrored with their equivalent on Apple's servers.
You get a 100,000 song limit on uploads, and purchased iTunes music doesn't count toward your quota. That is an extremely generous limit. My personal library stands at over 12,000 songs (which, for the sake of this review, we'll say was all obtained legally), and there are tracks among them that I've never listened to and will probably never have the time to listen to. If you manage to break the 100,000 song barrier, you're a worse hoarder than me.
The problem is that iCloud uploading isn't the most transparent and intuitive experience. When I turned it on, I got a spinning circle for Apple Music for hours and hours. I have a slow internet connection so I just shrugged it off. Then I got an error at one point. I repeated that for several days to the same tune. I checked Apple Music on my iPad and found none of my tracks there. After a couple of weeks of that, I gave up and turned iCloud uploading off because it didn't seem like it was working. My 3 months of free Apple Music subscription ended and I didn't renew my subscription until the Android app's release a few days ago. When I signed in and subscribed again, there were my tracks. Almost all of my 12,000 songs were in My Music and I honestly don't understand how that happened.
I could've sworn iCloud uploads never worked and the songs never showed up on my iPad for weeks, but then Android solved the issue?! Uhm, OK, sure. I reactivated iCloud Music Library on iTunes and found that a few hundred tracks weren't uploaded either because "an error occurred," which is oh so helpful, or because they are "not eligible," which is even more helpful.
All of this is to say that iCloud uploads from iTunes might be a little rough on the edge and unpredictable. And I'm not alone. The experience of DRM-free uploads and DRM'ed downloads, and the bugs of duplicating libraries and disappearing tracks have left a sour taste in many Apple Music users' mouths.
Google Play Music was a bit more transparent with its upload process, but I did face a lot of similar issues with tracks failing to upload. I was willing to forgive Google's shortcomings and I'll extend the same courtesy to Apple. I can easily imagine that some of the choices I make when diligently ID3 tagging my music aren't exactly compatible with Apple or Google's libraries, and that may be behind some of the issues. But the lack of transparency in the upload process? I think Apple needs to work on that.
When Android meets iOS in an app
I just can't wrap my head around the idea that there is at least one developer working for Apple and writing apps for Android, let alone that he has an Android phone and is testing the app on it. Based on that prejudice and my experience with iTunes uploading, I was prepared to hate Apple Music's Android app. But the experience was surprising if not disconcerting.
The roots of Apple Music's Android app lie clearly in the Beats Music application that Apple bought in May of 2014. The most obvious example is the genre and artist preference selection screen which presents bubbles and gestures that will ring a bell for any Beats user.
The rest of the app has changed the predominant black color in favor of a white one with pink hues and gotten a fresh coat of paint all over. The general feel is modern, fresh, and different, without being too Apple-y or too Google-y. There are distinct influences from both ecosystems like the side-sliding drawer and the toggles in the settings (Android) and the wireframe icons (iOS), but the app remains unique in the way it handles some interactions. The most peculiar design choice is that pop-up menus literally pop up from the bottom of the screen, whereas they just show up next to their trigger on iOS.
I think that green toggle looks odd. Somebody forgot to change a hex code.
Overall, it's clear that Apple wanted to keep a marked resemblance between Apple Music on Android and its iOS counterpart, without tooting its own horn. One example is the overflow menu of three dots that appears next to each song, artist, album, playlist... On iOS, these dots are aligned horizontally, whereas on Android they take the vertical alignment that we're all accustomed to.
The result is an app that won't look like an eyesore even on a Nexus, but that noticeably doesn't follow Material Design either. Its clear layout and bright colors are joyful, its blurred backgrounds and simple animations are tasteful, and its use of hero colors makes every album and playlist unique.
If it seems like I'm jazzing this app up, it's because I personally like the balance Apple has struck.
If it seems like I'm jazzing this app up, it's because I personally like the balance Apple has struck. The app has been stable and reliable since I installed it on day one, and I haven't felt like I've been roped into using an iOS app against my will.
Discovering new tunes
Apple Music is first and foremost geared toward music discovery. Yes, you can access your own playlists and collection, but those are the fifth and sixth options on a 6-item menu. Apple wants you to see the value of sticking with its service and that consists in serving you music that you wouldn't have otherwise heard if you simply copied your mp3s to your phone.
Apple Music's home is the list of playlists and albums that it thinks you'll like. There is a collection of playlists based on your tastes, albums from artists you like that you either have or don't in your collection, some new releases, and Intro playlists that are some of the best collections of tracks from artists you might be interested in.
I often found that the recommendations in that list struck a chord with me. They were either spot on or close enough to something I would enjoy. My taste in music hovers in the modern and commercial zone, and I mostly enjoy English and French Alternative, Pop, Rock, and Country genres. I am not very eclectic in my choices and there are rarely any indie bands on my radar. I realize I am missing out on some great music that I'd most probably love, but I really don't have the time, energy, or internet speed and bandwidth to go sift through thousands of tracks to find the ones that I'd enjoy. So I stick with what is fed to me through radio stations or releases from artists I already know. That's what will transpire from most of my Apple Music screenshots. I haven't been using the service long enough to see if it will broaden my horizons, but so far it seems to be good at gauging my likes and strictly adjacent ones. I hope it'll get better at walking unfamiliar paths later on.
I often found that the recommendations in that list struck a chord with me.
The second section is where you should go if you're craving novelty. The page is a list of hot new regional songs (in my case, Apple Music knows I have a Lebanese account so it serves me Arabic songs), different playlist types, international releases, song charts, more new releases, favorite playlists, new artists, spotlights, essentials, and new regional albums. It's an eclectic mix of albums, tracks, and artists that is focused on serving you hot new tunes, but it can also be reigned in by selecting a specific genre beforehand.
My favorite feature in this section are the three types of playlists offered. Activity Playlists serve a selection of tunes that are perfect for different times of day and different moods. There's something for running and for chilling out, for break-ups and for dancing, for romances and studies, and more. I'm always looking for new workout music and these playlists let me get into the groove without having to thoroughly research and vet each track. Sure, there are duds and things I don't enjoy here and there, but it's easy to find tracks I wouldn't have otherwise known or that I knew but never thought of as running-friendly.
Apple Editors Playlists are divided by genre and serve top playlists in each genre as well as a full list of playlists if you don't find what you want in the featured section. And finally, Curators Playlist are provided by known magazines and music outlets like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Shazam.
The third way to discover new music is through Apple's online radios. I don't have access to Apple's fine-tuned Beats 1 station through my Lebanese account, so I couldn't tell you whether or not it's any good. I can see a few radios dedicated to chart hits and dance music, but the other stations are genre specific. Oddly, each sub-section only has one radio with a dedicated page that shows no other sub-items and a pop-up menu that has nothing but a share option. This last screen must be the most barren one in the entire app and I think Apple is better off taking it out completely. Stations are already accessible from the main list so there's no need for a separate page for them, let alone a pop-up menu.
I don't have access to Apple's fine-tuned Beats 1 station through my Lebanese account, so I couldn't tell you whether or not it's any good.
Familiar music and artists
Connect is the rebirth of Ping, Apple's social network around music. There, you can follow artists you like, read their updates, and comment on them. There are also recommendations based on your music library to make it easier for you to get started.
Connect artists vary from the super active to the seldom posters. Ellie Goulding for example is all over my Connect timeline, and I now know she gets to hang out with Scarlett Johansson because life is unfair and all that jazz. Posts can be liked, shared, and commented on by the community.
Your iTunes playlists and the playlists you grab from Apple Music's curators land in this section, but you can restrict the display to each of these types or to only show downloaded lists that are available for offline listening.
Apple Music Playlists obviously can't be modified (like Wish You Were Here in the screenshots below), but your playlists can be edited on the go. However, the amount of control you have over them varies by type. Regular playlists (like Upbeat) let you change their name, add a description, and manually add songs to them either when you open them or when you're browsing through tunes in the other sections of the app. But if you carry over Smart Playlists from iTunes (like By The Script), these will only let you edit their title and description. You won't be able to modify the criteria of selection on your phone.
Your music collection is organized in a somewhat similar manner to your playlists. Recently added albums are on the top, followed by an alphabetical list of artists that you can switch to albums or songs, and restrict to downloaded music only. If your collection, like mine, is too large to simply swipe through, you can fast scroll by dragging on the side of the screen.
Since I enjoy the familiarity of known artists, this option to quickly find their other releases was music to my ears.
Select an artist and you'll immediately see their tracks that are in your collection organized by album as well as a first tab that has an easy access to all of their songs, whether you have them or not. Since I enjoy the familiarity of known artists, this option to quickly find their other releases was music to my ears.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, not all of my iTunes music had carried through to Apple Music, but the thousands of tracks that did are all very easily accessible in this section. I didn't face any oddity or any difficulty in finding one of my songs, but I wish I could feel more trusting that all of my music was accessible, not just the 90-95% that didn't face some unknown error.
Searching, streaming, downloading
Sometimes, you're not waiting for an algorithm to throw a song at you, you're just looking for a specific tune and you won't rest until you hear it. For those times, a search option is the best bet and this app's search will divide results in a clear and handy way: all of Apple Music and your music. Results are also organized by album, artist, and song, for easier filtering.
And whether you want to enjoy Apple's recommendations or your own songs, the music listening experience is pretty much the same. The Now Playing screen has all the usual controls as well as a shortcut to view and edit your queue (including a history of the last 3 played tracks). But there is no way to read a song's lyrics, which I think is a big miss. I'm pretty sure Apple has all the lyrics somewhere on its servers, but it isn't providing access for them inside Apple Music yet.
Both streaming and downloading for offline use are available. That's not a unique feature of Apple Music, but it's nice to see it offered from day one. Since many listeners might enjoy their music while commuting, in areas with poor reception, or might have a limited data connection, making sure some tracks are available anywhere and anytime is essential. Apple Music also has a notification with playback controls on Android, just in case you were wondering about that.
Is Apple Music worth it?
Let's say you're starting from scratch. You don't have a library of music on any app, let alone iTunes, and you want to get into a music streaming service. Would you pick Apple Music?
If you live in the US and you're somewhat invested in Google's ecosystem, whether you're an Android or an iOS user, I couldn't really make an argument against the benefits of grabbing a Google Play Music Unlimited subscription and enjoying the coupled YouTube Red and YouTube Music benefits. The value of all of these services combined far outweighs whatever Apple Music might bring to the table.
But in any other country where YouTube Red and Music aren't part of the package, the story takes a different tone. Apple Music is available in 111+ countries compared to Google Play Music's 60. I know I sound like a broken record, but 51 more countries isn't a difference to scoff at, especially when they include China and India. Even Deezer and its 180+ countries still hasn't broken into these two markets.
I know I sound like a broken record, but 51 more countries isn't a difference to scoff at, especially when they include China and India.
Beside availability, there's the matter of pricing. Apple isn't going by a simple currency conversion rate, it's also factoring in the purchasing power of each country. In Lebanon, a monthly subscription costs $4.99, in India it's Rs. 120 (less than $2), and in China it's 10RMB (about $1.5). Those prices are affordable, even against local competition. Saavn Pro in India costs Rs. 99, Anghami+ in Lebanon is the same $4.99, but both Saavn and Anghami only have a few millions songs compared to Apple Music's 37 or so million tracks.
And that brings the matter of music catalogue. According to this Wikipedia comparison chart (forget Mixradio: it doesn't have on-demand streaming and it isn't global, just in about 30 countries), few services have more than 30 million songs and even less of these have a widespread availability.
The only real competition for Apple Music is Deezer, which has almost the same number of songs (35 million), almost the same price ($9.99 in the US, €9.99 in Europe, and for me $5.99 in Lebanon), and almost the same features with the clear benefit of Chromecast support. Except... Deezer doesn't even figure in the equation in India and China.
And that oddly leaves Apple Music as the last man standing. In terms of number of tracks, availability, pricing, and featureset, it hits all the right notes that few other services are able to attain. Depending on where you live, we could debate the merits of each music streaming service available to you for days, but there's little doubt about it: you can't go completely wrong with Apple Music. It's a safe choice both in terms of song selection and investment durability.
In terms of number of tracks, availability, pricing, and featureset, it hits all the right notes that few other services are able to attain.
If Apple set out to make us all march to the same tune, it might have just succeeded to rope some Android users in.