For years and years, people have predicted that subscription streaming music services would eventually overtake paid download services in the hearts of average consumers. The theory was that people would rather pay monthly for access to all the music they could want, than pay song by song or album by album to own particular music.
Well, last year, paid music downloads dropped for the first time ever, while streaming was up. Even Apple, whose iTunes has been synonymous with music downloads, launched a streaming service, the ad-based iRadio.
But paying for streaming music subscriptions hasn’t gone mainstream yet, at least in the U.S. For instance, many people who yearn to hear a song or an artist just go to YouTube and listen for free. Others use the free version of Pandora, which is a radio service. But YouTube isn’t set up for continuous, automatic playing of related music, and Pandora has ads and limits on how often your favorite artist can be heard, and how often you can skip songs.
Also, at least for me, the playlists and stations I get from existing streaming services too often match artists that don’t seem right to me, based on the artist around whom the stream of music is supposedly centered.
Starting today, however, a new paid streaming service is launching, one that aims to create much more satisfying playlists by shunning mostly computer-based artist and genre matching. and relying heavily on human curation, aided by computer algorithms.
This new service is called Beats Music, and it’s the brainchild of legendary music producer Jimmy Iovine and others. Beats Music is a spinoff of Beats Electronics, the popular headphone company.
Beats Music was primarily designed for smartphones — Apple’s iPhone, Android phones, and Windows Phones. A more limited version is available on the Web, and the company is working on a special iPad version. It costs $10 a month.
I’ve been testing Beats Music for about a week on an iPhone, and I really like it. I found that its human curation — from Beats’ own editors and a wide variety of outside curators, like music magazines such as Mojo, DownBeat, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone — offered much more satisfying playlists than other services I’ve tried. While other services have playlists from some outside curators, Beats makes them easier to find, and seems to me to make better use of them than its main competitors.
That includes the well-known Spotify service, which recently made its free version less restrictive and better on mobile devices.
Since music is a subjective thing, your experience may differ from mine. And there’s a catch: Beats Music is a paid service. You can only get it free for a brief trial period — seven days for most people, or 30 or 90 days if you’re an AT&T user, depending on your AT&T plan. Other services have more extensive free versions, albeit with ads and/or restrictions.
Still, I recommend trying Beats Music, not only for the curation, but because its user interface is clean, clear and rewarding.
The service has four main modules. One, called Just For You, presents curated playlists and albums based on genre preferences you choose when you first use the app. These are presented as colorful circles, ranging from Hip-Hop, Rock and Country to Christian, Pop, Indie, R&B and many more.
A second, called Highlights, includes selections the Beats Music staff wants to present to all users.
A third, called Find It, lets you browse among Genres, Activities, and Curators.
The fourth — my favorite — is called The Sentence. It lets you combine a location, a mood, the people you’re with and a music genre. Then it generates an appropriate playlist. For instance: “I’m in the car, and feel like chilling out with my roommate to ’90s pop-rock.” Or, “I’m at the beach, and feel like celebrating with my friends to classic country.” There are seemingly endless possible combinations.
For The Sentence, the company explains that the that the content, and the filters, are selected and tuned by humans, and an algorithm generates the playlist from your choices.
The company says that, for an unspecified period, it will make The Sentence free on iPhones, even if you choose not to subscribe to the whole service. This is designed to give people a taste of Beats, and encourage them to subscribe. But there’s a catch. Unlike in the paid version, this free version of The Sentence limits you to just five skips of songs, making this free offering more like a Pandora-like Web radio service.
Beats Music also has a traditional search feature, and allows you to download songs, playlists and albums for offline listening.
Most of the content and suggestions Beats Music presents will be different for every user. But here are some examples based on my preferences.
Right now, in “Just For You,” Beats is suggesting Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs, albums by Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, and a Beats-curated playlist called “Van Morrison: The Early Years.”
In Highlights, meant for all users, it’s suggesting a football-game-day “warmup mix,” with songs from Kanye West and Eminem, among others. Also included is the new album from Bruce Springsteen, and a playlist called “Best of Atlanta Hip-Hop.”
In Find It, activities include BBQing, Breaking Up, and Getting Ready to Go Out. Genres range from Jazz to R&B to Oldies to Stage and Screen.
When the legendary Phil Everly died recently, Beats suggested Everly Brothers albums.
You can make your own playlists, listen to just one artist, and share your favorites within Beats or on Facebook or Twitter. Beats Music also works on Sonos speakers, like a lot of its competitors.
Beats has some commercial partnerships. AT&T customers can get a multi-user plan for $15 a month for up to five people across 10 devices. Target, another partner, is listed as a curator (its playlists include “Target Music Partnerships”), and so is talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres. (She or her team recommend songs by Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, and Beyonce, among others.)
My only real beef with the Beats Music app is that it can be confusing at first to get back to the Home screen, or to find Search or your own playlists. You have to either tap on a little menu icon, or slide the screen you’re on to the left.
But Beats Music is different. It’s definitely worth a try — and maybe, for you, the $10 a month.