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Beats Music is scheduled to launch its subscription service by January 21, but over the weekend, I stumbled across a beta version of the website that already let me sign up and snoop around. I wasn’t officially invited to review the service ahead of its launch, and thus didn’t have access to the Beats Music mobile apps, but the website itself nonetheless gave me a good idea of the way Beats is trying to do things differently from Spotify & Co., and some of the challenges it may be facing when it launches.
It’s a mobile-first service
Beats executives have said in the last few days that Beats Music is the first “mobile first” music subscription service; I didn’t realize how serious they were about this until I actually signed up. Beats offers new users a seven-day free trial, but you’ll only be able to actually start that trial after you download one of the service’s mobile apps.
My understanding is that Beats does this because a number of features are exclusive to the mobile app. For example, the on-boarding process, during which you tell the service which music you are interested in, only seems to be available through the app. The Right Now feature, which compiles music on the fly based on a sentence like “I’m at a party and feel like dancing with myself to crazy beats” also didn’t exist on the version of the site that I have seen, presumably because “I’m at the office and feel like going home early” doesn’s make for very exciting playlists.
Those are some really big pictures
Beats Music uses big images, and lots of them. Artist profiles, which in other services mostly consist of bios and long lists of albums, instead use huge header images. That actually looks pretty neat, at least when the responsive design doesn’t magically make everything except the artist’s scalp disappear.
Another interesting thing about Beats is that every subscriber gets pretty much the same page as an artist, including the option to upload a header image and an avatar. That makes the site look a bit more like a social network than a music service, which can be a good thing, considering that other services still look a bit like a collection of spreadsheets.
Other than those big pictures, there is little surprising about the artist profiles on Beats. The bios are coming from Rovi, the music is more or less the same as on any other service, and there is surprisingly no trace of the Topspin integration that was supposed to bring ticket and merchandise sales to Beats.
Playlists from Target, Ellen and the Rolling Stone
Beats is banking on expert-driven curation to differentiate itself from other music services, and a big part of that effort are its playlists. Beats’ staff has been spending months compiling playlists around artists, situations, genres and even time periods, and there are thousands of them on the service to discover.
Some of these playlists are more like a recurring magazine feature. “Under the influence,” for example, collects songs of bands influenced by another band. Others are incredibly specific to certain situations, while at the same time implying that there is some universal understanding about the type of music one should listen to when in those situations.
Apparently, we all love to listen to Brian Eno when getting a massage, embrace downtempo beats and fluffy jazz for studying and slice those onions with a few less tears when we listen to indie rock while cooking. Some of these playlists are comically specific, while others actually sound like fun to explore.
In addition to the Beats-curated playlists, there are a number of playlists from official partners. Ellen DeGeneres, who will reportedly promote Beats Music on her show, has a 92-song list of “good music.” Target, (S TGT) which is also a Beats launch partner, offers up playlists with dreadful titles like “Exfoliating: Songs to scrub out to.” And a number of radio stations and music magazines, including the Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and DownBeat Magazine, also offer up playlists on Beats Music.
“Few things are as easy and as therapeutic as a good scrub, both for the body and the mind. Target has got you covered, both in the extensive products we carry and this mix to soak up while you…soak.”
From the description of a Target playlist.
However, I had a surprisingly hard time finding playlists curated by musicians. None of the profiles for popular artists I visited actually offered playlists compiled by those artists. After a long time of scouring, I finally found Q-Tip’s user profile, which offered up two playlists. Also notable: Trent Reznor, who is Beats Music’s Chief Creative Officer, has a user profile, which proudly proclaims “I helped make this thing,” but doesn’t feature a single playlist. And Dr. Dre, who is more or less synonymous with the Beats brand, doesn’t even have a user profile under his nom de guerre.
Like a daily music magazine
Another part of the service’s curation efforts is its Just For You / Highlights section. It’s where Beats surfaces a personalized selection of albums and playlists, and where it also tries to present something that’s a bit like a daily music magazine.
On the day after the Golden Globes, it highlighted albums mentioned during the awards ceremony. On a Sunday, it served up a Sunday afternoon playlist. The key here is the selection, which is actually pretty smart; at least if the personal recommendations actually end up being relevant.
No radio, no stations, no charts
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Beats Music website is that the service doesn’t seem to offer any kind of Pandora-like (S P) radio stream. As Pandora has taken off and grown to 76 million monthly listeners, it has had a big impact on other music subscription services.
Most services now try to offer their subscribers a similar lean-back experience, allowing them to listen for hours to a variety of personalized streams with little to no interaction. Rdio for example launched its radio stations back in August, and has since started to embrace these streams for new user acquisition as well.
Beats seems to offer some kind of personalized listening experience on its mobile apps, but I didn’t find anything like that on its website. Also amiss was any way to browse genres, or any type of charts. Beats wants you to experience its service through playlists, and it offers few other ways — save for search — to do so. It’s an interesting choice, but I’m not sure if it really works all that well.
My parting thoughts: Interesting, but incomplete
To be clear, I don’t even want to pretend that this is a full review of Beats Music. I snuck in through the back door while the team was still putting on the last coat of paint, and what will launch in about a week might look, feel and function differently from what I have seen. At the same time, I’m pretty confident that even this preview gave me some good ideas on how Beats is approaching key parts of its service, and I’m not sure that it would actually work for me as a user.
Then again, I might not be the listener that Beats is after. I don’t need to be convinced that a music subscription service is a good idea, I’ve been using one service or another for years. I subscribed to Rhapsody soon after it launched back in 2002, and tested a number of other services including Pressplay, MusicNet, Yahoo Music and most recently Google Play Music All Access.
I paid for Spotify for a while, and have been subscribed to Rdio for a little over a year now. I get the benefits of having access to 20 million songs, and I’ve experience that overwhelmed feeling when you just don’t know what to search for. I just don’t think a Target playlist is going to solve that problem for me. Personalized, Pandora-like radio streams on the other hands keep me listening for hours.
I’m also skeptical of a mobile-first approach that seems to neglect the desktop experience, but I do like some of the design choices Beats has made, which is why I’m looking forward to give it a spin when it launches in earnest in a week.