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A first look at the Beats Music website, with plenty of leaked screenshots

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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.

beats music app downloads
No mobile no play: Beats requires you to download its mobile apps before you can start your free trial.

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.

beats katy perry
An artist profile page on Beats Music.

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.

A user profile on Beats Music.
A user profile on Beats Music.

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.

beats under the influence playlist
Under the influence playlists contain music of bands influenced by another band.

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.

beats bbq mixes
Do you like your steak country-style or indie?

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.

beats music highlights
The day after the Golden Globes, Beats is all about the Golden Globes.

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 music search
Beats doesn’t have charts or genre categories.

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.

beats album view
An album page on Beats Music.

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.

9 Responses to “A first look at the Beats Music website, with plenty of leaked screenshots”

  1. Well, according to their site, MOG will be phased out as of April 15th, 2014. And you need to download a mobile app to use the service at all, so anyone like me who has no mobile device is pretty much screwed. If Dum-Dum-Dre had been able to set aside his ego for five minutes, he might have realized how many people like me use MOG, like MOG just as it is, and have no way to use his new service. Back to Rhapsody for me, I guess, with its crappy 192k audio.

  2. I’m very surprised you could write so much without addressing the question of stream quality. The ‘high fidelity’ streams on MOG made it the only real streaming choice in the US for people who care about how the music sounds.

    What MOG subscribers want to know is whether that 320 kbps stream quality has stayed the course.

    This listener could hardly care less about ‘curation.’ I know what I like. I just want to hear it properly, not like its underwater.

    • I’m with you on MOG, as far as quality and selection are concerned.
      MOG was in a position, three or four years ago, to become the leader in the streaming music field, but they dropped the ball, preferring, it serms, to concentrate getting their service into the cars of the rich, who constitute a minority of listeners, when they should have been building a solid business.
      When did Dr. Dre become the sin qua non judge of audio quality? After a listen to a pair of Beats headphones, he should change his name to ‘Tinear’ Dre.
      If there were any justice, Trent Reznor’s music career would have ended with the last fading notes of ‘Pretty Hate Machine.’

      • Do we know this to be true?

        I’ve tried to pry info out of the MOG staff but they’ve been totally lips-sealed.

        I just worry that it will be like the whole MusicMatch-to-Yahoo-Music trainwreck — which one of these execs was part of when he was at Yahoo!

        If you were around for that, clueless then-giant bought MusicMatch to get OnDemand, their streaming service, apparently used some of the tech from that — coming up with an even worse search engine, surprisingly, perhaps, or perhaps not, considering. They kept MM OnDemand around for a while but eventually folded it into Yahoo Music Unlimited, which was sorta-OK.

        But, being Yahoo and all, THAT folded and then Yahoo transferred our accounts to Rhapsody, who had a lot of things going (like ‘classical’ music, which MMOD and Yahoo had apparently never heard of) but also had relatively low fidelity.

        I’d been reasonably happy on Rhap until the day Spotify US premiered. I tried out Spotify and was SORELY underwhelmed but an online recording world friend said, hey, don’t you know about MOG — it’s all 320 kbps. I signed up that day and canceled Rhapsody only a few days later.

    • I didn’t see anything like that, but again, also didn’t have access to the apps. I think music services are a bit behind video services not only with regards to parental controls, but multi-user management. This is an area where Beats could innovate given their family plan — but my current understanding is that this will just get you five separate accounts, and not one account with five profiles.

    • Brad the. Dad

      The only streaming music service (that I know of) that has parental controls is Rhapsody/Napster. But yes, as a parent I would have thought this would be a core feature of music, since there is so much explicit content out there.