First Thoughts on Apple Music

Last week I wrote about the headache that I had signing up for the Apple Music trial, but I didn’t actually talk much about the service itself.  This is partly because I was at church camp that week, and I hadn’t had much time to play around with Apple Music.  That’s changed now.  After a little over a week with the service, I think I can safely say that I think Apple Music will be a success; it’s definitely a success in my book.

Apple Music is, at heart, a streaming service.  This means that you have access to the entire catalog of music for one flat subscription rate.  However, Apple Music does something that Spotify didn’t do.  Apple Music jumpstarts your streaming library with the songs you already have on your device, both from ripped CDs and the iTunes Store.  However, after that Apple Music wants you to explore.  This brings me to the Music app’s new layout.  There are five tabs at the bottom, For You, New, Radio, Connect, and My Music.

For You
When you first sign up for Apple Music, it asks you what genres of music you like the most.  After that, it asks you what artists you like (from a list based on the genres you picked).  Apple Music uses this information to start the For You section.  Over time, as you “like” songs (with a heart button), these suggestions become more refined.  I’ve found the For You tab to be pretty cool, especially when it lists an artist I’ve heard on the radio once or twice but don’t really know.  However, I don’t know how much I’ll be using this tab.

New
This tab I’m more excited for.  I mostly listen to Christian music, and I like that you can filter this tab by genre (although I wish it’d remember what genre I’ve picked).  Right off the bat I’m seeing new songs from Hillsong, MercyMe, and for KING & COUNTRY.  This is a sign of good things to come.

Radio
The spotlight of the Radio tab is Apple’s new, worldwide, 24/7 radio station called Beats 1.  This isn’t set up like Pandora, with a computer algorithm picking songs for you.  This is more like a traditional radio station, with DJs and interviews as well as music.  I haven’t really listened to it (like I said, I’m mostly interested in Christian music), but I definitely like the idea of a hosted station.  I used to listen to the radio a lot, and it’s fun getting to know DJs and hearing their stories and news.  The radio tab also has more traditional internet radio stations, based off genres, artists, and the like.  From the little bit I’ve used it, the Christian genre station is really good.

Connect
Connect is an interesting tab.  It’s almost like a social network for artists, a place for them to post songs, lyrics, videos, and other (sometimes exclusive) content.  It’s also a place for them to make announcements about upcoming albums.  This is a cool idea; the problem is that it gets crowded quickly.  On Spotify, I followed all my favorite artists mostly just to get notified of new releases, but then I just got a bunch of stuff about new playlists they’d made.  A little disappointing.

My Music
Up until this point, it seems I’ve been rationalizing why each tab isn’t for me (except for New I guess).  However, My Music where the rubber meets the road for Apple Music.  Apple Music lets me listen to just about whatever I want, whenever I want.  That’s fantastic.  The My Music tab is split into two sections.  The first shows all music by artist, album, etc.  This view is pretty self-explanatory.  The second view focuses on playlists.  Unlike most of the other discovery tools on Apple Music, I am excited about playlists.  All the playlists on Apple Music were created by real people – not computer algorithms.  This seems really cool to me.  There’s nothing worse than listening to a great Pandora station when all of a sudden the mood is killed by an out of place song.  So far my favorite playlists have been the “Intro to *Artist*” playlists.  These are a cool way to get into someone’s music.  I just wish they were available for more artists.

So as you can see, I’m pretty bullish on Apple Music.  It’s not perfect, and the app is actually kind of buggy right now, but that will get better with subsequent updates.  As of now, I’m pretty sure my family’s going to pay for it in a few months (once we get this whole trial mess sorted out), and I can definitely see myself using it.  A lot.  I just need to figure out if Apple Music is included in T-Mobile’s unlimited music streaming deal…  ••

July App Review: Musixmatch

App: Musixmatch
Developer: musiXmatch srl
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS, Android, Windows Phone

I love music.  As you’ve read here before, I’ve recently started to really get into music again, mostly using Spotify (spoiler alert: Apple Music just came out, and you can be sure that’ll be getting plenty of coverage here soon).  However, I don’t just love to listen to music.  I also love to sing along to music.  The enjoyment I get out of a song increases exponentially when I know the words and can join in.  With that in mind, lyrics are important.  Sure, I learn the lyrics to most songs by just listening to them over time, but sometimes I want to know the lyrics now.  Enter the Musixmatch app.


Open the Musixmatch app and you’ll immediately see a list of all the music you have saved to your device.  At the bottom, you can see the current song playing.  Tapping a song starts it playing, and timed lyrics appear on the screen as the song goes along.  It’s a pretty good karaoke experience.  If you’re using Apple Music, the library and now playing only work for the songs you have downloaded to your device, not everything you’ve saved to your iCloud Music Library*.  If you’re a Spotify user, it won’t work at all, which is too bad.

If the song you want to look up isn’t in your catalog, you just search for it.  The search function works well.  Tapping the song brings up lyrics.  Simple enough.  The lyrics screen is really well designed too.  By default, it will show photos of the artist, both portraits and concert photos.  However, there’s also an option to use the song’s album artwork as the background.  I immediately turned this on.  I’ve always loved album artwork, I think it’s cool the way the audio and visual elements become associated in my mind.

Once you’re on the lyrics page (and the app isn’t already playing the song), you can hit the play button on the bottom to play it via YouTube or Spotify.  You can also play the iTunes preview of the track.  This is great, but I really wish there was a button in Spotify to take you right to the lyrics.  I guess it’s nice that I can look up the lyrics and then easily play the song, but most of the time, I do the reverse.  That brings me to the app’s final two features.

The first is a feature called MusicID, which is basically Shazam.  At first, I was a little unimpressed with this feature.  Now that Shazam is built into Siri (“Hey Siri, what song is this?”), I didn’t see why I needed this feature.  However, it was only recently that I realized that I could ID the song I was currently playing on my phone to easily bring up the lyrics.  Why I thought I could only ID music coming from another source I don’t know.  This feature finally gives me what I was looking for.  I’m listening to a song, and I want to see the lyrics: what’s the fastest way to pull them up?  It’s definitely not web searching.  Searching the app was an improvement, but still not ideal.  However, with MusicID, it’s easy to find the lyrics I want fast.

The other fast way to find lyrics is with the Musixmatch Notification Center widget. This only works for music you have on your device or Apple Music (not Spotify), but it’s pretty awesome.  It shows you the current and next line of the lyrics right there in Notification Center, without any extra effort at all.  There’s also buttons for search, MusicID, and the top trending lyrics.

So as you can see, Musixmatch is a pretty simple app, but it’s powerful.  Having lyrics for basically any song right at your fingertips is not only helpful, but exciting. I’m seeing a lot of car sing-alongs in my future.  ••

*Update 7/16/15: Musixmatch is now fully updated for Apple Music!  This means that the My Music screen shows everything in your Apple Music library, not just the songs you have saved for offline playback.  Thanks Musixmatch!

Road Tripping with Spotify Premium

I did it.  I caved.  If you remember my post about Spotify from last December, I had resolved that I didn’t need Spotify Premium, and that I could live with the free plan and save the money.  However, a few weeks ago, Spotify ran a promotion.  If you had never had Premium before (either paid for it or had a trial), you could get three month’s worth for $0.99 (the same deal they were running in December).  I couldn’t resist.  I’m still not sure whether I’ll keep Spotify Premium when my three months run out, but for right now, I’m really loving it.

One of the main reasons I got it was for playing piano.  I play guitar, and I used to play piano back in grade school, and I’ve been trying to get back into that lately.  In order to learn how to play certain songs, I often listen to the recording.  However, I couldn’t play individual songs on my iPhone (only shuffle), so I would have to run upstairs and get my iPad.  This really wasn’t a big deal, but solving it for $0.99 sounded appealing.  It’s also nice that I have more control over what songs I listen to in the car.  Honestly, I didn’t so much mind having to shuffle things (I usually do that anyway); what I hated were the “suggested tracks” that Spotify would throw in.  Usually, they were songs by the same artist I was listening to, so it wasn’t too obtrusive, but it still got annoying.

I could talk about using Spotify at home for a while, but let’s get to the real point of this post.  Last week, my family went on a road trip to Ohio to visit my grandmother.  This meant four days in the car: and no promises about data coverage.  Coverage was actually pretty good, but sometimes it would drop out or get really slow in the more rural areas of Kentucky.  Because of this, I downloaded a bunch of playlists and albums for offline playing in Spotify (a Premium-only feature).  It was great to be able to listen to music without worrying about cell reception.

For this trip, I spruced up my enormous Road Trip playlist.  I made this playlist about a month ago for another trip.  Every time I go on a long car ride I modify it – adding the stuff I’ve been listening to lately.  I have the main playlist, which changes over time, but I also make a shuffled playlist for each trip.  I like listening on shuffle, but when you have a huge playlist, you can’t get through the whole thing at once.  Then when you come back and hit shuffle again, you get songs you heard last time, and you might not ever get to some songs at all.  Because of this, I shuffle the songs manually, then listen to that playlist straight through.  (This is kind of ridiculous, I know.  However, I’m a control freak, and this kind of micromanaging is fun for me).  This playlist was 6.5 hours long – 102 songs.  And I listened to the entire thing.  It was awesome.  I did it over the course of the four days in the car, over 1200 miles to Ohio and back.  It was so much fun.

So as you can see, I really enjoyed listing to this playlist on our trip.  If you’re interested in it too, I’ve made it public on Spotify.  You can see it here, or you can go to my profile and follow me, onceaneagle56.  The playlist has a bunch of different artists – Imagine Dragons, Relient K, Switchfoot, MercyMe, Blind Pilot, and then a few other random songs in there.  What do you like to listen to on long car trips?  Let me know in the comments below, and give me a Spotify link if you’re also a Spotify user.  Enjoy your music!  ••

What is Net Neutrality, Anyway?

“Net neutrality” is a buzzword these days.  To some people, though, it’s nothing more than that.  In our connected world, it’s important to know exactly what net neutrality is.  In my opinion, it’s also important to support it.

So what is net neutrality?  Simply put, net neutrality is the concept that all (legal) data on the internet is treated the same.  This was actually one of the core ideas of the internet when it was first started.  To the internet, data is data, all it does is pass it along.  It makes no different to the internet whether I’m watching YouTube or reading Six Colors, all it does it take data from those sites’ respective web servers and deliver it to my browser.  So basically, net neutrality has existed since the start of the internet.  Why would anyone want to change it?  The answer, as always, is money.

Let’s talk about some examples.  A few years back, Comcast customers were complaining that Netflix didn’t work well for them.  In response to this, Netflix paid Comcast a ton of money for Comcast to store Netflix content on Comcast’s servers.  This meant that Comcast customers ended up with a better Netflix experience.  So what’s the problem?  Netflix wasn’t happy with what they were getting from Comcast, so they paid more money and got better service.  Isn’t that just capitalism?  It is, but the problem is that it gives Comcast opportunities to extort money.  Suppose Comcast purposefully slowed down Amazon Instant Video on their network.  Now Comcast can go to Amazon and say, “Hey… you know… if you paid us some more money… maybe your content wouldn’t look so bad.”  This is technically capitalism, but then, so are monopolies.  Monopolies are illegal because someone who owns a monopoly is able to extort a lot of money from a lot of people.  In this scenario, Comcast can do the same.  People against further net neutrality legislation (like Comcast) say that current laws make it illegal to slow down someone on purpose; you can only pay more to get faster service.  This is true; Comcast can’t slow someone down if they don’t pay up.  All Comcast has to do, though, is not raise their baseline speed, and 10 years from now, it’ll be a joke.  This is why we need rules that outlaw any special treatment at all.

The other problem we have without net neutrality is a stifling of innovation.  For this example, we turn to T-Mobile.  T-Mobile recently launched a new feature where streaming music does not count against customers’ data usage.  (Full disclosure: I love this feature and use it all the time.  I’m a hypocrite, I know.)  T-Mobile included pretty much all major streaming services in this.  However, what if some new service pops up trying to make it big?  If they’re not included in T-Mobile’s deal, I probably won’t switch to them over Spotify.  This could be detrimental to anyone trying to launch a new streaming service.

So what needs to be done?  My understanding is that to really lock down net neutrality for good, Congress will have to reclassify internet service as a utility.  At that point, it will be subject the same regulation that electricity and water are.  When I first heard this idea, I laughed.  Internet service a utility?  A basic human right?  What a first world problem!  But then I started thinking: suppose you’re running a small business.  There’s really no way for you to run your business successfully without the internet, in the same way that there’s no way for you to run it without electricity.  I’m not convinced internet access is a basic human right, but I think utility fits it well for now.

So what’s being done about this?  A year ago, I would have said net neutrality was dead, since the legislation didn’t seem to be going anywhere (not that much legislation at all goes anywhere these days).  However, the FCC is now looking to potentially instate some new regulations that would reclassify the internet as a utility.  There’s also another proposition out there that wants to create some new regulations without actually reclassifying it.  This could potentially be a pivotal time for the history of the internet, and the next few weeks should be very interesting.  ••

Update 2/27/15: Yesterday, the FCC officially decided (in a 3-2 vote) to regulate the internet as a utility.  If you’re interesting in reading more check out this article from CNET.

Spotify Changed My Life

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about podcasts that even though I have hundreds of songs in my iTunes library, I’m really tired of all my music.  I could, of course, buy more music, but for some reason I never get around to that.  I’ve used Pandora before, but haven’t liked it very much.  It’s not that Pandora isn’t good, it just doesn’t suit my listening habits.  In Pandora, you pick a song, artist, or genre, and Pandora builds a “station” around that music.  The word “station” is used because it really is like a radio station, in that it plays a variety of music.  That’s great if you like lots of music, but most of the time, I just want to hear one artist, and playing, say, “Relient K Radio” doesn’t just play Relient K.  I was started to get frustrated with listening to music in general, since it seemed I couldn’t find much that I liked.  Then last month I signed up for Spotify.

Spotify does have a Radio feature, which works similarly to Pandora.  Aside from that, though, Spotify’s model is entirely different.  Spotify works a lot more like your iTunes music library – search for a song, artist, or album, and then listen.  Their catalog’s selection is fantastic (almost unbelievable, actually).  I don’t think I have once searched for something and not found it.  Now that I can listen to whatever I want, I’ve been listening to tons of music lately, mostly from bands I’ve always really liked but from whom I don’t own many albums. Not all Spotify features are free, of course.  With a paid subscription ($10/month, or $5/month if you’re a student), you can listen to any song you want, any time you want, with no ads.  You can also save specific albums or playlists to your device for offline listening.  Without premium, the features are limited.  There’re occasional ads, and you can’t play songs offline.  After that, it gets more complicated.  On a smartphone, you can’t play individual songs, you can only shuffle playlists, artists, and albums.  On a tablet or computer, however, you can play individual songs whenever you want.  (Note: This only works on the computer if you download the free client for Windows or Mac – it doesn’t work in the browser.)  At first I thought this might be a glitch, but Spotify acknowledged it in one of its ads, so instead it’s a teaser.  Spotify knows that you will get used to playing individual songs and want to pay money to do so on your phone (and let me assure you, this desire becomes very real, very quickly).  For now though, I’ve put up with carrying my iPad around the house, and I think I can deal with that.

As I said, the ability to play any music I want anytime I want has really changed my listening habits.  I’ve started listening to much more music, and I’m really enjoying myself.  If you’ve never used Spotify, I strongly recommend that you go try it out.  They even have a year-end deal for you.  Through December 31, you can get three months of premium for $0.99 – yep, that’s 97% off for three months.  (By the way, Spotify didn’t pay me to say any of this.  I really do love the service and I’m letting you know about this deal because it’s exactly that, a great deal).  If you do sign up, I recommend you start by listening to Switchfoot‘s latest album, Fading West.  Happy listening!  ••