Beats is trying something new, for sure, but it's got room to improve
Beats is a name that is synonymous with hip-hop music and iconic (and expensive) audio gear (and, at one time, HTC smartphones), but not exactly with streaming music. The company showed its intention of getting into the space in 2012 when it purchased MOG Music, and finally killed that service when it launched its self-branded Beats Music streaming offering.
On the surface, Beats Music checks all the boxes — unlimited streaming music for a flat monthly fee, a seven-day free trial for signing up, and a compliment of mobile apps and web interface. It also brings to the table something other streaming music services don't — a group of knowledgeable and popular curators to help you choose what to listen to. And that's Beats' main selling point — a human element instead of algorithms.
But with lots of features to market and a competition-matching price, will Beats Music be your choice for listening going forward? Hit the break and find out.
The Beats Music app experience
It's tough to launch an much-hyped app and have it hold up to the scrutiny of a half-million users — Beats Music found this out the hard way. The first release of the app on Android was riddled with bugs — music randomly paused, it wouldn't remember your track position, lockscreen cover art didn't work, the app would randomly launch when you didn't want and it was generally a little clunky.
No, I don't want Beats Music to open every time I hang up a phone call.
We're happy to report that a week and several updates later, the app has fixed many of its big flaws. Unfortunately, several still remain. The app regularly forgets your login credentials, requiring you to log back in. It's still up in the air whether the app will pause music playback when you remove your headphones, and it still chooses to launch every time we end a phone call, for some reason.
Luckily, the interface and experience once you're inside the app is very good. Beats Music has an interface that distinctly sets it apart — in terms of style and colors — from other offerings out there, building strongly on its existing brand messaging. The app is primarily black and white, with strong pops of colors to make it seem lively.
The main layout of the app is separated into four panels — Just For You, The Sentence, Highlights and Find It — to break down your listening. Just For You gives recommendations based on your listening habits, as well as genres and artists you picked when first setting up your account. The Sentence is a unique system that lets you pick out words that describe where you are, what you're doing and who you're with to help find just the right playlist. Highlights are, well, highlights, while Find It is a broad search by genres, activities and curators.
There's a limited but functional web interface as well at http://www.beatsmusic.com where you can make use of the Just for You, Highlights and music search. It works well, but it's not a perfect mirror of the functionality in the app.
Experts vs. algorithms
Beats Music puts heavy emphasis on its suggestions, highlights and curated playlists. While you have the option to search for specific artists or songs and manage your library, those actions are relatively hidden inside the slide-in panel on the left and aren't part of the main interface. Unlike other apps that highlight your library, Beats wants you to see its suggestions first.
The proposition of Beats Music is that it has a system for bringing great music to your attention, backed up by real people who are picking artists to spotlight and popular playlists to check out. Under the Find It section you can browse suggestions from a list of curators who you can "follow" and see their specific choices. It's very much like a social network centered around music (anyone remember Ping?), but one that's still in its infancy with few features.
Want to find new music? Follow specific artists and groups to see what they think is popular.
Curators include groups like the Academy of Country Music, Friends of Beats, Pitchfork, Rap Radar, Rolling Stone and more (Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame is another big name and a creative director for Beats Music), with the list presumably getting longer going forward. You can tap in and see what each one of these curators has picked for their playlists, and if you enjoy it share it out on Twitter or Facebook as well as add to your own library. There's also a list of 30 different genres to browse, as well as hundreds of different activities — think cooking, working, partying — to look at, each of which has dozens of playlists in it.
This is all relatively foreign to anyone who uses the likes of Pandora or Google Play Music All Access, where you're used to a music algorithm picking out suggested music simply based on what you've listened to recently and what you have in your own collection. While we're sure the Beats Music model of curators serving up new and interesting things is appealing to some people, we're not so sure it scales to be applicable to a majority of people looking for a streaming music service.
The value proposition
Even with the extra costs associated with having a group of people curating playlists and genres, Beats Music charges the industry-standard $9.99 per month (or $119.88 per year, what a deal!). That gives you unlimited access to all of the features in the app and web player, along with offline music downloads and a personal library that can be filled with your choice of 20 million songs.
Being the same price as its competitors, we just don't see the value proposition that makes it worth choosing.
An interesting wrinkle here is that AT&T customers can get three months free when they sign up if they have a qualifying plan, and those with Mobile Share plans can get a "family" pack for $15 per month that covers up to five people on a single plan. That's a pretty darn good deal if you have a few music lovers in the house, and one of the only things that truly makes Beats Music a good value.
Since the monthly service costs are the same and the music catalogs are basically comparable at this point among all streaming services, the choice of which one's for you comes down to the app and its features. At this point, we can't really say that the Beats Music app is on the same level as the current stable of proven music apps. With the number of bugs and issues still plaguing the experience, it just honestly isn't worth paying $9.99 per month for.
In terms of the curation and music offerings, we're still not sold on its highlighted picks enough to have them take complete priority over our own library and artists. Sometimes you just want to open the app and listen to a specific album or artist, and on Beats Music that ranges from inconvenient to frustrating. Further, it just doesn't offer the same intelligent radio or music queue system that makes Google Play Music All Access so great.
As we said before, Beats Music will likely appeal to the music lover that wants to constantly discover new music and follow popular artists and groups, but for the average listener, your money can be better spent elsewhere.