Reflections on Apple Music

Recently I was watching the trailer for Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and I was immediately struck by the song that starts at the 1:02 min mark. It felt both tribal, full of energy, and also uplifting.

A bit of a search and I found that the song title is ‘Crystals’ by the group ‘Of Monsters and Men’ which happens to be an Icelandic Indie Folk band.

So now thanks to Apple Music I’m listening to their album. I’m actually enjoying most of what I hear (really love the drum beats, gives it this raw edgy feel) but unsurprisingly some of the lyrics are a bit dark. Guess that’s what you get from an artist located within the artic circle with their cold dark winters.

But taking a step back I’m amazed at the ease in which I’m able to find and enjoy new music these days. I mean, not only am I able to quickly track down the name of a song without knowing the title or lyrics thanks to the power of the internet I can then conveniently download the entire album to my phone so that I can listen to it on my way to work.

Back in my younger days the only way to find new music was via the radio which was an extremely limited method because Singapore radio is largely populated by only the most popular hits. If you wanted to explore a wider pool of music you’d have to head to large music stores like Borders, Tower Records, Gramaphone (all gone -sniffs-) or HMV & That CD Shop (Still holding out) which had different sections of music like world, jazz, soundtracks, ambient etc.

But it was troublesome to properly find some new tunes because you’d have to ask the staff to take the CD from it’s wrapper and then listen to it via the store’s player. I never liked that experience because throughout the process my mind was never in a state of rest. I always felt pressured to hurry through the listening experience because I hated the feeling of hogging the player, or that I had to make a decision since the staff had been so helpful or something else like that.

This all changed in 2012 when the iTunes music store was finally launched in Singapore and 11 other asian countries. No longer was I subject to buying iTunes vouchers from Australia or the US in order to purchase music from those stores. It was phenomenal being able to browse this huge catalogue of music and I appreciated being able to access the work of obscure artists from around the world. This is one of the clear advantages of an online store over a physical one, whereby a typical brick and mortar store has to pay rent, has to source and stock physical product. If they don’t sell all of their albums they’re stuck with stock that they can’t move which prevents them from sourcing for new artists to display. Also I’ve experienced this more than once whereby that one CD that I was looking for is just out of stock and I’d have to wait 6 weeks for the next shipment. There’s no incentive to stock multiple discs of a lesser known artists work since there’s no proven demand for them.

The iTunes store overcomes all of these obstacles. By storing only digital files on their servers, pushing a download to one user or a million users is pretty much the same thing since it doesn’t require anything more than the original source files and a good network connection. Also it’s possible to continue to ‘stock’ as many artists as possible since they’re not hampered by shelf space. Finally, unless the music isn’t there in the first place, it’s great to be able to get your music immediately in the comfort of your home/workplace/on the go, which is exactly the place where people are looking for great music to accompany whatever activity it is they are doing.

But having the ability to view and potential listen to every song and album in the iTunes store is great but it’s just too much for everyone. I don’t want to listen to the largest collection of music in the world since most of it doesn’t suit my personal taste. It’s been easy to find and purchase the music I already know that I like on the store, but what about music or artists that I’ve never heard of but just ‘fit my style’? How would I be able to wade through all the music to find them? Wouldn’t it be great if the music store was able to give you recommendations for your next musical journey?

With Apple Music I believe that Apple has ably met this challenge by creating a tailored musical experience for every user. There’s been much written online about the new service, some like it, some are confused and frustrated by it, and some have even lost their music to it (thankfully to have it restored). I’m not going to link to all that because each person’s experience, while valid and representative of select portions of the service , doesn’t necessarily reflect the personal experience of everyone who uses it.

After activating my free 3 month subscription I kind of didn’t really do much with the service for the first month other than listen to the radio stations and listen to a few albums that I already knew of. Once I really got into it in my 2nd month I can say that my experience with Apple Music have been pretty good so far. The song recommendations have been quite solid and I’ve even been introduced to an artist that I’d never heard of before. Based on my listening history Apple Music recommended Mat Kearney’s 2009 album ‘City of Black and White’ which I have enjoyed listening to very much and even went and bought the album. The unusual thing is that the rest of Keaney’s albums are very much not to my musical taste, in fact it seems (to me) like a large departure from his earlier and subsequent works which are nice but just not quite it for me. Had I known about him as an artist I would have definitely not bothered but because of the Apple Music recommendation I’m now thoroughly enjoying his tunes and lyrics.

Since then I’ve used the ‘make songs available offline’ feature to download curated playlists of music by artists like ‘Massive Attack’, ‘Ben Lee’ and the latest albums of Jars of Clay and Steven Curtis Chapman (fond favourites of mine) so that I can listen to them without using up my mobile data. My latest spin is ‘Beneath the Skin’ by Of monsters and Men the aforementioned Icelandic group a the beginning of this post. The album is so new that it only came out on 6 June this year in Iceland. I doubt the physical album would ever end up on the shores of Singapore let alone would their songs ever air on the radio.

This to me sums up the (cliche I know) magical experience of using Apple Music. I’ve been listening to more music now than I did 2 months ago and at a more constant rate. It’s been so good that I’ve actually paused listening to my favourite podcasts (my usual commuting entertainment) to soak up these new tunes. I find myself looking forward to discovering new songs and albums that I’ve never heard of before and that’s really brought new life into my consumption of music as a whole.

I’m still debating whether to continue my subscription once my free 3 months is up in September but given that an album costs anywhere from $10–12 to purchase so as long as I’m able to find at least 2 new albums each month (or more than 8 songs at $1.28 each) it more than makes up for the $10 monthly subscription. And the longer I use the service the better the recommendations will become meaning that the Apple Music experience becomes all the more catered to my tastes.

It’s like having the best darn personalised music store with tunes you want to listen to all the time, conveniently tucked away when you’re not looking but always available upon request. Seriously no wonder no one wants to buy music in shops anymore.

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