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music friday: beats music

Beats Music is a new streaming music service with an impressive pedigree. It was created by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Trent Reznor is the CEO. The underlying service is taken from MOG, which was bought by Beats. Whether there is room for another streaming service remains to be seen, and if there is, it won’t necessarily be Beats.

Much of Beats Music will seem familiar to streaming users of Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc. There’s an enormous catalog (everything except the Beatles, for the most part, although Spotify, which has Led Zeppelin and Metallica, may have exclusive rights to them). It costs $9.99/month, like the pay versions of the others.

The key to the success of the service lies in the differences. First, there is no free, ad-supported version, so you have to pay to listen. The folks at Beats claim to treat artists better than the other services, arguing that free services barely pay royalties.

Second, Beats is tied to the cloud, although you can download to mobile devices. When I say “tied to the cloud”, I mean you can’t integrate your own music into Beats. In other words, if you want to hear your Beatles tracks, you’ll have to do it somewhere besides Beats.

Third, Beats is intended mostly for mobile users. There is a web-based version, but it lacks many of the coolest Beats functions.

So, we’re essentially talking about a $10/month mobile music streaming service. Since I have always insisted on the integration of my own music with a service, I’m not the core audience for Beats. (I had a similar problem with MOG.) Your mileage may vary.

But the differences don’t end with the above. Beats relies on human beings to program their playlists. Services like Pandora are automated … they work very well at ascertaining your taste preferences, I personally have nothing against AI playlists, but some people will prefer the Beats model. Of course, Spotify and others do have a variety of ways to give you that human touch, as well. Beats isn’t revolutionary in anything but their marketing.

Beats uses the term “curator” to describe the people making the playlists, a way of emphasizing the human angle, and they’ve hired knowledgeable curators.

The interface is an awkward combination of easy and confusing (and the first few days have been a bit buggy, which is to be expected but it’s hard to evaluate for the long term). But here is what you get when you load the app:

There are four basic screens. First, you get “Just for You”, “handpicked” by their experts based on “what you’re into”. I have a hard time believing they have a billion “experts” working 24/7 to handpick my music, so there is clearly some AI work here. I’ve been with Beats for four days, and among the choices on “Just for You” are “Jukebox Hits: New Wave”, the albums Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Fats Domino Jukebox, and a playlist, “Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years”.

The second screen is a goofy, madlibs thing that looks like fun but which seems pretty pointless to me. It’s called “The Sentence”, and you are asked to fill in the blanks for “I’m … & feel like … with … to …” An example: "I’m in the shower & feel like romancing with the paparazzi to jazz.”

The third screen is “Highlights”, which again features stuff handpicked by experts. In this case, it doesn’t seem to be tied to your own profile … I get the feeling everyone will get the same highlights. Right now, this includes “Lebron’s Pregame Mix” (apparently King James is an “expert”), the Daft Punk album Random Access Memories, and “Top 25: Pop”.

Finally, there’s the “Find It” screen, where a huge number of playlists can be found. There are three sections in “Find It”. “Genres” is self-explanatory, and you are able to burrow down to exactly what you want. So if you choose, say, “Beats Hip-Hop”, you are offered a selection of 752 (!) playlists like “Top 25: Hip-Hop”, “The Roots: The 2000s”, or “Intro to David Banner”. The second section is “Activities”, which again is pretty self-explanatory. You can choose from everything from “Starting a Riot” (20 playlists, such as “Best of Bay Area Hardcore”), BBQing (21 playlists like “60s Soul Picnic”), or “Kicking Back” (20 lists like “Country Songs About Fishin’”).

The last section in “Find It” is “Curators”. These aren’t individuals, but rather things like “Academy of Country Music”, “Latina Magazine”, and “Pitchfork”.

It all seems overwhelming, but it’s not, really. Overwhelming is creating your own playlists on Spotify. Underwhelming is letting Pandora program your music. Beats Music lies on the Pandora side of whelming … there are a lot of possibilities, but they are easy to access, and then you turn everything over to Beats.

Will I stick with Beats beyond my 7-day free trial? Probably not, because, as noted, it’s not really for someone like me. But I think their model is very promising if you’re looking for an intelligent “radio” service and don’t want to spend a bunch of time curating your own playlists.