I remember several months to a year ago hearing about some partnership between Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Beats By Dre to create some new music service. I recall being incredibly dismissive of the news, as the Beats brand to me was synonymous with middle-of-the-road sound quality for top-shelf price. Cut to January 21, 2014, and everybody in the office of the indie record company where I work is asking me if I’d tried Beats Music yet and what I’d thought of it. Needless to say, this piqued my curiosity – if this many people who were supposed to be on the latest trends were talking about it, it must really be worth a look. So, later that week, on a lazy Sunday while waiting for the Grammys to start, I decided to take the plunge, and download Beats Music. What follows are my findings after my 7-day trial period had expired.
Typically, Beats Music is a subscription service that costs $9.99 a month, but the trial allows me to use it for free for one week. Since Beats is a streaming music service, I couldn’t help but compare it to ones I have used in the past, namely Spotify and Pandora. Right off the bat there was one glaring difference: while Pandora and Spotify are web or desktop-based first and their mobile apps are an extension, Beats requires that everything be done through the mobile app, and the web version is only an extension of that. Slightly annoyed by this, I went to the Google Play store on my Android-powered phone and searched “beats music,” the app I was looking for was #3 in the results list. I’m sure this will change (if it hasn’t already) as the app gets more popular, but it’s still a bit weird that it wasn’t right at the top when I searched the app’s exact name.
Anyway, once it was downloaded and installed on my phone, I opened up the Beats Music app and started my 7-day trial. To use the app you must first create a log in; you can do this using either your email, Facebook or Twitter accounts. I opted to use my Facebook account since I didn’t feel like typing out my email, but it turns out I had to in the next step anyway. Once you make your login you need to setup your profile by selecting what type of music you like. The selection process starts out with genres, you are presented a bunch of bubbles with genre names in them, and you tap on the ones you like, double tap the ones you love, and press-and-hold the ones you don’t like. After selecting the requisite number of genres, you move to the artists. With the artists, you do the same; tapping an artist once makes the bubble big, and loving an artist makes it bigger. You only need to select 3 but you can select more as long as there’s room on the screen. After the selection process, you’re taken to the home screen.
[SIDENOTE: It wasn’t until about halfway through my 7-day trial that I remembered I could take screenshots on my phone so I had my good friend David Fruhling download the app, so the screenshots of the setup are all courtesy of him. No, The Eagles, Kiss, and Eric Clapton weren’t my selected artists.]
Aesthetically, the app is very striking. The red and magenta accents on black background look great, and the alternating white and black backgrounds of the lists on the home page work really nicely. There’s a menu button at the top left that drags out the menu, allowing navigation to your profile, library, playlists, settings and search bar. The home screen has 4 tabs that are reached by swiping left or right. The four tabs are named “Just For You,” “The Sentence,” “Highlights,” and “Find It.”
The “Just For You” tab is the first tab you’d see on the app’s home screen. It consists of a scrollable feed filled with playlists and albums based on the genres and artists selected before. Beats does a pretty good job extrapolating tastes from the small sample of artists given at the beginning, and all of the suggestions that I’ve seen in “Just For You” make sense and mostly align well with my tastes. The “Highlights” tab is laid out the same as the “Just For You” tab, but instead of taking your tastes into account, this just recommends albums and playlists picked by the staff or the curators. There were some interesting playlists on here whenever I checked, including on the RnB central playlist called “From Ignition To Climax” which started with R.Kelly’s “Ignition” and ended with Usher’s “Climax,” and went through some other sexily-titled songs. I downloaded the app on the day of the Grammys and I happened to check it less than an hour after the awards were over and there was already a “Grammy Winners” playlist up.
The “Find It” tab allows users to search through playlists by genres, activity, and curator. The genres were all something starting with “Beats” like Beats Classic Rock, or Beats Indie. There were some surprising categories including Beats Christian and Beats Comedy. I thought the comedy one might have some standup, but it was all comedy songs; there were only four playlists in that category and three of them had Weird Al in the title. One of the coolest things I saw in the genres was in the Hip-Hop genre. There were a couple playlists called “Sampled,” like “Sampled: The Doors” that had a bunch of songs that used samples of The Doors songs in them. In the activities category, there were about 30 different activities like BBQing, breaking up, starting a riot, working out, etc. Each of these activities contained as many as 15 to 40 different playlists.
Finally, “The Curators” category had 30 different profiles of different organizations, magazines, corporations, and celebrities, each with their own batch of playlist. Besides curators like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Target, and even The Ellen Show, there was one called Friends of Beats, where a different celebrity made each playlist. My trial occurred around the time of the Super Bowl, so there were playlists from players in the game including quarterbacks Peyton Manning, who listens to classic rock and country, and Russell Wilson, who listens to Michael Jackson and Prince. No wonder the Seahawks won – Peyton was a little too stiff.
I saved the best tab for last: “The Sentence.” This function presents you with a sentence, sort of like a mad lib, where you fill in certain details with what you’re doing, feeling, and what you want to listen to, and Beats generates a playlist based on the sentence. The details are chosen from a list, so there’s a finite amount of sentences you can make, but there are a lot of choices. I think the default sentence was “I’m in my crib & feel like wasting time by myself to the 80’s.” When I tried that it yielded songs by Billy Joel, Phil Collins, and the Pet Shop Boys, among others. Another sentence I tried was “I’m at a park & feel like overeating with my roommate to punk,” which gave me Wire, The Jam, Siouxsie and the Banchees, and more. You could literally mess with this feature all day and all of the night, and get incredibly stupid with it if you want to.
I think “The Sentence” is definitely the key feature that Beats Music has to offer. It’s fun an innovative; just the act of creating the sentences to see what music came out was entertainment enough for me, not to mention the music it spit out. I also think it makes a great tool for discovering music. Notice when I did the sentence about punk, the first three songs it gave me were by Wire, The Jam, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. If you’ll allow me to put on my Music Snob hat for a second, one of the gripes I have with Pandora is that it’s usually too obvious; most of what I heard on Pandora were the singles by really predictable bands. When I chose to make a playlist with punk, Beats could’ve given me songs by The Ramones, Green Day, or Blink-182, but it didn’t. Of course that could’ve been sheer luck of the draw, but I think the fact that it has songs by all those bands ready to deploy is praiseworthy anyway.
Behind all of Beats’ special features it is still a normal, competent music streaming service. You can listen to songs and full albums, add favorites to your library, make playlists, and share playlists over Facebook and Twitter. The search function lets you search for bands, songs, albums, playlists and even users. Everything, from artists, users, and playlists can be followed or subscribed to. And there is even offline functionality, songs can be downloaded temporarily to the phone and played even if there’s no service or Wi-Fi. Everything seemed to work well for the most part; there were only a couple of minor hiccups that I noticed.
Most of my experience with Beats Music was smooth, but there were a couple issues and quirks. The biggest problem I noticed was with the playback and streaming. Mostly when using The Sentence mode, I noticed that sometimes a song would start somewhere in the middle of the song, or a song would unexpectedly restart while playing. This was an annoyance that was worsened by the fact that instead of using a left-to-right progress bar like iTunes, Spotify, and countless others, Beats Music showed the lapse of time by a red ring that would gradually surround the play/pause button. Admittedly this looks really cool, but it makes it hard to grab and drag with a big ‘ol finger; I’m not even sure Beats actually allows the drag function since I could never do it. Anyway, this only ever happened while using The Sentence, and it was pretty uncommon at that. Otherwise my listening experience was totally smooth.
I really enjoyed my time with Beats Music. It really impressed me as a music service. With its ease of use, sleek design, and the killer app that is “The Sentence,” Beats showed that it came to play. Unfortunately, its competition is just too well established. While I like it for music discovery over something like Pandora, it can’t really compete with Spotify, who just recently allowed free mobile streaming, as a pure streaming service since Beats doesn’t offer a free version. Couple that with the news that Deezer, the streaming service that’s in the most countries around the world and does have a free version, will be arriving on U.S. soil sometime in 2014, the outlook looks pretty rough for Beats Music in the marketplace. So although I like it, I don’t plan to subscribe, but if somebody wants to spend $10 a month on a music app, I definitely couldn’t fault them choosing this one.
Beats Music is available on Google Play and the iTunes Store.