By Keidra Chaney
I downloaded Beats Music at its launch and have been playing with it ever since. It’s buggy and many fans have bemoaned its slow speed and tendency towards crashing but it’s been OK for me. I like Beats Music’s potential. I’ve been a pretty loyal Rdio user for a couple of years now, but honestly, I more often do actual music discovery via YouTube more than any audio-based streaming service. At this point I can’t say I’ll be leaving Rdio for Beats as my go-to streaming source but once some the bugs are ironed out we’ll see.
I’ve written in the past about my qualms about algorithm-based music streaming services and music discovery – how most social music services have traditionally taken much of the serendipity and socializing element away from the music discovery process. Beats Music has a lot of potential, however, thanks in part to the curated playlists and recommendations from musicians, music publications, and DJ’s. It’s pretty sexy looking too, with the visual pop of the MySpace update, paired with the simplicity of Pandora. It’s like a top-down, artist-backed version of Turntable.FM but without the fun real-time comments or even more . And hopefully it will allow an opportunity for curators to present new and indie artists to a larger audience through thoughtfully crafted playlists, the kind you’d get from a trusted friend.
I picked three of my all-time favorite genres (metal, funk, new wave) and a couple of favorite artists and I ended up getting recs for the Best of XTC and New Order Deep Cuts. Which… OK. So I can’t say Beats has done much to introduce me to anything I didn’t already know about, despite a reported 20 million song catalog.
Perhaps the wide diversity of the catalog will be highlighted more often in one of two of Beats Music special features, one of which being its mood-influenced activity playlist library with categories like “Being Blue” and “Punching Walls” These are probably a better bet for music discovery than their algorithmic setup, at least for now. However, the limitation of the curated playlists is that it’s still limited to a small (and frankly insular) segment of music fans. One of the things that makes YouTube such a fantastic place for music discovery is that people can (and do) upload and share little known artists and we can talk about them, easier than pretty much anywhere else. And that’s kinda sad.
Turntable.fm opens up that closed network of music sharing a bit more, with its real time, chat-room like element that allows for moments of serendipity, and more importantly, real time conversation and opinion sharing. One of the elements that stands out about Soundcloud’s approach (I SWEAR I don’t work for Soundcloud, even though I talk about it all the time) is the company’s use of community managers to act as music/sound curators while also encouraging in-person and local community building in the form of meetups.
The part in bold is where I think Beats Music falls short. Music fans can and do act as music curators in our own right and not allowing the historical and community memory of fans to contribute to the Beats Music hivemind may prevent it from connecting with the fans most likely to keep it alive.
A few years ago, my friends and I were really into FineTune, a service that allows users to create their own playlists and share them on their blogs and social networks. That was about 6, 7 years ago, a simpler time for online media, but the simplicity of sharing and commenting on each others playlists, on and off platform is something that even the best streaming services haven’t quite gotten right yet. This is My Jam also comes close, but the interface just doesn’t encourage widespread sharing.
All in all, the social technology that has become so common place in television – a system that both engages fans and creates opportunities for new, original shows- is just not happening with music, the industry still can’t quite get it right.
I don’t see Beats Music as being the potential music industry game-changer that Netflix has become for television, despite its big name backers and consultants (including the object of my standom, Trent Reznor.) To be fair, I don’t see any of the current streaming services breaking out in such a fashion. Honestly, if you have told me about seven years ago that the place I rent anime DVD’s from would have resurrected Arrested Development and create original Emmy-winning programs, I would have given you some epic side-eye. But Netflix’s evolution was embraced by the television industry in a way that the music industry still resists.
The synergy between the television and the tech industry has evolved to the point that original online shows are critically acclaimed and social TV is viewed as a legitimate industry focus (witness Nielsen’s partnership with Twitter), Meanwhile, the recording industry’s distorted relationship with technology and contemporary music continues to the point where Beats Music presents itself as fresh and innovative when, in fact this concept should have been released a couple of years ago to make any kind of impact on the streaming, downloading and purchase habits of hardcore music fans. To explore why the music industry is always behind the curve gets into the complicated history of the American music industry and its relationship to its artists, consumers, and technology – I‘ve always thought the music industry has more in common with the journalism industry than Hollywood in this respect, and hopefully I’ll finally write that piece because I’ve been harping about it for years. In the meantime, I’ll monitor Beats for its potential, but I don’t expect the service to offer any solution to the music industry’s ongoing problem –for fans or artists.