Apple Music: a Close Look at How it Works

Apple announced Apple Music yesterday. This new service combines a music streaming service with discovery features, curated playlists, and radio, and also includes a sort-of-social network for music. (Remember Ping?) Apple’s presentation of Apple Music was very confused and confusing, and was marred by uninspired presenters, suggesting that the company really hadn’t spent much time planning the presentation.

As of today, all we know about Apple Music is what’s on the surface. Here’s what Apple Music offers:

Music Streaming

Apple Music will be a music streaming service, like Spotify, Deezer, or even Tidal (without the lossless option that latter service offers). Presumably, Apple Music will stream at 256 kbps, but Apple has not said anything about quality. Apple claims that you can listen to “the tens of millions of tracks in the Apple Music library.” I note that they did not say “all the music available on the iTunes Store,” which suggests that labels may be allowed to opt out.

But Apple says:

Apple music1

This suggests that Apple Music will work as I suggested in this article. I suggested that Apple would integrate streaming tracks into your library, allowing you to make playlists with tracks you own and tracks you rent. This seems to fit with what Apple says on their website:

Wherever your music comes from — purchased in the iTunes Store, ripped from a rare import CD, or downloaded from your favorite music blog — everything you’ve collected lives in one place. And alongside it is the ever-expanding Apple Music library. It’s like having just about every song ever recorded at your fingertips.

And this:

As an Apple Music member you can add anything from the Apple Music library — a song, an album, or a video — to your collection. And that’s just the warm-up act. From there you can create the perfect playlist from anything you’ve added. You can save it for offline listening and take it on the road.

Apple Music will be available through iOS devices, Macs or PCs using iTunes, the Apple Watch, and even Android, with an app for that platform available in the fall. And Apple Music is clearly designed for those users who already have an iTunes library. If you’re a Spotify user, and only listen to music through that service, there’s little incentive to switch. But if you do have music in your iTunes library, then Apple Music, by allowing you to combine your existing library and streamed tracks, makes it much easier to use what you already own.


The world has changed a lot since friends would get together and listen to records. Now it’s all about sharing music on Facebook and Twitter, or sending YouTube links to people to turn them on to new music. “Discovery” is a big buzz-word in the music business; people can’t discover music on their own, they need a music service to do it for them.

As such, Apple Music includes For You, a section of the Music app on iOS, and of iTunes, that recommends music. Apple claims this is done by humans, but they simply can’t have enough humans who know enough music to do this.

I think much of this “discovery” is powered by Genius, which I’ve found works fairly well, at least to make playlists from my library. Apple has had years to tweak Genius, and adding it to Apple Music makes sense.

Apple claims that they hone their recommendations over time:

When we make recommendations, we consider what you tell us you like. Whether you love a song or not, your feedback helps our suggestions get better and better. But we also pay attention to what you actually play. So if you’re an EDM fan with a secret affinity for big band music, we’ll find you more stuff that swings. And drops the beat.

There will also be lots of playlists: genre playlists, “mood” playlists, “handcrafted playlists,” and more. This could work; or, for more eclectic tastes, it might not.

Apple Music and iTunes Match

As Apple says:

Your entire library lives in iCloud when you’re an Apple Music member. First, we identify all the tracks in your personal collection and compare them to the Apple Music library to see if we have copies. If we do, we make them instantly available in iCloud across all your devices. If you have music that’s not in the Apple Music library, we upload those songs from iTunes on your Mac or PC. And because it’s all stored in iCloud, it won’t take up any space on your devices.

Apple Music is therefore an extension of iTunes Match, with one important difference: there does not seem to be any limit in the number of tracks you can have. This is huge; many music lovers have long been irked by the 25,000-track limit of iTunes Match. However, since Apple Music will undoubtedly stream music with DRM, the matched and streamed tracks will contain DRM. Again, we don’t know, but I assume that they will be 256 kbps files, so they’ll be the same quality as iTunes Match. But don’t delete your original files; you may want them later.


Apple Music includes Beats 1 Radio, or, as Apple says:

Beats 1 is a truly global listening experience. It broadcasts 24/7 to over 100 countries from our studios in Los Angeles, New York, and London. No matter where you are or when you tune in, you’ll hear the same great programming as every other listener. Enjoy exclusive interviews, guest hosts, and the best of what’s going on in the world of music.

It’s interesting to note several things here. First, this international radio station will be in English, at least at first. It may be broadcast to 100 countries, but it won’t have local content from those countries: no chanson française, no K-Pop, no Afrobeat. This may change over time, but, to start with, it will be a lowest-common-denominator pop radio station. Sure, it’ll play the occasional eclectic track, but that won’t keep people listening; what most people want is the hits to have as wallpaper.

There will still be other radio stations, what is currently iTunes Radio. These algorithm-driven stations will work as before, but if you have an Apple Music subscription, you’ll be able to skip as many tracks as you want (compared with six tracks per station, per hour, currently).

Note that without an Apple Music subscription, you can still listen to these radio stations. iTunes Radio stations will be ad-supported for non-subscribers, and it’s not clear whether Beats 1 will have ads or not. And it’s worth noting that iTunes Radio doesn’t seem to be available in countries other than the US and Australia, where it is currently available, without a subscription.


As Apple says:

Connect is a place where musicians give their fans a closer look at their work, their inspirations, and their world. It’s a main line into the heart of music — great stuff straight from the artists.

Great stuff? A photo from some singer? A snarky comment from a musician? A short video from some band? Back in the day, Apple launched Ping, a music social network, which was supposed to do exactly the same thing. It was a massive failure, in part because it was a walled garden. You couldn’t share to or from Ping; you could only share within it.

If Connect is to work, it will be able to share to and from other social networks. And you can access Connect even if you’re not an Apple Music subscriber. This sort of thing is only successful if enough artists sign on. For them, it’s yet another social network they need to think about. For the biggest artists, it’s clear that they’ll post things here; probably the same things they post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For others, who knows?

Free Trials

Apple Music is starting on June 30, with three-month free trials for everyone. (That’s potentially 800 million people.) After you’ve had Apple Music for three months, you can opt for a subscription at $10 a month, or $15 for a family plan, for up to six people. The family plan is a very good deal; the basic $10 plan is in line with what other streaming services charge.

This three-month trial is a good idea. It gives people plenty of time to discover the service, and it’s during the summer, when people are out and about, partying, vacationing, and listening on mobile devices. (Assuming their phone plan lets them burn all that data; but you can save music for offline listening.)

The downside of the family plan is that it requires that the family use Apple’s Family Sharing, which is problematic at best.

And What About Classical Music?

I know lots of my readers wonder about this. It’s obvious that the radio stations and playlists won’t do anything useful for classical music, but accessing much or most of the iTunes Store’s library of music will provide a huge library of classical music. You’ll be able to listen to what you want, make playlists (such as all of a given composer’s symphonies or string trios, not “the best adagios”). As such, this could be a good deal.

And What About Record Labels?

If you can stream much or most of the music in the iTunes Store for $10 a month, why buy CDs? This is the big unknown. How will small record labels survive? With services like Spotify, the penetration hasn’t been deep enough to affect too many bottom lines, but, already, smaller labels are suffering. With Apple Music, and its much broader reach, I think small, independent record labels will suffer. If it’s as easy as it sounds to listen to nearly anything – and Apple Music sounds like it will be a lot more user-friendly than Spotify – this could have a chilling effect on new music production.

I bought three CDs yesterday from an indie artist I like (including the excellent Codex, by Ghost Harmonic). Would I have bought them if I could stream them with my Apple Music subscription? Perhaps. Humans act in their own self-interest, economically, and committing $120 per year to music may make a lot of people not buy anything.

I wonder how the iTunes Store will work with Apple Music. Will it offer discounts on albums after you’ve streamed them a few times? In any case, why would you ever buy anything that’s on the iTunes Store now?

Streaming is certainly part of music’s future; but will the ubiquity of Apple Music – based on the many existing iTunes Store customers – turn it into the mainstream way of listening?