Apple Music and Album Release Dates

Slow news day, so here’s a minor rant. When I look at albums on Apple Music, I want to see their original release dates. (This applies to all streaming services, but not to music retailers; if I’m buying an album, I want to know when the specific version was released.) Here’s an example: in For You today, Jethro Tull’s Stand Up stood up. I hadn’t listened to that record in ages, so I put it on. When I started listening, at the very beginning, during A New Day Yesterday, hearing the way the music was split across channels – a very early/mid 60s technique – I wondered what year the original album was released. Because this is what Apple Music tells me:

Stand up

I know the original was not released in 2001; I went to Wikipedia to check, and it was 1969, which is what I had thought. But I consider this part of the essential metadata of an album, especially because there are “Editors’ Notes” here mentioning that it was the band’s second album.

I’d love to see a lot more metadata on Apple Music. While most people don’t care about this, there are times when I want to know more, such as the date of an album, the musicians on it, the producer, etc.

Apple Music Replay Provides a Summary of Your Music Listening; or Does It?

Apple Music Replay is a summary of the music you’ve listened to on Apple Music during the year. But, as in previous years, it’s so wrong that I wonder what the point is.

It starts by telling me how much I’ve listened to Apple Music.

Hours

This figure of 281 hours might be correct. Less than one hour per day. Given that I listen to music I own a lot, I’m not surprised.

Okay, so, next, it tells me how many different artists I’ve listened to.

Artists

Only 32 artists? I call BS on that. I’ve easily listened to a hundred different artists or more. I think they may not be counting Apple Music Radio stations, but still, I’ve listened to a lot more than that.

So how many albums have I listened to?

Albums

Only 26 albums? If I’ve got 92 plays – that’s individual tracks – on Another Green World, with 14 tracks on the album, that means that I’ve listened to it 6.5 times. Yes, they’re aggregating all the tracks, but still. If that’s my top album, and it’s 41 minutes long, that’s, well, 266 minutes, or a bit over four hours.

If I look at my Recently Played section of Apple Music For You, I see about 36 albums (some of the recently played items are playlists that I’ve cerated, or radio stations). That’s just in, I think, the past month.

Recently played

If I look at the Recently Played smart playlist on my Mac that uses Cloud Music Library, which shows everything I’ve listened to on Apple Music, there are 166 albums, from 98 artists, which makes a lot more sense. However, the time shows as 4:06:13:09, or 4 months, 6 days, 13 hours, and 9 minutes. That’s about 3,037 minutes, or 126 hours. This doesn’t include Apple Music radio stations, but only music that’s in my library. I do listen to a lot of music that I don’t add to my Apple Music library.

So I’ve listened to music from 166 albums that are in my Apple Music library; and at least another 115 hours of music not in my library. But Apple Music says I’ve only listened to 32 artists and 24 albums.

I’m not sure I get the point of this. It shouldn’t be that hard to get some of these numbers right.

When Apple Music Matches Its Own Music Incorrectly

Since the early days of iTunes Match, and then later with Apple Music and iCloud Music Library – now called simply Cloud Music Library – there have been issues with tracks added to your library not matching correctly. Here is one example from 2015, when I added a big collection of music by Frank Sinatra to find that it matched as eight different albums.

I recently added a new collection of music by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark called Souvenir. Looking in the Recently Added section of the Music app, I see this:

Omd souvenir

Night Café contains one track, The Punishment of Luxury contains 13 tracks (including the first track twice), and the other edition of the same album contains two tracks.

What apparently happens when you add music from Apple Music to your library is that it then gets matched; in other words, it gets added from the cloud, then the Music app tries to match it. Even though the metadata on the original album is correct, the matching process, which uses acoustic fingerprinting, re-matches tracks with different albums. In some cases, these are the original albums, in others, different collections.

But this doesn’t make sense. Since I haven’t downloaded those tracks yet, why are they being matched again? And why incorrectly? As Apple Music tracks – this information is in the files – why would anything change which albums they come from?

This is one of the more frustrating issues with Apple’s music could, because you simply cannot trust it to match your music correctly. The fact that it happens to Apple Music tracks is really quite odd, because those tracks should never change. This is one of the reasons why I still refuse to put my personal music library, which is carefully and precisely tagged, in the cloud. I use my second Mac to store my cloud library, and add some music from the main library on my iMac. The fact that Apple consistently makes this kind of mistake befuddles me.

Why Can’t Music Streaming Services Give Good Recommendations for Classical Music?

I regularly use Apple Music, and sometimes the recommendations I receive in the For You section are spot on. They learn from what I listen and what I love (though I don’t love tracks or albums very much), and they recommend music by the same or similar artists, or from similar genres. On any given day, I’d say a quarter of their picks are things that I really would like to listen to. And I think that a 250 batting average for this type of recommendation, which is all done by algorithm, is pretty good.

However, when they recommend classical music, they tend to strike out a lot more. Last night, I listened to an album of Schubert’s piano trios, and this morning, I see these recommendations:

Classical recommendations

It’s fair to say that I’d be potentially interested in listening to many if not most of these recommendations, but are they really “like Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100?” No, not really. There are two recordings of violin concertos, an opera, some vocal music (Monteverdi’s Vespers), and some solo piano music.

What would be “like” those Schubert piano trios? Perhaps other chamber works, such as piano trios by Haydn or Beethoven. Maybe some string quartets by Schubert, Beethoven, or other Romantic composers. Or some other music by Schubert: his piano music, lieder, etc.

It’s not clear why these recommendations were chosen. With pop, rock, or jazz, the recommendations tend to be based on the artists performing the music, whereas here, this isn’t the case. None of the three artists who performed the Schubert trios I listened to (Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec, and Roel Dieltiens) are present in the recommendations. Two of the recommendations are on the same label, Harmonia Mundi, and, in classical music, that can a good reason to recommend music, as independent labels do have a specific character. But I scratch my head to try to figure out how these recommendations were chosen.

The Igor Levit set is in my iCloud Music Library, and I have listened to it before, but I don’t know any of the other recordings. The only commonality I find is that the Schubert I listened to was released in 2016, and five of the seven recommendations were released the same year, with two others in 2014 and 2015.

It isn’t easy to tailor recommendations for classical music, and I suspect that Apple Music is simply looking at what other people who have the Schubert recording in their libraries are listening to, or what’s in their libraries, similar to the way the Genius feature works. Providing better classical recommendations would require additional metadata for classical recordings, beyond just the “classical” genre. There would need to be metadata for eras (Baroque, Romantic, etc.), ensemble sizes (trios, quartets, orchestras, etc.), and styles.

The classical market is too small for the big streaming services to provide this sort of recommendation, and other players, such as Idagio and Primephonic, are entering the field in an attempt to do so. This is probably not something that can be done by algorithm, in part because of the absence of extended metadata specific to classical music.

To be fair, a bit of browsing on Apple Music allows me to find plenty of classical music, but I really would like the kind of recommendation that pushes me in the right direction, especially for composers that I don’t know well. I’m not that interested in paying for another streaming service, because that sort of fragmentation with music is just an annoyance. But I wish the big streaming services – Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon – would take classical music seriously.

Apple Music Now Available from a Web Browser

Apple has launched a web version of Apple Music. Available in a beta version at beta.music.apple.com, this provides much of the Apple Music experience.

Apple music beta

It’s not hard for Apple to provide web access: Apple Music pages in iTunes are just HTML – or web pages – displayed in that app. The web version is more limited than iTunes. Not everything is available: you cannot create or delete playlists, you cannot view smart playlists that you have created in iTunes, and you cannot use Genius to get suggestions and to start Genius playlists. But you can play music, add music to your iCloud Music Library, love and dislike music, and more.

You can access For You, you can browse Apple Music, and you can use Apple Music Radio. There are four ways to view your library: Recently Added, Artists, Albums, and Songs.

The question is why is Apple doing this? I don’t think the goal is to provide a fully functional player, but rather to provide a way for people who don’t have Apple Music to follow a link they see on social media, or an artist websites, even if they are not on an Apple device. But if you do want to use Apple Music without iTunes, and your needs are limited, this is a good way to do so.

(A friend pointed out that Linux users are happy about this, since there is obviously no iTunes on Linux. As this is going to be the year of Linux on the desktop, this is a Very Good Thing.)

Apple Music’s Recommendation Algorithm Is Drunk

Apple Music’s For You recommendation algorithm can suggest some interesting music, but it seems to be stuck in a loop of confusion for me. Today, in the Fridays’ Albums section, two of the four quartets of albums are just wrong.

The first one is this:

Tindersticks

While the top two albums are indeed records I like a lot, and I do like David Byrne’s music, I HAVE NEVER LISTENED TO TINDERSTICKS. Apple Music is constantly showing me “Because you listen to Tindersticks” in this section. I had to look up the band; I’d never heard of them. I have never listened to them, unless, somehow, a song of theirs came up on an Apple Music radio station I played.

The problem is that they keep telling me I listen to this band but I don’t know anything about them, and now I don’t care. Is “Tindersticks” paying Apple Music to be featured this way? Has someone hacked my Apple Music account to play music by this band? Is it a typo for Teruhisa Fukuda, whose latest album I have listened to a number of times? I make a Recently Played playing in my iTunes library going back 5 years, and THERE IS NOT ONE SONG BY TINDERSTICKS.

Okay, that’s the first. But the second today is this:

Canned heat

I know Canned Heat, I’ve heard their music. I remember ???? “I’m going to the country, la-de-da-de-da-de-la-la.” It was in the Woodstock movie, right? I may even have owned that album when I was a teenager. But, like Tindersticks, I HAVE NEVER LISTENED TO CANNED HEAT ON APPLE MUSIC. I checked my Recently Played playlist. Again, it’s possible that one song came up in an Apple Music radio station, because tracks you hear there don’t show up as recently played. And, to be honest, none of the four artists in this quartet are bands I particularly care for.

This is really annoying, like all those recommended albums that I dislike but still get more recommendations for the same artists. This makes me wonder if Apple Music is possessed. Possessed by evil spirits who like Tindersticks and Canned Heat.

Is Jazz Dead (on Apple Music at Least)?

I like jazz, but I’ve never been someone to really get into the genre, to know all the musicians, to keep up with the new releases. There are a dozen or so artists I like, and now that I use a streaming service – Apple Music – I often check out the new releases to see what’s happening.

I think it’s fair to say that jazz as a genre is fairly stagnant, with little real innovation, and a lot of repetition. Nevertheless, even within the norms of the genre, there is a fair amount of good music released.

I went to Apple Music this morning to find some new jazz to listen to. Previously, the top carrousel of the jazz section was filled with new albums. Today, there’s nothing but playlists. Below the carrousel, more playlists. To find new releases, you need to scroll down, and what is there is quite limited.

Is jazz dead

At just over 1% market share in album consumption, jazz is little more than a footnote in the music industry. But with about the same market share as classical music, it still has its listeners, and lots of performers. I’m sure that in big cities there’s a vibrant club scene for jazz musicians. However, not much in jazz has changed, and for the non-aficionados it can seem like a stagnant genre.

It’s telling that the top album on Apple Music is Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, a landmark of jazz, but also the jazz album that people who don’t like jazz listen to. It’s followed by Kenny G (smooth jazz has its own special circle of hell), and the top 20 includes records from 50 or more years ago by Stan Getz, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong. (And more smooth jazz; sigh.) In fact, if you look at all the classics in the top 200 on Apple Music, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the standard jazz canon is. (Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Nina Simon, lots of Miles Davis, Mingus, etc.)

Maybe Apple has given up on promoting jazz albums as they used to, realizing that most jazz listening on their service is done by casual, non fans, who are more than happy with playlists of anonymous (to them) musicians playing a genre that is rooted in a nostalgic past.

Apple Music Top Charts Now Available

Apple Music has added a Top Charts section to its Browse tab. In it, you’ll find charts by country, and one for the entire world. These charts show the 100 most popular songs.

Top chart

The charts are global; Apple hasn’t broken out charts by genre, so what you’ll see in the charts is pop and hip-hop. As such, nearly all the 100 tracks in the US top chart are “explicit” versions of songs. Though if you go to iTunes > Preferences > Parental Controls, and check Restrict music with explicit content, these charts will show the “clean” versions of the songs. And if there is none, then the songs that are only available in “explicit” versions will be dimmed and unavailable for listening, but will still display in the charts.

In addition to the country charts, there are sections with the top songs, playlists, and albums for the entire world (at least those countries where Apple Music is present). You can check these, or your country chart, to see what you should be listening to.

Because that’s really the point of these charts; they show you the music do you need to hear to avoid FOMO, and reinforce the primacy of the music at the top of the charts by excluding the rest.

New on Apple Music: Friends Mix

Friends mix

Apple has started rolling out a new feature in Apple Music For You called Friends Mix. As its name suggests, it is a playlist of music that your friends have listened to. Of course, to use this, you have to have friends on Apple Music; this process isn’t simple, and I bet most Apple Music users don’t know that it exists. I assume that if you have no friends, that is you’re not following anyone, then you won’t see this playlist.

The Friends Mix refreshes every Monday.

Update: now, a few hours after I wrote this article, the Friends Mix no longer shows up for me in For You. No idea why.

Some Deception with the iTunes Store and Apple Music

I’d written many times about how the iTunes Store and Apple Music were separated by a brick wall, making it hard to go from one to the other when looking at a specific artist or album. It seems that Apple has changed this recently, and now, when you find an album in the iTunes Store, you can hop to Apple Music to listen to it by clicking Listen Now.

It’s interesting that Apple is willing to cannibalize sales in exchange for streams – and I wonder if the record labels are cool with this – but at least now, when you click or tap a link to the iTunes Store, and you really just want to stream an album, you don’t have to manually search for that album.

But not all music sold in the iTunes Store is available on Apple Music; there are labels and artists that will not stream their music. Here’s one example:

Finley

None of Hyperion Records’ music is on Apple Music, but iTunes suggests that you can listen to it by clicking the Listen Now button. Since the music is not available for streaming, you get a dialogue telling you that the music is not available in your country, not that it’s not available to stream anywhere.

If you are not logged into Apple Music, the behavior is slightly different. If you were to start a free trial after viewing this album, you would get to Apple Music, then find out that the album in question is not available to stream, in spite of the Listen Now button suggesting that this is possible.

So, Apple isn’t being honest; I’m shocked, shocked! What’s more worrisome, however, is the fact that they’re sending people to stream music instead of buying it, most likely against what record companies want, and they’re saying that music is available for streaming when that is not the case. To be fair, the percentage of tracks that are on the iTunes Store and not on Apple Music is quite low, but still; Apple knows who they are, and shouldn’t display this dialog.