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.

Play Apple Music on the Web

Apple has rolled out a nifty function web player for Apple Music. If you go to the Apple Music Tools website, you can search for and play music by song, album, or playlist. This site is designed as a marketing tool; it allows record labels or artists to create an embeddable web player for their music. By default, it plays 30-second previews, but if a user signs in, they can play full tracks.

Here’s an example:

Click Preview to hear short previews – limited to 30 seconds, not the 90-second previews you can hear on the iTunes Store – or click Sign In to be able to listen to the entire album.

While this is not a fully functional web player, it suggests that Apple may roll out a web interface for Apple Music in the future, extending the service’s reach to all platforms.

iOS Music App Now Shows Music Videos Section in Apple Music

IMG 7698 The iOS Music app now shows a Music Videos section when you browse Apple Music.

This shows featured videos at the top of the page, followed by New Music Videos, Music Video Playlists, then some sections by genre and one for the “Essential ’80s.” There are only three genres for now – hip-hop, pop, and rock – though that probably covers the majority of music videos available in the west. (Bollywood videos are certainly a big thing in India.)

This is another step toward Apple Music becoming more than just a music service, but expanding to what will eventually become a full range of video content. You can check one out here.

This section does not yet appear in iTunes on the desktop, but should show up soon.

Update: the Music Videos section now shows in iTunes as well.

Why Doesn’t Apple Music Let Users Search for Composers?

I know, classical music is a small share of the overall music market. But it’s still an important part of the overall music landscape, and if there are currently 36 million Apple Music subscribers, that means there are at least a couple of million people who listen to classical music.

Yet you cannot search for composers.

Composer search

You see some composers listed as “artists,” you see their names in the titles of albums (for a number of years, many if not most classical albums that feature music from a single composer have that composer’s name at the beginning of the title), you may see playlists with a composer’s music, you even see “songs,” but you cannot see all the music by a composer.

Granted, this could return a lot of results. Maybe not for Olivier Messiaen, as in the example above, but for a composer like Beethoven, Bach, or Brahms, there would be thousands of albums.

Yet if I search for Beethoven, and look at the album results – which only features albums that contain his name in the title – only 21 albums are shown; including With the Beatles, because it contains their cover of Roll Over Beethoven.

This lack of searchability borders on contempt. Apple Music wants you to be able to “discover” music, but they don’t give you the tools to search for anything. You can only really discover music in the For You section, or in playlists. And it’s not just for classical music; I’d like to have better search for jazz as well, looking for specific musicians.

Apple has the metadata; they just don’t let customers access it. Because they don’t care very much about music that isn’t pop and hip-hop. People at Apple have told me that there are employees who listen to classical music who work in and around iTunes and Apple Music, and this has lead to some improvements in the way classical music can be organized in an iTunes library, and to the way some composer names are displayed in the iTunes Store and in Apple Music. It wouldn’t be hard to introduce this type of search; in fact, they used to have a “Power Search,” that had fields like Composer, Director (for movies), Author (for books), and more. But they just don’t care.

Apple Music’s “Recently Played” Problem

You can listen to Apple Music to hear the songs you know, or to discover new music. The “discovery” feature is one of the main selling points of streaming services, which offer tens of millions of tracks. But this discovery is very difficult. As I recently wrote, it’s not easy to play music that you can’t remember. If music isn’t in your library, and you need to search for it or, even more difficultly, use Siri to request it, you will generally not play a great deal of music. You will remember your favorite albums, your favorite songs, the artists you have listened to for a long time; or you will listen to the biggest hits, the current favorites that you hear, perhaps, in a playlist of new music.

While you can discover lots of music on any streaming service, Apple Music makes it difficult to find out what you have discovered. Sure, you can look at your iPhone, or ask Siri, and you’ll know what is being played at a given time. But what if you are out running, listening to a long playlist in shuffle mode; when you get home, you cannot find which songs you heard. You may want to go back and pick some of those songs to add them to your library for your next workout. But if you look at the Recently Played section of For You, all you see are icons for albums or playlists. Even if you play just one song from an album or playlist, you see that icon; nothing tells you exactly what you listened to.

Recently played

This is even worse if you listen to an Apple Music radio station. You will see the station in Recently Played, but you won’t see any listening history. The only place you can see that is on the Radio tab, in the Up Next button, under History.

It’s more confusing because Apple Music lists something as “played” even if you’ve only listened to it for a few seconds. Say you have been sampling some new albums that show up in For You. You start playing one of them, you listen for a minute or so, and you don’t really care for the music, so you stop and try another album. The Recently Played section shows that you have listened to that album. It doesn’t show that you stopped listening to it, that you moved on to something else, that you did not like it. If you’re sampling a lot of music, this makes it very difficult to remember what you did like; unless you choose to “Love” every track that you like just a little bit.

Apple is erring on the side of caution here. They don’t want to not include the music that you listen to, so they include everything and more. What they should be doing is only showing an album if you have started playing the album itself, rather than a song in an album. And they should show songs that you played outside an album or playlist separately. Or, when you select an album or playlist in the Recently Played section, they should somehow indicate which songs you listened to. And they should probably not include any songs that you haven’t listened to all the way through, or nearly. When you play music in iTunes, it only counts as played if you have listened to it up until at least 10 seconds from the end; you can skip ahead during the final fadeout, and iTunes will still count the track as played.

Most people don’t care too much about this; they listen to music as wallpaper, they listen to a playlist because someone or some algorithm suggested it. But for those who are actually interested in discovering new music, it would be useful if Apple improved this Recently Played section.

Even with double the subscribers, Spotify says Apple will always have some edge owning the app store – TechCrunch

“Apple, for example, charges apps a percentage of revenue for subscriptions processed through the App Store. Apple Music, meanwhile, will always deliver Apple 100% of the subscription revenue that it receives from subscribers (sans record fees and all that kind of stuff, of course). Apple, too, has a direct integration with its iOS devices and also a huge amount of brand recognition even though Spotify is a massive service.”

Yes, but Apple has an even bigger advantage: they don’t need to make a profit from Apple Music. They make their money selling hardware, and Spotify only has their music streaming activity. This isn’t to say that Apple will lose money on Apple Music, or continue to do so (it’s possible that Apple Music is not yet profitable), but that Apple doesn’t have to worry about its investors getting antsy about profit or loss in what is a small part of their activity. Apple is clearly betting on content being a major profit center, with their focus on creating new video content, but they can well afford to wait this out.

Apple is playing the long game; Spotify only has one game they can play, and that’s profit and loss.

Source: Even with double the subscribers, Spotify says Apple will always have some edge owning the app store | TechCrunch