Why the HomePod Will Only Play Your Purchased Music, or Apple Music (Updated)

A number of people have been wondering why the HomePod will not work with music other than your purchases or Apple Music tracks (as well as Beats 1 radio and podcasts). John Gruber, on Daring Fireball, wonders:

Shouldn’t it work with iCloud Music Library? I get that it might not be able to access songs that only exist as MP3 files on your Mac, but if you have iCloud Music Library, it seems obvious that HomePod ought to be able to access them, no? It’s one thing if it doesn’t work with third-party streaming services like Spotify. But iCloud Music Library is Apple’s own thing.

It is, but… Siri isn’t that smart. You can already see that now; if you try to play music from your iCloud Music Library that isn’t in Apple’s databases, it often fails. For example, I have two King Crimson albums in my iCloud Music Library. If I tell Siri on my iPhone to “play King Crimson,” it starts playing music by that artist; one of four items available on Apple Music: two live albums, one live EP, and one live single. King Crimson, or rather its leader Robert Fripp, is anti-streaming, and I was actually surprised to find that those live recordings are streamable, but no other King Crimson album is.

King crimson

It seems that Siri is designed to not be able to easily play any music it doesn’t recognize; in the sense that it can parse the Apple Music and iTunes Store databases and find artists, albums, and tracks it knows, but it cannot efficiently parse your entire iCloud Music Library, which could contain, potentially, 100,000 tracks that are not available from Apple. (In practice, for most users, this number is low, but if I were to add my live Grateful Dead collection, there would be thousands of tracks that are not available to stream or to buy from Apple.)

My guess is that Apple has built up language models for the pronunciation of artists, albums, and tracks for music it owns, allowing Siri to traverse a database when trying to match music requests, and doing so for each user’s iCloud Music Library would be onerous, and problematic, since each database would have to be unique. If I were to tell Siri to play “Grateful Dead 5/8/77,” I can understand this might be a problem.

Here’s an example. I have an album of shakuhachi music called The Sound of Zen, by Okuda Atsuya, in my iCloud Music Library. This album is not available on Apple Music, nor is it for sale on the iTunes Store; iTunes uploaded my files.


If I ask Siri to play it – and, the album title isn’t that complicated – it fails.

Siri fail

And if I ask to play music by Okuda Atsuya, well…

Siri fail2

However, if I specify an album, such as “Play the album In the Court of the Crimson King,” Siri can play it. So it seems that Siri is limited in how it parses what you say, and is only truly effective when you give it precise requests. (Think of it as a decision tree that narrows down when you add arguments such as “album” or “song;” Siri doesn’t have to search as much metadata.) But because of this need to be specific, I think Apple doesn’t want Siri to seem to fail, so it is limiting what Siri can access when using the HomePod.

Another possibility is that this limitation is present because the HomePod doesn’t have full access to its features when the main user’s iOS device isn’t on the same network. It seems that it will be able to play from Apple Music when that device isn’t present, but that it will no longer be fully linked to an individual’s iCloud Music Library. However, I would find that explanation to be a bit lazy; it wouldn’t be complicated to tell users that there are two scenarios: one, when the iOS device is present, which would allow access to the full iCloud Music Library, and another, when it’s not, which would be limited.

Note that you can, of course, stream music to the HomePod via AirPlay, so you can play any music in your iCloud Music Library or on an iOS device, or even a Mac, but you must initiate the playback manually, not using Siri.

Update: Now it looks as though you will be able to use Siri to access your iCloud Music Library. I await proof that this works correctly.