For the past few days, I’ve been experimenting with Apple Music. While I am naturally skeptical of anything that involves iTunes, Apple has already proven, with the sale of music downloads, that it can revolutionize an industry. Can it do for streaming and radio what it did for music sales? That’s hard to say, largely because there are already a lot of streaming and radio options out there, many of which provide elegant solutions, and all of which have a head start on Apple in the streaming space.
I’m putting together a podcast about my views on Apple music overall, but I thought I’d take a look at one specific part of the music experience: radio.
First, if all you want is streaming, personalized radio, stop reading right now and stick with Pandora. Pandora is, by far, the most effective and rewarding solution for personalizing radio stations. Anyone who tells you different is confused or lying. I have very specific music tastes (alt. country, meaning countryish songs played by rock musicians; as distinguished from Americana, which I view largely as old cats trying to be philosophical or clever), and I know virtually nothing about the artists that play on mainstream radio in 2015. Nevertheless, Pandora does an excellent job of understanding what I like and providing me with music I’ve never heard that suits my tastes.
But if radio is merely a part of your overall music experience, and you also want the ability to listen to records on demand and to build custom playlists, etc., many of the broader music applications provide radio as a feature. Let’s compare Spotify, my current primary music service, and Apple Music to see how they do with creating a radio station tailored to my musical preferences.
Again, because I don’t listen to much new, mainstream music, it’s important to pick a good starting point. Both Spotify and Apple Music let you start a radio station based on a specific song. Because it’s one of the best songs I’ve heard recently, and because I think the title makes a good name for a radio station, I decided to start with” Blue Light” by Jimbo Mathus. Let’s see how each service does creating a radio station from that song.
For this experiment, I’ll start a radio station with “Blue Light,” play 15 subsequent songs, thumb the good and bad songs up and down and see what happens. In the list below, Great means I thumbed up the song, Good means I didn’t thumb it up, but like it, and Bad means it got a thumbs down. The number is my rating from 1-5 on how well I think it fits the vibe established by the initial song and any prior thumbs up or down.
1. The Black Lillies – The Soul of Man (Good; 4)
2. Patterson Hood – 12:01 (Good; 3)
3. Otis Gibbs – When I was Young (Great; 5)
4. Slaid Cleaves – Horseshoe Lounge (Great; 5)
5. Catherine – The Black Lillies (Good; 3)*
6. Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel – Justin Townes Earle (Great; 5)
7. Tillamook County Jail – Todd Snider (Good; 3)
8. Moving On – Lauderdale (Great; 5)
9. Come Back Little Star – Patterson Hood (Good; 4)*
10. Gulf Road – James McMurtry (Good; 4)**
11. By the Wayside – The Black Lillies (Good; 3)***
12. Where Only the Graves Are Real – Otis Gibbs (Good; 5)*
13. Smile When You Call Me That – Jakob Dylan (Bad; 2)
14. Cemetery Road – Fred Eaglesmith (Great; 5)
15. Black T Shirt – Slaid Cleaves (Good; 5)*
* I didn’t thumb this down because I didn’t want to confuse the algorithm, but I consider it a fail if a station plays too much of the same artist.
** This excellent song would warrant a thumbs up, but I’m not generally a McMurtry fan, so I didn’t thumb it up because I thought that would result in more of his songs than I prefer.
*** 3rd song out of 11 gets a thumbs down on principle.
Summary: Spotify did a decent, but not fantastic, job with a pretty obscure song as a starting point. Clearly, it has a harder time with a more narrow genre, which is a little surprising since there are a ton of songs on Spotify that fit within my target, including those on Rancho Radio, my hand-curated playlist.
1. Lonely Days – Deadstring Brothers (Great; 5)#
2. I Don’t Wear No Sunglasses – Watermelon Slim (Bad; 2)
3. Knockdown South – Jimbo Mathus (Bad; 2)
4. Ballad of Henry & Jimmy – Paul Burch (Good; 4)
5. Fightin’ – Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm (Bad; 1)
6. Goin’ Down South – North Mississippi Allstars (Bad; 2)##
7. Asked My Captain – Jimbo Mathus (Good; 3)###
8. Only Time Will Tell – The Better Angels of Our Nature (Great; 5)
9. John Henry – Furry Lewis (Bad; 2)####
10. Loose Diamonds – Jimbo Mathus (Good; 5)#####
11. Shotgun – Ashes and Angels (Good; 4)
12. Wild Bill Jones – Luther Dickinson (Great; 5)
13. In My Time of Dying – Alvin Youngblood Hart (Bad; 2)##
14. Self – Jimbo Mathus (Good; 5) #####
15. Goin’ Down South – Jake Leg Stompers (Bad; 2)
I have to add a 16, because it’s a great cover of a great song…
16. They Don’t Know – Lydia Loveless (Great; 5)
# Great, great start.
## This is an awesome jam of a song, but nothing like Blue Light.
### I didn’t thumb this down because I didn’t want to confuse the algorithm, but I consider it a fail if a station plays too much of the same artist.
#### Very clearly, Apple Music incorrectly made this a blues station.
##### 3rd or more song out of 11 gets a thumbs down on principle.
Summary: Apple Music also struggles mightily with an obscure starting point. I don’t like the excessive artist repetition, or the fact that it somehow decided I was making a blues station. On the other hand, Only Time Will Tell by The Better Angels of Our Nature was the best new song I heard on either station.
Conclusion: As noted above, if you want radio, use Pandora. As a part of a larger music service, neither Spotify nor Apple Music covered itself in radio glory, but Spotify is currently the better of the two.