How deep is my love for Spotify? It's time to decide if the new Beats Music subscription service should be my new streaming king
I woke up on Sunday morning, like I wake up every day, wanting to listen to music. Normally, I’d grab my iPhone, open Spotify, hit Shuffle and proceed to chill or two-step to my "Starred" playlist—my carefully selected virtual music catalogue—via bluetooth speakers. Hundreds of decaying CDs still stack my bookshelf. They’re backed up on iTunes. But for daily listening, Spotify is my shepherd (iTunes is the toy I sometimes forget I like). Any throwback or earworm I hear at a party, I yell to the nearest person: “I need to add this to my Spotify!” That person usually continues not caring.
Paying $9.99/month for a premium Spotify account wasn't a hard sell, even to a Napster and Limewire alumna. As I constructed my library brick by brick, from Ice Cube to Mokenstef, the streaming service that first took off in Sweden replaced iTunes as my daily commute companion. I quickly got into a routine of favoriting songs (How do I not have Musiq’s "Mary Go Round" on here??), un-favoriting songs that I grew tired of and adding more (Disclosure, recently).
so far Spotify is my favorite thing from 2011
— Clover Hope (@clovito) December 1, 2011
Three years in, my library’s still ever evolving. But lately, that regimen isn't enough. As someone who listens to music at least 50 percent of her day, the probability of hearing the same songs is high. And uncovering cool acts on the Web amid the Action Bronsons and Samphas jockeying for position becomes laboring. Like any lazy, entitled semi-Millennial, I needed to outsource my music discovery process.
I’d already swapped Pandora for the less rigid and more intuitive Songza, a platform that generates life-soundtracks for you based on moods, genres and things like that. There, I found new loves via playlists like "New Underground Rap." Songza’s great at what it does, but that’s all it does. Ideally, I wanted a combo service that could house my library while also enabling my nostalgia and assisting me in discovering new tracks and deep cuts. And socializing. Was it too much to ask for A Digital Music Personal Assistant? I wanted to stop having to search so hard, because the best music finds you.
I’d downloaded and poked around the Beats Music mobile app on its Jan. 21 launch day but barely scratched the surface. Like any new product or service that’s forcibly compared to the old standard, it’d prematurely been dubbed the Spotify killer, which was the killer of iTunes, which (if you remember) scandalously murdered CDs.
Having a digital music library is one thing. It's where you go when you want to hear music that you approved, whether downloaded, purchased or streamed. The real passion for music lovers is in curating a library based on songs you forgot you loved (the nostalgia) and songs you’ll learn to (the new). Beats Music lets you build a library and has plenty of options for going about it. The app’s most defining quality is its music curation, a term you’ve probably been seeing a lot. Under the "Find It" tab, you search human-made, Songza-esque playlists created by tastemakers and Beats staff. While mildly surfing, I sidestepped "Desperate and Alone" and subscribed to "Intro To Mayer Hawthorne," "Usher: Deep Cuts" and "Coffee Shop R&B" and had totally forgotten about some of those tracks. Still, that’s not exactly where I fell in love.
If you remember (scroll up), it’s still Sunday morning around 10 a.m. and I need music. Sundays are for oldies. So I swipe past the "Just For You" tab (which is music that Beats recommends based on your evolving tastes) to "The Sentence," the section where you order up a playlist, McDonald’s style, by typing in a specific fill-in-the-blanks sentence. The options are creative, weird and bountiful—I feel like: “zoning out” or “taking a selfie” or “starting a riot” or “cuddling” or “playing with fire” or “freezing time.” I put in: “I’m In My Pajamas (I'm not, really) & Feel Like Dancing With Tons of Junk Food To Oldies.
I was hearing songs I didn’t know I loved because I didn’t know them. As an immigrant child of an immigrant pops who endearingly labeled cassette tapes as "Oldies but Goodies!" I was no stranger to grooving in the living room to Sam Cooke and Percy Sledge and caressing the vinyls Puff and Kanye love sampling. Flipping through my dad’s collection, I’d pick out the illest covers, pull the shiny black circles out of their sleeves, throw it on the record player and fall in.
In reality, feelings can’t be minimized to a (sometimes grammatically flawed) one-sentence permutation, especially when it comes to music. Moods are more complicated than that. And it goes without saying that this new process could never beat me grooving as my dad switched out vinyls. But whatever it was, I felt something other than just the rhythm on Sunday morning. It was the sounds of that old thing. It was the fact that this digital DJ, by way of this mobile device, knew what I wanted to hear right then. That won't always be the case—this is a type of customization that's a work in progress. But the same feeling occurs when I enter a new sentence: “I'm On The Couch & Feel Like Taking A Selfie With Myself To Hip-Hop. The Diplomats' "Purple Haze" comes on. Not quite sure how this is perfect selfie music but I wanna hear it right now! And I’m adding it to my library. How did you know...
Now, I’m torn between Spotify and Beats Music. Do I pay for both? (Tax write-offs anyway) Ditch Spotify? Get in bed with Beats? There can only be one Significant Other. I’d fooled around with Spotify’s "Discover" tab in their mobile app in the past, but its mechanic, impersonal approach and linear design takes the fun out of the discovery process: “You listened to Ja Rule and Kelis. Here’s an album you might like.” No foreplay? Meanwhile, it's Radio option is just a lesser Pandora.
Conversely, Beats is more Samantha than Siri. It does the work for you while making you feel like an active participant. As this writer put it, with Spotify, "Sometimes it feels like what you're getting is too obvious or that you don't know where to begin when exploring music. But what's even better is that when Beats decides you might like an artist, it often suggests a curated playlist of their songs rather than an album. This shows a fantastic understanding for how people listen to music: You get hooked on the hits, and stick around for the weirdness."
Maybe I’m being dramatic. It’s easy to see how, like Jimmy Iovine said, Beats Music plays on your emotion. People either love or dislike the Sentence feature. It could feel like homework if you overthink it. You're not supposed to. Music discovery has increasingly become a background activity that can happen while washing dishes, editing spreadsheets or shopping thanks to mobile apps (RT if you’ve ever heard a song in a store and rushed to open Shazam before the song ends). Something that wasn’t as easily possibly decades ago.
Streaming services are one giant leap in the digitization of not just music, but the experience of it, on top of our already emotional attachment to portable devices. It's also possibly unhealthy. It's also making music discovery enjoyable again.
Is it what you need? Beats Music may not be for the casual indulger, but for junkies it’s a nice experiment. This isn’t a raging endorsement yet. I’d like to live with it for a month or so, just like I gave Spotify a chance. That means I’ll have to pay. Beats only gives you a 7-day trial, hardly enough compared to Spotify’s initial 30-day trial at U.S. launch. But right now, I’m leaning toward cancelling my Spotify premium account to use the free version instead and dropping $9.99/month on Beats Music. I still love you, Spotify, but I'd like to see other people. —Clover Hope (@clovito)