2015 marked a turning point for music. Apple officially launched Apple Music and entered the streaming game. About six years later, they have tens of millions of subscribers worldwide and continue growing at an impressive rate. It’s not a shocker to see Apple perform so well, but the Music app itself still leaves a lot to be desired.
Of course, the core functionality is there. You can stream almost any song your heart desires for the cost of $9.99/month. While this is a huge convenience, most Apple Music subscribers entered the world of digital music years before the service launched. Some people migrated over from Spotify while others were forced to upgrade from iTunes. Regardless of their path to Apple Music, many users feel the Music app is lacking.
Apple Music can be experienced on numerous devices. They have their app for Mac & computers, but it’s most often showcased on mobile devices. While much of the functionality overlaps, this analysis is going to center on the mobile app you’d find on an iPhone or iPad.
It’s also important to note that Apple’s software is constantly updating. Many of these issues have been present since the beginning of Apple Music, while others have emerged as a result of software updates. It’s logical to assume more updates will come our way. Some difficulties will be resolved, but others may present themselves.
Navigating Apple Music
In the early days of mobile devices, Apple tried to turn the iTunes experience into a mobile experience. Many relics of iTunes remain, but as Apple Music packs in features some expansion to iTunes’s functionality became necessary. There’s no doubt that Apple Music offers a lot, but a lot of the time the user experience doesn’t take you where you need to be.
One Search, Too Many Options
Searching on the app is a bit unclear. Mostly, this is due to the fusion between your library and Apple Music’s library. When you tap the magnifying glass, you’re taken to a screen with genre options. Tap one of the options, like “hip-hop” for example, and you’re taken to Apple Music’s platform. You won’t be browsing the hip-hop songs in your library.
Users can switch between Apple Music and their library fairly easily, but only once they start typing. There’s no way to determine what catalogue you’re searching prior to typing. This isn’t too challenging once you get used to it, but it’s also not obvious for new users.
Browsing for the Homepage
When a user wants to search for a specific song, they eventually get two options “Apple Music” and “Library.” If that user wants to peruse their library, they will hit the “Library” icon on the lower menu. If they want to check out the offerings in Apple Music they select “Browse?”
Instinctively, “Browse” could mean the same thing as “Library” or “Search.” It seems quite odd that the headlining feature of Apple Music, their landing page, is hidden behind a “Browse” icon. I’d expect an apple or a music note (which is used on the Mac app), but reducing this page to “Browse” and a square tiles icon diminishes its value to the service.
Buried Main Features
If you do navigate over to the “Browse” tab, you’re going to find a lot of information on the homepage. Admittedly, at lot of this deserves to be featured. You find new music, live radio shows, and current playlists. Yet some of the best features are barely there, buried in the footer beneath upcoming releases.
Categories are featured so prominently on the Search page, but they’re an afterthought on the Browse page. Music videos, which could be a bigger feature of the service, are the last item you will find. This is also where you can navigate to charts: a personal favorite. If you have prior experiences with iTunes, it shouldn’t be a surprise for the homepage to have some promotional content. However, it feels Apple Music compromises some big features so artists can get their face featured on curated lists.
Cover Art Confusion
When a song is playing, displaying cover art presents you with a full view of the album art work. You also get extra options such as song controls, lyrics, and a song queue. It makes sense that users would go into this screen every so often.
Once you’re there, how do you get out? Apparently you’re supposed to swipe down, and there is a notch at the top of the screen. However, I cannot tell you how many times I have pulled down my notifications trying to exit the cover art screen. There’s no back button, just a presumed gesture that works half the time. If you’re using a buttonless iPhone, be careful not to swipe up. That notch at the bottom does something different: takes you out of the Apple Music app all together.
“Browse” is the landing page that most closely mimics the homepage of the iTunes Music Store. However, Apple wants to place an emphasis on curation. This can kind of been seen under the “Listen Now” tab. There’s so much going on here, it’s hard to establish any real expectations for the experience.
Admittedly, I found a lot of names I recognized when scrolling through this page. Clearly Apple does pay attention to my favorite artists and makes some suggestions based on this. They also shove some new releases in my face and display recently played music. Then there are radio stations and a few genres of music. If Apple was really trying to get me to engage, they’d understand I never listen to country or radio stations. To further convolute the experience, it’s inconsistent on the Mac app where it is called “For You” rather than “Listen Now.”
When it comes to the Apple user experience, they’ve always walked a blurry line between simplicity and customization. Apple Music is no exception. Some of the more rigid features demonstrate stylistic choices, but other limitations seem to be oversights.
A Firm Navigation Menu
When Apple Music launched, they hoped to include a social feature named “Connect.” It failed, but it also created a cool loophole. In the settings, users could turn off “Connect” as a parental control. In the bottom menu, the Connect button was replaced with a Playlist button. It was awesome. Then iOS 10 came and took away Connect and the loophole.
I like listening to my playlists, but I never listen to Apple’s radio stations. Why can’t I replace this button with something I actually use? Users should be able to customize this menu like the dock on their iPhone rather than a stationary menu. It would be a simple adjustment, but a huge improvement in quality of use.
I love making playlists. It’s one of the reasons I wanted an iPod as a teenager, and one of the reasons I was so reluctant to leave iTunes. I continuously add music to my lists, and I can organize the songs however I please.
I have less control when organizing the playlists themselves. Apple has given me four options for organization, but no manual sorting. I want to put the most important playlists at the top of the Playlists page. This should be easy to add in, but it’s been missing for six whole years.
Fusion With iTunes
Perhaps one of the biggest Apple Music complaints comes from its fusion with iTunes. Upon the release of Apple Music, Apple devices lost iTunes and received the unified Music application. Six years later, the relics of poor integration remain in my library. Every so often I’ll find an error without a clear resolution to resolve it.
Every so often my mind wanders back to the mid-00s and I want to listen to some crunk jams. One of those songs is “Goodies” by Ciara, a #1 Billboard hit in 2004. I’ve had this album in my library for about a decade prior to Apple Music’s launch. Seemingly randomly, Apple mismatched this song with a remixed version in 2017. Suddenly, all of my 2004 playlists had the wrong song.
How do you fix these errors? You don’t. You can play around with the title information of a song, hoping to prompt the system to correct the mismatch. Otherwise, you need to delete the song, download the Apple Music version, and manually add the song to playlists that included it. There’s no manual match option. It can get really messy, especially when Apple randomly resolves the error four years later.
iCloud Music Library’s Ambiguity
I admit I’m a bit of a music snob. I go out of my way to find the correct versions of a song without any censorship or modification. Some songs have been modified as a result of world events or public outcry, but I don’t want Apple to ignore the fact that I already have the fully dirty version on my computer’s hard drive.
One example: Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. On my computer I have the fully explicit version without any scratching in it. Apple Music doesn't offer that version at all. This is fair enough, but it would be nice if I could forcefully sync my version to the iCloud Music Library. However, there’s no manual way to do this. I either take what Apple Music gives me or have to get really creative.
I know I’m not alone in being particular about my music collection. While many of my concerns are echoed by other Apple Music users, the love of cover art seems to be shared by Apple itself. I remember when the iPod Touch first came out. Apple was displaying albums on their mobile devices with pride, proving users could have a beautiful juke box in their pocket.
When iTunes started to automatically assign cover art, a lot of users saw their perfect collections blemished by out-of-place covers. In my collection, “Bette Davis Eyes” was magically stripped of Kim Carnes’s artwork and given a generic 80’s cover. If you try to manually override this, there’s a good chance Apple will revert the cover art back. When systems are designed to do a process automatically, there’s always going to be some errors. When a user needs to manually override a mistake, that person has been inconvenienced. Their override should be the final word, and an automatic process should not change a user-made decision.
Improving Apple Music
By most standards, Apple Music is a great deal. They offer a lot, have built trust with artists, and became a trailblazer in the digital music industry. Streaming has made it incredibly easy to discover music, and Apple Music is one of the best platforms to do your discovery.
Apple also continuously works to improve. Apple Music is no exception, so identifying areas for improvement does not mean they have a bad product. Rather, they have a product with a lot of potential and a team capable of delivering an exceptional service. When software prevents users from having an optimal experience, a company runs the risk of losing business.
Sadly, there are areas where Apple has struggled for years. This is mostly demonstrated through their cloud-based services and the fact that users can’t override automatic processes or dependably correct errors. This has been an issue since iTunes Match was born, and Mashable has even encouraged Apple to stop trying with these services.
I don’t share that feeling, but I do recognize the frustrations. When these services work as described, they create a seamless user experience. It’s the one-off errors that consume a greater amount of attention and give users problems. Longtime Apple Music listeners understand that the product has packed in more features over the years. They’d also be justified if they were annoyed by simple organizational features being missing. While nothing is perfect, Apple Music’s user base continues to grow. With this, the software can improve and create an experience that will continue to represent Apple’s dominance in the digital music industry.