There have been many how-to’s and reviews written about Apple Music, very few of which have focused on classical, let alone contemporary classical, music. Perhaps the most thoughtful perspective was offered by Alex Ross in the New Yorker on Monday. Not so much a review, it instead pointed out some worrying issues, particularly that streaming is not well-suited to the production and consumption of classical music.
Despite the Ross’s reservations, one mustn’t forget the advantages that streaming offers. Most importantly, it removes some of the risk in experiencing new music, since doing so is free from additional payment. This has certainly been my experience with Spotify, which has allowed me to experience a great deal of music that I would never have risked buying. For me, therefore, the release of Apple Music was a moment of great excitement and, as a convinced subscriber to Spotify, my question, inevitably, was how did it stack up against its Swedish competitor?
Apple music costs £9.99 in the UK, which seems unfair given that it is $9.99 in the US (and €9.99 in Europe). As I write, the exchange rate is $9.99 to £6.49. Over the course of a year Apple Music will currently cost a UK customer £42 more than a US customer. Still, this is the same price strategy as Spotify, so you either swallow it or go elsewhere. Apple Music also offer a fairly generous £14.99 membership for families up to six (also $14.99 in the US, however). Spotify has promised to match this deal soon.
When you sign up to the service you have the option to tell Apple which genres interest you. Most of these refer to styles of popular music so I deleted everything but classical. Once you have done this you choose some ‘artists’. I use inverted commas because, actually, Apple includes composers in this list. The choices are pretty limited, but at least it gives the app a starting point in getting to know your tastes. The app itself consists of five parts: ‘For You’, ‘New’, ‘Radio’, ‘Connect’ and ‘My Music’.
‘Radio’ principally refers to Apple’s Beats One Station, which focuses on popular musical genres presented by live DJs. There are also a series of radio stations built from playlists focusing on various other genres. The lack of the human presenter does not necessarily mean, however, that the personal element is missing; Apple has gone to some effort to create playlists made by real people. I found the classical station rather pleasant, a nice stream of Classic FM-esque popular classics. It certainly has more variety than the lists presented by Spotify, which often plays the same works or a series of extracts from one piece (last time I listened I had parts of the Mozart Requiem four times in quick succession).
The ‘Connect’ page is where you are supposed to be able to follow news from your favourite artists, an idea that Apple has tried before with its ill-fated ‘Ping’. I like the idea of this part of the app but, sadly, its classical content has been sparse and unchanging. I have been presented with just two videos that have really interested me: Simon Rattle talking about music streaming (sounding for all the world as if Apple had paid him to do so) and Pierre-Laurent Aimard talking frustratingly briefly about performing the Ligeti Etudes. These videos don’t ever seem to change and are accompanied by other items that interest me not one jot (but also never seem to change). If the experience is like this for other genres of music I predict that ‘Connect’ will be first part of the app that gets the chop.
The ‘For You’ section of the app offers personalised selections based upon the genres you chose on setup and, presumably, your listening habits. Mine are pretty catholic and, when I listen to popular music, probably lacking a bit of taste. To give you an idea, in the last few days I have listened to all of Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître, a bit of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and also more mainstream classical music such as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah. I also have a bit of a thing for Spanish language popular music having listened to Enrique Iglesias, Mocedades (that one is definitely shameful!) and Ricardo Arjona. ‘For You’ is currently showing me quite an array of interesting things: Simon Rattle Mahler 2 with the Berlin Phil and an Harnoncourt Messiah – wasn’t aware that either of those existed; there’s some Boulez and Stockhausen including an ‘Intro to Pierre Boulez’ playlist; many other interesting classical records; some Mocedades (!); and various Spanish singers, none of whom I know, which is a good thing. There is also some rubbish: a ‘Classical Music for Ironing’ playlist, Britney Spears and Rihanna. But, hey, none of it is more cheesy than Mocedades, so maybe I should open my mind. ‘For You’, then, is a success and I will have fun digging around in it. It also makes up a little for the ‘New’ section of the app. This concentrates on new releases in popular genres, which is completely fine if that is what you’re looking for. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t seem to have heard of classical music.
These suggestions, after barely more than a week using the Apple Music app, stack up pretty well against Spotify. I use Spotify almost exclusively for streaming contemporary music, especially for doing reviews on CT, so you’d think that it would be able to recommend me at least a few contemporary composers. The ‘Discover’ section is currently showing me eight ‘top recommendations’, all classical but none later than Liszt (a composer I am not anyway that keen on). It makes a reasonable stab at showing me new releases, better in fact than the ‘New’ section of the Apple app, though actually it is just four records of easy listening classical and film music. Given that I’m only too well aware that there is much more interesting music being released on Spotify each month, a good proportion of which I have actually played, this is, in fact, a terrible fail. It has more success with recommendations based on recent listening. I’d forgotten I’d listened, for example, to Carnival of the Animals and, for nostalgic reasons, Flanders and Swann. Spotify makes sensible suggestions based upon these: Ravel, Mascagni, Elgar, Victor Borge and Spike Milligan. Not bad, though in terms of both breadth and presentation I prefer Apple Music.
The last part of Apple Music is the ‘My Music’ tab. This is where your original iTunes library resides which, in my case, includes all of the music from iTunes Match. When you search for music you have the option to search within that library or within the whole of the iTunes catalogue. What makes a massive difference to me, especially when compared to Spotify, is that when you search Apple Music you can then add the album to you own music collection, which means all of your streamed and non-streamed music resides in one place. For the completist collector who already uses iTunes this is a huge advantage.
Apple Music also deals with composers better than Spotify. When I want to collect albums together in one place by composer, on the latter I have to assign them a playlist. Apple Music, by contrast allows you to show your library by composer. Furthermore, with my own collection I have spent many a long hour making sure that the composers’ names are consistent on every album. I always have the surname first, like this: ‘Mahler, Gustav’. This allows for easy alphabetical access. When you add a new album this data is often entered in a different form, for example ‘G. Mahler’, which irritatingly creates a new composer. What is wonderful is that if you add a streamed album from Apple Music, it still allows you to edit the album information, so that you can make this kind of thing consistent. This ability to organise is far in advance of that offered by Spotify.
The final question when comparing the two services is, inevitably, the depth of the library. Both are touted as offering 30+ million tracks. A cursory search for popular classical works on either offers a massive choice of Beethoven Fifths, Handel Messiahs and Vivaldi Four Seasons. I was most interested, however, in the choice of contemporary classical works so tried a little test. I took the last two CD roundups I have written on CT and checked how many of the works I mentioned were available on each service. I was a little surprised by the results: of the 27 titles Apple had 24, Spotify just 13. There are caveats: the sample is quite small and I also have a tendency to check similar record labels each month – in fact the difference between the two services was very much down to the fact that Naxos releases are not always available on Spotify. Having said that, the test really should have favoured Spotify, since I tend to prefer writing about works that appear on the service. And, anyway, not consistently streaming Naxos releases is a glaring omission – they have one of the best collections of contemporary classical works.
Some have called the Apple Music app overblown. Personally I prefer plenty of options, especially when it comes to curating my music collection. If, however, you like a lightweight app or only use streaming occasionally then Spotify is still a good option. Certainly, for a quick search on Mac or PC, it is much more efficient since it is free of all of the iTunes baggage. And we shouldn’t forget that, of the two services, Spotify is the only one to have a free advert-supported option while it is also available on both iOS and Android (though Apple have promised that the latter will be released soon). Despite all of this, it is impossible to ignore Apple’s better discovery options, the more comprehensive music catalogue and the ability to arrange by composer and to integrate with an existing iTunes collection. The experience is significantly more compelling.
I will not be leaving Spotify for now. I feel a great deal of loyalty to a company that has so transformed the way that I listen. My patience won’t last forever, though. Spotify not only needs to make its service as compelling, as flexible and delightful as Apple’s but they also need to find ways to better it, perhaps in new and unexpected ways.