Music used to be simple. Turn on the radio, and tune to a reliable station. Pop a CD in and press Play, or, if you were like me, leave six favorite albums in the multi-disc changer and just press Shuffle. Even cassettes and records were easy enough, if a little more effort. In the early days of digital music, SoundJam and its eventual successor, iTunes, made playing your music collection easier — it was simple to play a single album or shuffle through your entire library.
But that trend has reversed itself, and playing music in iTunes can now be actively difficult, requiring frequent management and constant decisions. (There’s a reason Kirk McElhearn’s “Take Control of iTunes 12: The FAQ” has grown to over 250 pages!) Apple’s constant revamping of the iTunes interface, which has driven many a loyal Mac user to profanity, is largely responsible for this, and is one of the main reasons I subscribed to Rdio two years ago.
Rdio also scratched a major itch. I grew up in an era of music scarcity, and could afford only albums that I was certain I’d like. I didn’t have my own turntable, so I recorded my favorite songs to cassettes and listened to them ad infinitum. In high school, my musical tastes didn’t mesh with those of my friends, so it wasn’t until college that I met people with whom I could share recordings of my favorites. But even then, my music collection was minuscule compared to many. I never got into digital file sharing, and it was clear that I could spend far too much in the iTunes Store, so I restricted myself to adding singles I loved (on albums I’d never buy) to my iTunes library.
So you can imagine my reaction when streaming services like Spotify and Rdio appeared. It was an embarrassment of riches — all the music I’d never been able to explore. After determining that I preferred Rdio’s clean white interface to Spotify’s dark look on the Mac and signing up for a monthly plan to eliminate the ads, I started building a collection of artists and albums I’d always wanted to try, but wasn’t willing to buy unheard.
Fast forward two years, and Apple Music has just appeared. Pricing is similar to Rdio, the selection is likely better, integration with all my Apple devices should be top-notch, and the three-month trial is a great chance to give it a try. My time is just about up, and the question is, given all of Apple Music’s advantages, will I be dropping Rdio and paying Apple instead?
Just the opposite. Apple Music, enmeshed as it is within iTunes’ convoluted interface, is just too hard to use. It’s not that I can’t use it — I know perfectly well how to do so, just like I know how to compose complex pattern-matching searches with grep in BBEdit. But I expend the extra effort in BBEdit because the results are worth it; in contrast, clawing my way through obscure and ever-changing controls in iTunes doesn’t get me any further than a couple of clicks in Rdio, particularly when it comes to building my music library.
Before I get into details, note that I’m fully willing to acknowledge that how I prefer to discover and listen to music is likely different from how you do it, and it may even be really odd — I don’t know. Regardless, iTunes is obstructionist in ways Rdio isn’t.
Turning on the Rdio -- Here’s my standard approach when I’m seeking out new music. I start at a song I like, generally because it’s already playing in Rdio. With a single click on the artist’s name, Rdio displays an artist page with a brief bio, that artist’s top albums and top songs, and a collection of related artists. I’ll pick a related artist largely at random, and a click displays their page. Another click plays that artist’s most popular song or album, and if I like what I hear, yet another click on an album cover shows its contents, often along with a review and similar albums. After I’ve listened to the entire album, a click on the heart button adds it to my favorites, or, if only a few songs are worthy, a contextual menu item lets me add just them. In short, exploring through Rdio’s library of 30 million songs is fast, fluid, and flexible.
Playing a selection of music beyond a single song or album is equally easy. There are three main station-based options: the collection of my favorites on what Rdio calls “Adam FM,” an artist-based station, or a song-based station. For each station, there’s a three-position slider that lets you specify how adventurous Rdio should be. The first position plays just items from your favorites or from the specified artist, the second position plays music that’s tightly related, and the third position tells Rdio to go further afield in its selections.
Personally, I never let Rdio leave my favorites list when playing Adam FM, and only occasionally will I loosen the slider to the second position when playing an artist station. I find hearing bad songs extremely jarring, and I’d prefer that Rdio just didn’t play any rather than make me constantly interact with the player (skipping a track just moves on, whereas clicking the thumbs down button tells the current station you never want to hear that track again). Helpfully, Rdio always displays what’s playing in context, either with its album cover or, if you’re within the album, within the set list.
And yes, you can make playlists all you want. I seldom do, since I don’t have time to think that hard about slicing and dicing my collection, and the combination of Adam FM and artist stations gives me sufficient variety within constraints.
That’s pretty much it. Rdio has lots of other ways of finding music — entire collections for albums that are trending, new releases, personalized recommendations based on your favorites, music listened to by other Rdio users you follow, and a ton of genre-based stations. Whatever — I haven’t met the algorithm that can reliably recommend music I like, and people are seldom any better. I’m a collector — I enjoy finding music on my own. (If necessary, Rdio also has an entirely capable search, should I read a review of an artist or album that I’d like to listen to.)
Fumbling Toward iTunes -- Ignoring the fact that I’ve been able to do all this in Rdio for years now, I must say that it’s possible to recreate my system with Apple Music in iTunes. But it’s difficult enough that as much as I tried to make myself do it, I just couldn’t.
To start, when you launch iTunes, it returns you to wherever you were last. That means that if you were viewing an iPhone app’s page in the App Store but now want to play music, you have to orient yourself and then click the tiny musical note button in the left side of the iTunes navigation bar to switch to Music. Next, depending again on what you were doing the last time you were in My Music, you may have to click My Music or Playlists in the middle portion of the navigation bar to see your collection.
Starting the equivalent of Rdio’s Adam FM is easy enough — a double-click on All Artists in the sidebar, although which sidebar it’s in depends on whether you’re in My Music or Playlists, and the necessary sidebar appears only if you’re in Artists view at the far left of the iTunes navigation bar. And while iTunes starts playing the first song from the first artist, alphabetically, once it moves on in shuffle mode, you can tell what’s playing only by looking at the tiny LCD display at the top of the window. (One trick — choose Controls > Go To Current Song, or press Command-L, to jump to that song’s artist page.) The MiniPlayer window is more obvious about what’s playing, but requires juggling another window (and it lacks the shuffle button in the LCD).
Let’s branch out and try to find new music in the way I do in Rdio. If you’re in the main window, in My Music or Playlists, trying to view an artist’s page in Apple Music can be a baffling exercise. Sure, if you’re in Artists view, you can just click an artist name in the sidebar. Fine.
But it gets harder. If you’re in Songs or Albums view, clicking the tiny … button that appears only when you mouse over a song title presents (eventually — I always experience a delay) a pop-up menu with a Go To Artist command. But if you’re instead in Artists, Composers, or Genres view, that very same pop-up menu lacks a Go To Artist command.
The … button’s menu always seems to include Go To Artist when clicked from the iTunes LCD or the MiniPlayer window for the current song, and for everything in Up Next in both, which is great. Wait, I take that back! Go To Artist doesn’t appear in either the LCD or the MiniPlayer when you’re playing a station — when you’re most likely to want it — although it does when you’re playing a For You playlist. Trying to predict iTunes is like playing a shell game.
Maddeningly, it seems that there’s always a Show In iTunes Store command in that pop-up menu, but choosing that takes you to the iTunes Store, not to the artist page in Apple Music. Once you’re in the iTunes Store, there’s no way to get back to Apple Music’s artist page. Even the Controls > Back command navigates only within the iTunes Store itself.
Once you do eventually make your way to an artist’s page in Apple Music, it offers the same basic features as Rdio: top songs, top albums, a bio, and related artists. But Apple Music swaps the order, putting songs first. That makes it easy to listen to an artist’s hits, which is great, but then it’s harder to explore entire albums. Happily, within an artist page, you can click the names of related artists to jump to their pages, rather than having to use the little … button. Sadly, Apple Music doesn’t extend the artist name linking to bios, as Rdio does, eliminating a nice way to bop around the catalog.
Actually, I need to step back a moment, because there are essentially two pages for any artist, one that appears when you’re in My Music or Playlists, and another that’s in New (another of those labels in the middle of the iTunes navigation bar). To clarify, say that you’re in My Music and you view an artist page. You can play any song or album you see from My Music, but if you click an album or other artist name, you’re shown that album or artist in the New view. Since iTunes seems to think of each of these views as a separate tab in a Web browser, using Controls > Back like you would in a Web browser only moves you within the New view. So if you click an album on a My Music artist page, you’re switched to New, and using Back takes you to the last artist or album page you viewed in New, not back to the artist page in My Music.
I’m sure there are logical reasons why iTunes has to have completely different interfaces for navigating to an artist page, depending on where you are in the app, and for making the Back command specific to each view, but honestly, I don’t care. Just because there’s a logical reason for something doesn’t make it a good interface, or an enjoyable interface, and I expect even more from Apple than from Rdio. It’s one thing when iTunes is free, and inescapable for certain things, but I’m not going to pay monthly for the privilege of increasing my blood pressure every time I want to listen to music.
Regardless of how you get to an artist’s page, once you’re there, there’s a key control that switches the view between All and My Music. The former shows all of the artist’s music; the latter just those albums that you’ve added to My Music. To add a particular album to My Music, you click a tiny + button in the upper right corner of the album page; once clicked, it turns into a checkmark. That’s the only way to know if you’ve added an album, so if you come back to an artist later, you have to navigate into each album independently, look for the checkmark, and navigate back out to the artist page. In contrast, Rdio shows a heart icon on every favorited album, wherever it appears.
As with Rdio, Apple Music lets you create stations based on artists or songs, but as I noted before, there’s no way to jump to an artist page if you hear a song from an unfamiliar artist that you like. Worse, unlike Rdio, you have almost no control over what a station plays — you can’t limit it to one artist, nor can you tell it to be more or less adventurous in what it selects. You can at least tell Apple Music to Play More Like This, and if you really don’t like something, to Never Play This Song.
Much has been said about Apple Music’s For You screen in iTunes. It offers numerous human-curated playlists as well as recommended albums based on your music collection. Unfortunately, the fact that I like The Doors means I like The Doors, not that I will like anything in a playlist called “Hollywood Freaks on Runyon Canyon” and described as “L.A.-inspired indie-folk and rock tracks — but no movie stars in sight.” There might even be a song or two I’d like in there, but every For You playlist that ventures beyond a single artist has also been saddled with numerous songs I seriously dislike, and listening to music shouldn’t require constant decision-making. For You might be good for you, but it’s not for me.
It’s ironic — by forcing myself to document just these inconsistencies and annoyances in the iTunes interface (and there are many more) for this article, I see how I could, over time, train myself to work around them. But the benefit simply isn’t great enough to bother, and worse, I suspect Apple will keep rearranging the deck chairs on the unhappy ship that is iTunes, wasting any effort that I were to put in now. So it’s back to Rdio I go.
Be aware that the free trial of Apple Music is set to renew to a paying plan automatically, so if you don’t want to get charged, click your name at the top of the iTunes window, choose Account Info, and enter your Apple ID password. On the Account Information screen that appears, scroll way down to Settings, and click the Manage link to the right of Subscriptions. Once there, you can turn off automatic renewal.
One final note. Although it’s financially trivial to switch between Apple Music, Rdio, and Spotify, the hard part is recreating your collection of artists, albums, and playlists. Luckily, numerous tools have popped up to facilitate moving between the services. Although I can’t recommend any particular one because they’re all slightly different, it’s worth checking out Mooval, Soundiiz, Playlist Converter, Playlist Exchange, Ivy, re/spin, Exportify, Stamp, and Move to Apple Music.