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Retuning Rdio: Why I Dropped Apple Music

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.


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Comments about Retuning Rdio: Why I Dropped Apple Music
(Comments are closed.)

Ian Stavert  2015-10-09 03:40
Thanks for that review and comparison. I've looked at streaming music sites in the last couple of years, and had a couple of stations on the precursor to the current Apple Music, and was not that fussed. I've just got onboard Rdio thanks to your review and liking it a lot at the moment. I'm signed up for the free trial and then go onto the Unlimited plan. I will wait till after the free trial ends to download the app to my iPhone 6 to make sure Apple doesn't charge me their store rate for my subscription rather than the cheaper version you get direct from Rdio. Sadly, on my MBP 15 Airplay doesn't work from it's home location, but will work with me sitting in front of it (although slight stuttering). My MB Air 11 however stutters badly on Airplay sitting right in front of it. Don't know if this is an issue with Airplay or the Rdio app on the Macs.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-10-09 11:31
AirPlay can be funky, but I use Rdio on a Mac mini server and AirPlay it to my AirPort Express without trouble (using the system-level AirPlay option for sound out). That works fine, so Rdio shouldn't be related to any stuttering.
Christopher Plummer  2015-10-09 10:02
Thanks for the summary, and for confirming I'm not alone in findng iTunes frustrating just about every time I use it. Absolutely agree that mastering it may be possible, but not worth the effort. For that reason (the interface) alone I have chosen to forego Apple Music for now.
I have to admit something; I didn't read the whole article.

I got to a certain point and just thought 'iTunes is really heavy and unwieldy, and I'm not surprised it's hammering other users. I just don't 'trust' it any more'. So I can't be bothered to read anymore about it.

I'm a 15 year Apple user and enthusiast, and love their hardware, but I'd do anything to avoid iTunes.

Re: iOS, Android has FAR greater support for other video formats and is far more flexible. Sad to admit given I've bought 2 iPads in the last few months. But Apple becoming far too locked down.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-10-10 22:52
Hah! I have to admit, I felt a little bad about documenting how inconsistent and confused the iTunes interface is in such detail, but I didn't want to be accused of criticizing it without support. Your summary of "really heavyweight and unwieldy" is spot on.
andrew linden  2015-10-12 18:56
Quite so.

A Mac user since OS 7, I was well put off iTunes by my childrens’ battles with it when attempting to use their early gen iPods.

When the time came to buy a tablet I went for a Nexus 10 in order to have direct (albeit clumsy) access to the file system and to avoid being bullied by iTunes.
Frans Moquette  2015-10-17 09:25
Same here. After the first few paragraphs of "Fumbling towards iTunes" I just 'tuned out'. ;-)
I think Apple should completely overhaul iTunes. Seperate the tunes from the other stuff and recreate a focused, easy to use app for just music.
Dennis B. Swaney  2015-10-12 19:45
I guess I'm unique in that I don't understand all the whining about iTunes. It does exactly what I WANT: install music, apps, and books on my iPhone/iPad/iPod. However, I do have one gripe: I wish Apple would leave well enough alone. It was best in version 9; I only went to 10 because of the iPhone 5, ditto 11 for iPhone 6. Support for both of those could have been added without the massive UI changes each time. The last two versions the vast majority of the UI changes were "just for change sake". I place the blame squarely on Jony Ives; while he may be good at HARDWARE design, he sucks at software design.
Cliff McKnight  2015-10-13 06:23
I agree that Apple should stop fixing something that ain't broke and the UI continues to get worse. However, I don't just use iTunes for listening, I use it for containing all my music. In conjunction with two Mac-only applications (MegaSeg and Sound Studio) I use iTunes as the source of music for my weekly podcast. Unless I invest in completely new hardware and software, I don't see an alternative.
Chris Bastian  2015-10-13 09:01
I still don't understand the appeal of streaming radio. I appreciate the flexibility of having a wide range of music at your fingertips, as well as the search capabilities, but in a world where most people don't have unlimited data accounts, it seems to be a more expensive alternative to loading everything on your phone
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-10-13 09:24
It's not about the iPhone at all, it's about the Mac, which is where I explore and listen to music primarily.

Rdio has an iPhone app, and you can mark music to be downloaded to it so you don't stream while you're out and about, but that's no more interesting than stuffing songs in a playlist in iTunes so you can listen to them in the Music app on an iPhone. I presume Spotify is the same. With the more radio-based services like Pandora that has to stream everything, I think you're absolutely right - a complete bandwidth hog.

(At least that got better with iOS 9. In iOS 8.4.1 with Apple Music, when I tried to make my main playlist of favorites available offline, the Music app somehow got only 8 of 577 tracks. It would claim to be downloading the rest, and would sometimes claim to finish, but every time I checked back, everything but those 8 would be gone again. Happily, in iOS 9, that stopped being a problem.)
John Nemo  2015-10-16 12:35
This is a huge topic. I have been a subscriber and user of many streaming music services for years, for personal and professional purposes. I am pleased to be a paying RDIO and Pandora One subscriber. My RDIO usage is very different from Adam's, including detailed playlists for different music students and for testing varieties of audio equipment. I'm glad Adam emphasizes the interface and ease of use of RDIO. That black background with white letters on other services is horrible, especially for older eyes. Another good new service is Deezer, finally available in the USA. Deezer excels in three important improvements: custom equalizer, song lyrics, and local iTunes/podcast content. You can try Deezer for free and test it. There is so much more to say about streaming audio, and fortunately we have abundant choices from Apple and independent companies. BTW, Roku streaming media devices have RDIO service built-in. For this and Amazon Prime streaming I have both an AppleTV and a Roku 3. [ Nemo / MyMac ]
Owen Laws  2015-10-20 10:46
Another iTunes horror story: while trying out Apple Music I noticed that my own music and playlists had been removed from offline availability. I figured they would return after letting the trial laps, but no. I was left with a musically empty iPhone.

Ok, I sighed, guess I'll have to sync them back in iTunes. But how?!? The previous syncing options were completely gone. After an hour of increasingly vocal frustration I finally figured out that I had to turn off iCloud Music Library - on my iPhone!
iTunes on my MBP apparently sensing this adjustment to The Force, found it to be realigned, and started allowing music syncing again. I had also previously turned of Show Apple Music (mostly as revenge) in both iTunes and the iPhone. Don't know if that also contributed to the realignment.
The strange thing is that the slide for turning on iCloud Music Library no longer appears in (I think it was) iPhone ->Settings->Music! Was it all just a dream…?