October 26, 2019

So long Apple Music, back to Spotify

Having been a long-time Spotify subscriber, earlier this year I decided to try Apple Music on a free 4-month trial. I’ve lasted 9 months, but it’s time to switch back. The bottom line is Spotify’s search is insanely good, the mobile/desktop apps are better and more tightly integrated, and it does a better job at suggesting new music I like. I’m going to miss feeling like I’m actually curating my own private music collection, but it turns out I value those other things more in a music streaming service.

I also don’t mean for this post to be a big whinge, I genuinely hope just one Apple engineer or product manager finds this post to be useful feedback from someone who tried really hard to like Apple Music. Or, you know, maybe 99% of Apple Music users don’t actually care about these things. 🤷🏼‍♂️

Why even try Apple Music in the first place?

Pictures of things that helped my teenage self obsess over my music collection. The iPod is a stock photo, but this is a pretty accurate portrayal of my iPod’s screen in the year after that album was released. Image credit: MacWorldPictures of things that helped my teenage self obsess over my music collection. The iPod is a stock photo, but this is a pretty accurate portrayal of my iPod’s screen in the year after that album was released. Image credit: MacWorld

I opened up iTunes one day and got a bit of nostalgia. Firstly because I rediscovered my teenage music collection, but also because it reminded me of getting my first iPod, ripping CDs, and meticulously curating my music collection. The interfaces of the iPod and iTunes were so good at putting albums and their artwork front and centre, to the point where I would spend way too much time finding album artwork and editing album metadata to make everything look just right. Click-wheeling or (later on the iPod Touch) swiping through cover flow, flipping album covers over and reading the tracklists, I was 100% on the skeuomorphism train and loved interacting with my music collection.

After years of using Spotify, as enjoyable and convenient as that period was, I felt all I had was a giant list of song titles I’d plucked out of random playlists. Even for songs I really liked I often had no idea who the artists were or which albums the songs had come from. With Apple Music I thought I might be able to inject some life into my old iTunes library, mixing all of my own files with Apple Music’s full catalogue, all while getting some Siri integration as a bonus.

Where Spotify wins

Sharing and community playlists (network effect)

Here, let me share this Apple Music playlist with you” is a sentence no one ever said in the 9 months I used it. Everything is always a link to a Spotify playlist/album/artist, and I had to use a website that automatically converts between them.

Spotify also has a much better collection of community playlists — you can search for anything and you’ll usually find someone’s made a playlist for it. Apple tends to feature their own curated playlists which always have really polished artwork but I dunno, the actual music often felt a bit corny.

Search performance

Apple Music’s search is quite frustrating to use. Let’s walk through an example:

Example search in Apple MusicExample search in Apple Music

Firstly, for every search you must choose between searching your own library or the Apple Music catalogue by clicking a toggle button. Why?? I was really hoping the new Music app in macOS Catalina was going to improve this, but the toggle button lives on.

Secondly, see how I’ve typed in andrew bird”, but the search results are still from my previous search? The lack of search results appearing as you type can be quite confusing.

Now let’s compare the performance of search on each platform:

Search speed on Apple MusicSearch speed on Apple Music

On Apple Music there’s about 2 seconds between hitting return and the results appearing. Repeat that multiple times when you’re trying to find something a little less obvious, and then keep doing that multiple times a day — it gets quite frustrating.

Compare that with Spotify, where before I’ve even started typing bird” the results are already on screen:

Search speed on SpotifySearch speed on Spotify

The search performance is insanely good and it’s what I missed most when using Apple Music.

Apple Music favours greatest hits” and compilations instead of original albums

Apple Music’s search results and playlists tend to give you versions of songs from greatest hits” and compilation albums, and it’s super annoying when you want your library’s album view to actually look good.

Here’s an example where I search for the song homage” on Apple Music, hoping to find the original version to add to my library:

Apple Music search returns compilation albums instead of the originalsApple Music search returns compilation albums instead of the originals

The top search result is from a French compilation album called Nova le grand mix 2016, and it’s not the album I want in my library. The song from the original album is listed at number 5.

Let’s just check what happens on Spotify…

Spotify search returns the original album version as the top resultSpotify search returns the original album version as the top result

The top result is exactly the one I want.

The same thing happens on Apple’s curated playlists too — I would hear a song I liked and add it to my library, then later find I had added the 1967 compilation album Motown for kids and a bunch of other compilation albums to my library:

Just a few of the compilation albums I have in my library instead of the originalsJust a few of the compilation albums I have in my library instead of the originals

These albums are kinda tacky and I can’t imagine an old iPod/iTunes keynote that would feature a music library like this.

Better music recommendations

I found Apple’s For You” section to be weaker than Spotify’s Made For You”.

Apple’s structure is three featured playlists at the top:

  1. Chill Mix — I don’t know why the most featured playlist is so specific (maybe Apple thinks I need to relax?) but I never listened to this one.
  2. New Music Mix — this is recently released music Apple thinks I’ll like, but I think being being restricted to new releases, instead of all music in the universe, lowered the chances that I’d actually like any of the songs in this mix.
  3. Favourites Mix — this is just music from my own library that I play a lot. I don’t really need a playlist for this.

Underneath this they would feature playlists of recommended artists and genres, but I was missing Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Daily Mix [1-6] which felt like radio stations of generally quite good music I’d never heard before.

Spotify Connect lets you control music from any device

Let’s say Spotify on your laptop is Airplay-ing to some living room speakers. If you open the Spotify app on your phone while you’re in another room, Spotify Connect lets you control what the laptop is playing from the phone app. It’s brilliant, and I was so surprised that Apple, the supreme leaders in smooth integrations across their devices, has no integration at all for Apple Music. If you start playing something on your phone, the music cuts off on your laptop.

Soon you’ll be able to Handoff” music from your phone to your HomePod, but I don’t plan to buy a HomePod, and I just want to control music from any device and not switch devices.

Mobile/desktop app usability

In the same way Apple Music’s search is quite sluggish, browsing around the full catalogue of albums and playlists is just not as snappy as on Spotify.

Playback on songs can also take 1-2 seconds to start, compared with Spotify where it’s usually instantaneous. Spotify co-founder/CEO Daniel Ek said the original goal for the engineers was that it needs to feel like you have all your music on your hard drive,” and they succeeded. Interestingly, this feels like an evolution of the original iPod’s 1,000 songs in your pocket branding, and Spotify now seems to be beating Apple at this game.

In terms of general app usability, when iOS 13’s Music app was released I had to consult an Apple manual for the first time in my life. It wasn’t to learn about some obscure feature either, I just wanted to find the Shuffle button.

See if you can guess where the Shuffle button is from this playback screen:

Apple Music playback screenApple Music playback screen

In iOS 12 you would scroll down to find it, but this playback screen is no longer scrollable. Instead, you click the little stack menu icon at the bottom, and then if you squint you can find the tiny grey shuffle button:

Tap this menu button to open a different screenTap this menu button to open a different screen

Location of the shuffle button in iOS 13Location of the shuffle button in iOS 13

I also get confused when I try to exit this screen — do I swipe the modal back down? No, that swipes the playback screen away too. You tap the little menu button again and it returns you to the large album cover and main playback controls. I dunno, it’s a small thing, but it’s something I access so frequently and it’s just really cumbersome to use.

Meanwhile, on Spotify…

Spotify's shuffle button is a primary playback control. Spotify's shuffle button is a primary playback control.

Finally, the Music app on macOS Catalina is a huge improvement over what iTunes had become, but sad to say these new Catalina-style apps feel very unsatisfying to use and very un-Apple. There’s no visual feedback when you hover or click on most buttons, no animations going to/from different screens to orient yourself, no swipe to navigate back, and clicking on an album now jumps you to a new screen instead of showing the tracklist inline:

Splitting up the iTunes app was a huge feat in itself so I’m guessing they’ll address these minor UI issues later, but still.

The saving grace, however, is the Visualizer made it across to Catalina! Hallelujah!

The Visualizer in the new Music app on macOS Catalina, still there in case you ever need itThe Visualizer in the new Music app on macOS Catalina, still there in case you ever need it

Things I’ll miss with Apple Music

The biggest thing I’ll miss is what drew me to try Apple Music in the first place — having access to the full online catalogue, while also having a space to maintain a private music library and add your own local files. The Album” view of Apple Music is great, letting you browse through all of your album covers and partial tracklists saved to your library. Spotify’s Album” view only includes full albums you’ve saved, so the only place to browse your full library is in the Favorite Songs” list.

I also need to test if the Spotify’s new Siri integration matches Apple Music’s, because that has been pretty handy when going for a run.

Finally, Apple Music lets you have fine-grained control over which songs you keep downloaded to your phone, and I need to check again whether Spotify lets you do the same.

At the end of the day though, Spotify’s looking pretty good right now. I’ll keep an eye on Apple Music’s release notes and may come back later. 🤞🎧

Spotify Apple Music Apple

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