HITS Daily Double


How Beats Music Became a Fixation for One Editorial Geek
by Simon Glickman

I remember feeling slightly irked by the sudden ubiquity of the term “curation” in pop culture—as though anyone who stuck a bunch of video links in a blog was suddenly qualified to run a museum. Beats Music made much of its curated content, offering a human touch where its competitors relied entirely on algorithms.

When I first used the Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre-founded mobile service (splashily acquired by Apple, along with Beats Electronics and team, earlier this year) I found it roughly similar to Spotify, with a cleaner, more eye-pleasing interface, perhaps, but not much different. CEO Ian Rogers assured me that it was about to get much better.

I get the curation thing now.

Having spent many months building playlists and tasking the Beats search engine with a multitude of obscurities, I found that it learned my taste. But an important distinction should be made: Whereas any service that knows you listen to Nirvana and Soundgarden will throw a ’90s alt-rock playlist at you, Beats gets more specific—which in my case also means more general.

While I often open the Beats app intending to hear one of my extremely quirky playlists, I always stop by the “Just for You” page, the centerpiece of Team Beats’ curatorial efforts. Some of the playlists are what you’d expect on any streaming site, but Beats excels with its “Intro to” and “influences” sets (I’ve seen Big Star, Thin Lizzy and Devo, among others) and really hipster options (songs produced by John Cale!).

But here’s where it gets me: The assortment of album choices is more reminiscent of walking into a friend’s living room than dialing up tunes in cyberspace. You know that friend who’ll drop the needle on Blondie’s Parallel Lines or Roberta Flack & Donnie Hathaway or Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy when you walk in? The friend who doesn’t need to guess what you wanna hear? That’s Beats—at this point in our relationship, at least.

The reason for this is that Beats is, in a sense, a human friend—thanks to the curation overseen by Rogers, programming guru Julie Pilat and team.

Beats Music's Ian Rogers and Luke Wood with Jimmy Iovine; Julie Pilat

I’ve been saying this since the idea of a “digital music platform” was still a fairly sci-fi concept: Listening, for active music fans, is typically about the balance of choice and chance. Sometimes you’ve just gotta hear Arctic Monkeys or The Meters or Patsy Cline. Sometimes you just want to browse through some selections, and maybe you’re downcast enough to dive into a “curated” mix of breakup songs. Add the allure of occasional “discovery” (as when I found and fell in love with early-’70s troupe Chunky, Novi & Ernie … produced by John Cale, dontcha know) and you’ve captured the gamut of experience for most music obsessives.

But Beats has added an element I hadn’t anticipated—rediscovery.

I can’t think of any other service that’s so often reminded me of music I love but haven’t thought about in ages. Revisiting those records is a sublime pleasure, and it’s gratifying that Beats understands my, um, eclectic impulses enough to serve up Kraftwerk and Fairport Convention at the same time.

I confess that I haven’t much used “the sentence”--the Mad Lib-like widget that lets you construct playlists by saying “I’m (chilling at the gym) with (my gynecologist) to (old-school surf-rock)”—but it seems to me that testing its limits would be a fun party game for certain pop nerds I know.

It’s worth mentioning that Beats can be what it is because it doesn’t have a free tier. Co-founder Iovine long insisted that ads would dilute the experience, and he was right. But the subscription model is, as we’ve seen lately, the only way to offer a reasonably comprehensive range of music. Spotify’s free tier has become, for me, rather frustratingly truncated in its offerings and navigability, though I suppose it’s adequate as a kind of portable Top 40 station.

Beats doesn’t have a throng of subscribers yet. This has prompted some dismissive commentary that strikes me as shortsighted. Apple will undoubtedly fold the service invitingly into its ecosystem, and when it pushes the button to summon potential subscribers, I expect it to garner a healthy response.

In the meantime, though, I’ll be geeking out to this Todd Rundgren mix.

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