In June of 2015, Apple Music went live, and with it came Beats 1 Music, a “24/7 global listening experience” featuring radio shows curated by experts like former BBC Radio 1 host Zane Lowe, Hot 97 host Ebro Darden, and grime connoisseur Julie Adenuga. In the initial press release, Apple played up the human element, using the term “radio with soul” to describe the service. While the other major players in streaming offered an impersonal, technology-driven approach,
Apple Music decided to put people at the front and center.
Apple Music launched with all the standard functionality of Spotify and TIDAL: a huge catalog, the ability to make and listen to playlists, and a monthly subscription option for ad-free listening. But Beats 1 Radio made it feel as if music streaming and discovery finally had a human touch to it. The question arose: Is this carefully considered balance between man and machine the future of streaming?
Or was it a step backward? For consumers trying to decide whether or not to ditch Spotify or TIDAL and invest their $10 a month in Apple, it was confusing.
Radio? In 2015? Really?
About a month after the launch of Beats 1 Radio, Spotify introduced the Discover Weekly playlist, calling it “your ultimate personalized playlist.” Updated every Monday, the playlist delivered two hours of customized music recommendations based on personal tastes and listening habits. It used an algorithm to pick music that you’re likely to like, and it worked. “It’s like having your best friend make you a personalized mixtape every single week,” a press release from Spotify promised. By October 2015, over one billion songs had been streamed through the automated playlists. It was a tremendous success, by any numerical measure.
In September, at London’s Radio Festival 2015, Lowe admitted that even he had his uncertainties about where Beats 1 fit in with the future of music. When asked why Apple Music needed Beats 1 Radio, he said, “I’m not sure it does. We’re working this out, time will tell. We’ve been going three months, I don’t have the answers. I hope that there’s a place for it.”
Today, Lowe sounds less unsure of himself. He explains his 2015 comment: “What was probably a little misconstrued from my answer—it was a kind of muddled answer—was that it was early days, and we were still in the process of working out what we were ultimately good at. But the objective was always very clear: to break records, to find new music, and to put exciting new artists in front of an audience that wants to hear it.”
People’s willingness to be surprised has been dulled, so it is a little more shocking, and not in a good way, when a DJ tries to go left. But we still try. There’s still nothing better as a DJ than when you can break away from the norm and go somewhere else with it. – MICK
Of course, that’s always been the goal, but algorithmically built custom playlists can do that. What’s the point of involving humans in the process of music discovery? Does the success of Spotify’s Discover Weekly signal the beginning of the end for DJs, bloggers, and so-called tastemakers?
“They’ve eliminated a big chunk of the human curation aspect,” A-list DJ and producer MICK explains, “but I’d expect that because the way we’re consuming music in general is much different. Forty years ago people sat in front of the radio to hear new music. People would get in their car and drive around to listen to a specific radio show because the antenna in their house wasn’t strong enough. Now, just like everything else, it’s 24/7, 365. There’s music on your phone, music on your computer. People are Shazaming TV commercials to find songs. The way we’re consuming music is created by the same technology that we use to discover it.”
The downside to automated music discovery is that we’re encouraged to develop a taste profile and stick to it. Discover Weekly is usually on point, statistically speaking. Listening to music similar to what you’re already listening to is usually going to be enjoyable. But automated music discovery only keeps us in a predictable, formulaic system. If you’re only listening to new music based on what you already like, or based on what others with similar tastes like, you’re going to miss out on left-field discoveries.
“People’s willingness to be surprised has been dulled,” MICK says, “so it is a little more shocking, and not in a good way, when a DJ tries to go left. But we still try. There’s still nothing better as a DJ than when you can break away from the norm and go somewhere else with it. When people are really surprised and really into it, that’s still the best reaction a DJ can get. It totally comes down to expert human curation.”
[Music is] fucking real, and it breathes, and it moves. It doesn’t sit in a fucking list waiting to be handpicked by a computer. It’s fucking constantly moving! It’s changing shape right now! – Zane Lowe
In his own curation, Lowe emphasizes an element that very much depends on the human touch. “Context is a really important word for us, because we’re playing a DIIV record next to a Mura Masa record, next to an Isaac Gracie record, next to a Missy Elliott record. Certainly, in some respects, people are like, ‘How are you gonna make that make sense?’ Well, it’s about the context. Missy will sound different today when she’s played next to Isaac Gracie compared to yesterday when I played her next to Destructo.”
Only time will tell if Beats 1 Radio will become the new blueprint for music streaming in the future, and if DJs who dedicate their life to selecting music will be able to work in harmony with customized playlists like Discover Weekly. The technology will keep improving, but human beings will always be able to offer irreplaceable context and true unpredictability. After all, music is an art, not a science.
Lowe suggests that the key is finding a balance between automated suggestions and human recommendations. “That’s the code for the future. [Music is] fucking real, and it breathes, and it moves. It doesn’t sit in a fucking list waiting to be handpicked by a computer. It’s fucking constantly moving! It’s changing shape right now! Go listen to a record that you thought you had a handle on 10 years ago and how much you’ve changed and grown as a person, and it will sound totally different.”
“The main thing for me is that I hope I wasn’t being too critical towards the algorithmic state,” he says. “I understand the importance of it. And it’s a big part of evolution and progression. I really appreciate that side of things in the sense that yes, convenience is important, and it may actually bring you something that you didn’t expect. Where I draw the line is when people tell me it’s the beginning of something and the death of something else, because I don’t believe in the beginning and ends of things. People said vinyl was dead, and I mean, hello?”