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iTunes Radio: Poor reception

Christopher Breen | March 6, 2014
While iTunes Radio satisfies the need of a casual listener, it seems like a half-baked service to listeners who really care about music.

If iTunes Radio is your first exposure to algorithmic station generation you might think this is just the way it is. However, Pandora has shown us how well this can be done. In similar tests with Pandora my J.S. Bach channel played music from the Baroque era, as it should. Its "White Christmas" station played holiday classics recorded in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. And Eno? Ambient music by the boatload.

More limited than I like: It's quite possible that iTunes Radio has a larger catalog than Pandora's but it's hard to tell based on what you hear. When creating a Miles Davis station I didn't hear a lick from him. Rather, the first two tracks were from pianists Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner. Pandora's Miles Davis station actually leads off with one of his tracks. And this is a fairly common occurrence. The artists you choose for a station rarely appear on it.

More curation needed: As I write this, iTunes Radio has 43 "featured stations" that cover a variety of genres. These aren't auto-generated but rather playlists created by Apple. As such, the music they hold — unlike the generated stations — makes thematic sense. I'm fairly sure there are several more curated stations — The Beatles station, I believe, is curated, though it doesn't appear in the featured stations list.

Still, even if Apple has 100 curated stations, it's far behind Beats Music. This service, launched months after iTunes Radio, has over 500 stations filed under its Alternative genre heading alone.

Not for fans

Much of my frustration with iTunes Radio relates to what I think it could be rather than what it is. Services such as Pandora, Spotify, Beats Music, Rhapsody, Slacker, and Rdio are, first and foremost, music purveyors. In the real world you might equate them to a music shop that sells CDs, vinyl, and the occasional bong. They have to address the needs of people who are fanatical about music. If, instead, they offer an experience no more compelling than the CD bins at the local Walmart, serious music lovers will look elsewhere.

Music is only one of Apple's businesses and selling that music still drives Apple's efforts. iTunes' Genius, Match, and Radio features are designed largely to compel you to purchase music, which, in turn, is meant to fill the iOS devices, Apple TVs, and computers Apple also sells. For iTunes Radio that means a service created for the casual listener — someone who's happy with music that's in the ballpark and, perhaps, who wants to occasionally hear a previously-unheard track that compels them to tap the Buy button. And that's fine for the "close enough" listener. For those of us who really care about music, however, it means a service that's regrettably half-baked.


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