My wife is a saint. Every time we listen to satellite radio in our car and a DJ comes along, she has to put up with me complaining. “You just don’t want to hear people talking,” she says, and she’s absolutely right. I accept that other people like to listen to the rattling DJs, but I hate it and I will switch channels until there is a song I want to listen to. I don’t want to hear who is touring where, or who said something interesting on a show, or even the behind-the-scenes details of how a song was written. Not when I’m just trying to listen to music.
That’s the beauty of streaming music services like Apple Music: whether you’re listening to a curated playlist or even a “radio station,” you can skip songs you don’t like and there’s no interference from voices. It’s all about the music.
Or at least it was. But recently, Apple Music has made some changes, and they are disastrous. A new tastemaker has apparently rolled into Apple Music headquarters and has decided that aggressive marketing to paying customers is the solution to a problem that literally no one had. The result is a degraded Apple Music experience.
Without ads… except our own ads
As be aware through my former Macworld colleague Jim Dalrymple, Apple has begun inserting ads into its “ad-free” on-demand radio stations. Yes, they are ads for other Apple Music radio shows, but does it matter? The fact remains that if you listen to an Apple Music streaming radio station like Classic Rock or Alternative, you will eventually hear a 40-second ad for Zane Lowe or Strombo or other pre-recorded Apple Music radio episodes. What was once an ad-free music experience is now interrupted by…promo copy.
There are plenty of ad-supported music services. What’s different about Apple Music’s curated playlists and radio stations is that we Pay for them, and we expect them to be about the music, and nothing but the music.
Couldn’t Jim solve this problem now by putting his finger close to the skip button (or the equivalent hotkey) so that whenever a promo appeared on his radio show, he could just skip it? Of course, although I’ll point out that you’re not always in a context where you can skip right away – if you’re not near the remote or your keyboard, or if you don’t want to be forced to yell at Siri to get to the next song to go.
But that completely misses the point. Whether we’re listening to music to focus while writing, relaxing at the end of a long day, or anything in between, it’s distracting to be pulled out of the music and forced to listen to an ad. It doesn’t matter if the ad is for other Apple Music programs, or the Kars for Kids song, or even an offer to give away free gold bars – an ad is an interruption, regardless of its content.
Jim’s complaints resonated with me because I recently complained about discovering another new Apple Music marketing technique: inserting promotional interviews into Apple-curated playlists. I spent an inordinate amount of time working while listening to Apple’s ALT CTRL playlist, which highlights the latest in Alternative Rock. It was once a fantastic playlist full of the latest alternative tracks from Maneskin and Maggie Rogers
A while ago, Apple Music redesigned its playlist pages to highlight blurbs about artists featured in the playlist that week, along with photos of the featured artist. It seemed a little strange to me – and it gives off a faint smell of oily marketing for music artists – but I could just choose not to read it, so I didn’t let it annoy me too much.
Then came step two of the process: Apple started inserting a “spoken word” song into the playlist, which included a short mini-interview with that week’s artist. The whole fundamental concept of a playlist is that it contains songs† Now Apple’s playlists also include promotional fluff for whatever artist is making the rounds this week.
There is no interface for that
None of this would be so insulting…if Apple had a way for people like me to opt out. Apple likes to brag about its connection to music, and of course everything it does is delivered through software. This means that Apple Music lives at the intersection of music and technology. And yet, does the Music app offer features that allow me to avoid Apple’s ads and promos? It does not.
Let’s start with the dumbest of them all: Although Apple carefully places its artist interview track above a song by that artist, shuffle the ALT CTRL playlist. The Music app does not associate the spoken track with the music track and does not skip the spoken track during shuffles. It does the dumbest thing possible: shuffles the spoken number so that it appears randomly during a session and thus makes no sense.
Longtime iTunes users remember that there used to be the concept of an unchecked song, a song you kept in your library but would never play. Music doesn’t have that concept. You can’t remove a song from a curated playlist or tell Music not to play it.
There’s the option, at least on the Mac, to “dislike” a song, but while that feeds Apple’s algorithms (on iOS it’s inconsistently but accurately called “play less like this”), it doesn’t stop it. that the unliked song is played . This seems like a pretty obvious feature, given that there are often songs in Apple’s playlists that I’d rather never hear again (I’m looking at you, “Chaise Longue”), but I can’t convey that wish in the advanced piece of computer software that controls my music listening experience.
So here’s where we are: Apple’s decision to put things that aren’t songs into its collections of songs has made Apple Music’s curated playlists and algorithmic radio stations significantly worse. And at the same time, the Music app has proven completely incapable of helping people who don’t want their music mixed with promos and gossip.
The way forward for Apple Music is simple: turn off the ads and promos until your app can unsubscribe us from hearing them. But until then, if you insist on pushing this non-music on us, I curse you to an eternity of listening to nothing but the Kars for Kids jingle. You heard me.