After about a year of buildup and questions about whether the world needed yet another streaming music service, Apple released iTunes Radio on Wednesday, and so far, the answer to all those questions is a resounding “yes.” This service is taking up a lot of my discretionary time right now, mainly because it corrects many of the downsides of other services such as Pandora, Slacker and Spotify's radio function.
Each of those services is good for a specific use but has its blind and deaf spots. Pandora is great for creating stations based on individual artists and either cultivating how it populates its playlists or just setting it and forgetting it. Unfortunately, Pandora also has one of the lowest numbers of available songs for any service — about 1 million tracks. Last week, Pandora's manager of curation, Michael Addicott, told CNET that Pandora is “not investing in music that people aren't interested in.”
As someone with a long history of investing in the kind of music Addicott is not including in his service, I quietly closed the book on my relationship with Pandora. Thanks for clearing things up for me.
For its part, Slacker is even easier to set and forget, because its focus is on curated playlists — the service has 300 premade stations with some flexibility for creating stations based on individual performers.
I have friends who are loyal Slacker acolytes because it is a fairly low-maintenance music solution with a larger music library than Pandora.
And as someone who subscribed to Spotify during its first week of U.S. service, I'm fiercely loyal to the point of being kind of a fanboy, mainly because I can listen to almost any song or album on demand, but their “radio” function leaves something to be desired.
I have used it when I want a low-demand Pandora-style music experience without messing with playlists, but I've found that, for a service with 20 million songs at its disposal, I get a lot of repeats and not a lot of variety on its preset stations.
The iTunes Radio song count bests Pandora 27 to 1, which means Apple's service has all those songs that Addicott has not bothered to include on Pandora.
But what makes iTunes Radio a streaming music luxury experience is the simple user interface and the option for users to adjust the preset stations.
Users with Apple IDs and iTunes passwords are ready to go. Hit the “New Station” icon and iTunes Radio takes the listener to 30 music categories, each of which includes at least 10 subcategories. “Classic Alternative” is not strictly a Smiths-Cure-New Order proposition: the subcategories include but are not limited to Britpop, classic punk, Goth, New Romantic and shoegaze. Then, after logging into one of those choices, the user can tune a station to be narrowly focused on “hits,” add some “variety” or go into full “discovery” mode, in which the playlist can get fairly deep into the hardly known and rarely heard levels of that era.
The variety is there (“Regional Mexicano,” anyone? There's plenty of Duranguense, Norteno and Tejano for the next quinceañera celebration) and the sound quality is equal to or better than its competitors, so it's not just an earbud experience. What will make iTunes Radio an important part of my streaming diet is the clean operation. Despite the obvious joys of Spotify, its user interface is fairly complicated for on-the-go smartphone use, but iTunes Radio is just as easy on the phone as it is on the laptop or the iPad.
Much like iTunes simplified the music download process a decade ago, iTunes Radio finally makes streaming music about as easy as turning on a radio.