Three days listening to iTunes Radio

Katy Perry is one of the guest DJs launching Apple's iTunes Radio.

So it’s finally here: iTunes Radio, Apple’s streaming services, or technically, an attempt to face off against Spotify. Obvious difference one: you have access to it as long as you have upgraded to the latest versions of iTunes or iOS 7 and are in the US. (Well, actually, as long as you have an iTunes US account, which explains why I can listen to it.) Obvious difference two: listening is free and unlimited, although if you don’t want ads, you can subscribe to iTunes Match. But as a “replacement” for radio – and I put it in quotes because streaming services never really have, although they do help when everyone with a license to broadcast plays inanity – how does it stack up? I spent three days with it to answer that question. Or not.

First things first: I’m reviewing this on an iPhone 5 just upgraded to iOS 7. My mobile Internet can be fuzzy at home, but then again, that’s the downside of living on the fringes of Metro Manila rather than actually being in it. This review will focus on the genre-focused stations, and I spend most of my time on the genres I listen to a lot, unreasonably expecting it to act like the radio stations I listen to, although as you can see from the photo up there, I also spend some time with the curated stuff.

Thursday afternoon, post-upgrade: The first thing I listen to is, inevitably, the indie rock station, because if there’s one thing iTunes should do well, it’s play the indie stuff. I mean, the iTunes Store is where most of the smaller labels do their business nowadays, and with the streaming service essentially acting as their shop window, you should be able to hear some deeper stuff, right? Well, I listened for a good four hours and felt frustrated that the station began rotating songs and artists within an hour and a half of each other. That happened roughly four times. And you know me – song rotation is the enemy. Not a good start, iTunes. You’re making me lose hope this early.

Friday morning, during the commute: I figured, maybe it’s because I’m listening to the indie station, and there are just too many things in there, the curators (err, the Apple employee assigned to do that playlist and many others – this is the job my New York friend could have had!) can’t keep up. So I listen to the alternative station, which still had some of the rotation problems, but for the most part was all right. (I mean, I can live with less Imagine Dragons, and I know I can tell the service to play less of it, but for this review’s purposes I didn’t want to mess much.) It was like, uhh, Jam 88.3 without the shit DJs. I must mention that I have the station tuned to “variety”, which is in between “hits” (too much Imagine Dragons) and “discovery” (too much stuff I don’t know about). Same thing with the day before.

Friday morning, at work: After four hours listening to the alternative station, during which I hear the same AWOLNATION track every two hours, I realize that the Americans’ idea of alternative features a lot of whoa-whoa-ing. And the same artists rotated a lot. The playlist doesn’t repeat as much, although it’s a given that I am breaking this service by listening for hours while your typical user might only dip in for thirty minutes, but I find myself hoping for some more adventure. As radio analyst Sean Ross pointed out, the stations – even the ones that should be very varied, like gold stations – don’t run very deep. Side note: I did hear a track by Basic Vacation, which is your typical alternative band, a bit disappointing considering their sexy album art.

Friday afternoon, still at work: I decide to listen to one of the curated playlists, their “chilled out singer-songwriters” stream. No option to choose how deep you can go: you have to trust them on this one. And, for the most part, I feel rewarded, because the playlist is a good mix of familiar artists and stuff I haven’t heard of before, or in a while. (Nice surprise: hearing Elenowen, that duo who competed on the Voice with a weird hybrid name.) I heard a couple of songs repeated, but they were roughly three and a half hours apart.

Friday night, home from work: I tried some of their other curated playlists. The Twitter one, supposedly the songs that have been gaining traction on the microblogging service, is inevitably zeitgeist-y, playing a pretty varied playlist, although its focus on electronic stuff made me wonder if it knew I was listening on a Friday night. Also listened to Katy Perry’s guest DJ set, which is mostly her talking about the songs she chose, in between stuff iTunes thinks sounds similar, which means her talking about Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” followed by Iggy Azalea and Haim and that “we make love like gorillas” song.

Friday night, later: While listening to the alternative stations I started to wish for the capability to “merge” two stations to get a mix you want. “The stations are too genre-focused,” I was planning to write. And then I digged through the options and realized that I can, say, throw in a bit of new wave on their alternative radio. So I do that… and, well, it doesn’t work. It still plays the alternative playlist I was listening to earlier. You can’t also add more than one genre to your hybrid station (add someone else and it just replaces what you added before) so I decide that, right now, it’s an essentially useless function.

Saturday morning, rainy day: I’ve not had a lot of connection issues while testing the service out, although there are times when some songs would not play at all, or not play completely, or play the whole way through, only silently. Granted, that happened on a stable LTE connection. At home, where 3G is spotty at most, I’ve had less luck. The songs (still on the alternative station, note, which was playing a lot of the new The Naked and Famous album) would buffer, but not tell you it was, and then it’d just jump. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell Globe that you’ve got to upgrade your signal where I live.

Saturday morning, not so rainy day: What if I tune my radio station towards “discovery”? Some variety. On my alternative station. Hallelujah. What took you so long? And why is setting my stream to “discovery” giving me a mix that I expect when I set it to “variety”? It’s still rotating Arctic Monkeys far too often but at least it’s occasionally throwing in some Churchill. I end up listening to it for eight hours and it’s suddenly something I can endure. Was it because of the slider, or was it a tweak on Apple’s part? I don’t wanna risk it by sliding towards “variety” again.

Saturday afternoon, rainy day again: I switch to the indie station and slide towards “discovery”, and it sounds better now. I think a song repeated after only four hours, although granted, the stuff there got really obscure. (Less whoa-whoa-ing, more ooooh-ing.) I’m pretty convinced Apple flicked a switch somewhere. That, or they saw my tweets. The station also smartly threw up a play of its single of the week this week, from the Colourist, and I figure it’s something iTunes should do more often, what with them being a store and all. Maybe have a single of the week per genre and play it more often than usual?

Sunday morning, while writing: I realize a couple of things. You get better luck with variety when you’re listening to a station that encompasses eras or decades – I’m on the classic alternative station as I write this, set to “discovery” although there’s not much to discover, and it’s working out fine. Also, the ads – and they have signed up folks like McDonald’s and Pepsi to put spots – are… nowhere to be found. I only hear one iTunes Radio sweeper, a plug for the iTunes Festival, and Siri talking about what she can do, and all at the beginning of the stream.

Final verdict (well, so far): So, yes, iTunes Radio’s all right, although you will need to dig deep to make it work for you. It won’t replace radio, of course (hell no) but it can introduce you to stuff that you might have overlooked on the airwaves. (Like, I didn’t realize Capital Cities love their trumpets, and I like that they do.) Maybe less of the genre stuff and more of the curated stuff would work better for the service. But then again, that’s what an actual radio is for, right? [NB]

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