Beats 1 badly wants to be a radio station, but…

Beats 1 is Apples new "global" radio station, a major tentpole in its Apple Music streaming service.

With iTunes Radio not bothering anyone (at all), Apple had to find itself a new place in a post-downloading world. So it bought the guys that make those expensive Beats headphones, and with it their streaming service. They hired a bunch of people. They talked to a bunch more people. And then they announced their new answer: a streaming service, Apple Music, which does pretty much everything that Spotify and Deezer and Tidal already do, only it’s more cuddled up with your iPhone. But then, interestingly, to convince people to use that service, they also decided to launch a radio station.

Beats 1 has attracted buzz before it was even announced, when Zane Lowe abruptly left his prime BBC Radio 1 slot for the sexy, musical world of Cupertino. Zane’s known for his very enthusiastic support of new music, having broken a lot of acts throughout his broadcasting career. Now he’s broadcasting from Los Angeles (close enough), with Hot 97’s Ebro Darden holding fort in New York, and relative unknown Julie Adenuga doing the same in London. They’ve also recruited a bunch of musicians and celebrities to do shows, including St. Vincent, Elton John, Jaden Smith, and (inevitably, considering his name was on Beats) Dr. Dre.

Together they’ll be broadcasting to a hundred countries (curiously not including Singapore – you mean we got this ahead of Singapore?), promising, for the first time, a truly global radio experience, never mind the fact that millions of radio stations already stream online, which is how I listened to Zane Lowe in the first place. And that’s where the problem is.

My first thought after seeing what Apple had planned for Beats 1: it’s awfully Western. For a station that calls itself “global”, its major shows are limited to the United States and the United Kingdom. Never mind that Tokyo is also a center of cool. Never mind that Seoul has a bustling (if not baffling) pop scene. Never mind that Melbourne – Melbourne! In English-speaking Australia! – has sent a lot of acts to international success. No, only the Western hemisphere gets dibs on this.

The result is the awkward situation where the shows that I hear during my waking hours – for everyone’s benefit, I live in the Philippines, which is eight hours ahead of GMT – are reruns. Zane’s show airs at midnight; Julie’s at three in the morning; Ebro’s at six in the morning (well, at least that’s a relief). For our benefit, their shows are repeated twelve hours after they first air, but that – alongside the fact that the whole schedule is really build around anyone who lives in the West Coast – gives me the lingering feeling that all I’m getting are reheats and leftovers. So much for being “always on”. This is, perhaps, where they plonk some more money on a guy in Tokyo to make us in Asia feel welcome. Peter Barakan isn’t that busy nowadays, is he?

The other result is a disappointingly homogeneous music policy. Sure, Zane did say on his first show that the only genre Beats 1 plays is “great”, but it does lean towards urban pop and dance. Pharrell Williams’ “Freedom” has popped up a lot of times – understandably as it’s an Apple Music exclusive, but it’s not really that great a song – and so has new stuff from Eminem and Miguel. Their “city blocks”, the shifts in between the shows helmed by either relative unknowns (in London) or random names such as Gabe Saporta and Samantha Ronson (in the States), seem to dip from the same pool of around thirty songs. There are some oldies, but they also come from the same genres.

Now, perhaps I’m saying this because of my alternative bias, and yes, I will admit that they play some alternative tracks, too, but again, they all come from that small pool: Alabama Shakes, Bully, Wolf Alice. (One of the Saturday shifts from London mixed things up a bit more, though. It was manned by Deacon Rose, formerly of Aussie alternative station Triple J, which should explain things.) For a station that constantly sells the whole “we’re broadcasting in a hundred countries” thing, the songs are disappointingly not international. I’m not expecting foreign language esoterica, and a small number of hits outside the US and UK (like Stromae) are represented, but the selection feels very sterile and narrow.

Even the flagship shows seem a bit limited, but at least you get that guiding hand. (While I’m not exactly into the genres they champion, Julie and Ebro’s shows have been quite enjoyable for the humanity they possess.) You have better luck with the specialist shows: St. Vincent’s show is all-out college radio material, while Josh Homme’s is filled with cuts for the chin-stroking music fan while doing his best Jarvis Cocker impression. Most of those shows however, again, lean towards urban and dance, although I enjoyed some of them – Disclosure’s show, Run the Jewels’ show – despite my different tastes. So there’s that.

I’m not sure, however, how these curated shows jive exactly with the whole point of Beats 1. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I can’t help but see Beats 1 for what it really is: a way to lure people to fork our ten dollars a month – at least after the three-month trial – for Apple Music.

That message was on top of everything else during launch day. You can stream these songs on our service; you can check your phones for our schedule; that sort of thing. (It’s weird hearing Zane sell the streaming service after ten years of being commercial-free on the BBC. The downside to his constant enthusiasm: he sounds more like a kiss-ass on Beats 1 than on Radio 1.) Are the presenters limited to playing tracks that are available on Apple Music? (Answer is no: I’ve seen the shows’ playlists, which are hard to find, and some of the tracks are not playable.) What if you really want to play a song that’s so new it has yet to be on any streaming service? How about artists that have not put their stuff on Apple Music, like Prince? If I’m a budding artist and want to be played on Beats 1, does this mean I have to go through all the trouble of getting my music on Apple Music?

Of course Beats 1 isn’t out to kill traditional radio stations. (However it is, unintentionally, going to prove that advertising, and maybe deep pockets, can do what BBC Radio 1 can do with the licence fee.) I don’t see myself shifting to this exclusively, partly because of the genre mix, partly because it’s going to sell me a service I won’t likely be availing of, and partly because I think the whole Apple Music connection will limit it at one point.

Already it is being limited. There’s no on-demand listening; I missed Zane’s interview with Eminem, and there’s no way for me to catch it again. (Perhaps it’s buried somewhere in Apple Music’s Connect function, but it wasn’t there there when I looked for it.) You get access to the music played on the shows, but it’s just a playlist, shorn of context, like when St. Vincent explained to her young caller Piper why she chose Depeche Mode for her dance-y mixtape. (And you won’t see those playlists unless you have the “Show Apple Music” option switched on.)

And yet Beats 1 acts like a radio station. It tries its best to be one, down to the idiosyncrasy of a request show on a music streaming service. It has the talent: Zane brought four Radio 1 producers with him to Apple, and some radio talent have popped up in some slots. It has good intentions – if the story is to be believed, Trent Reznor, one of Apple Music’s bigwigs, designed Beats 1 to be evocative of how we discovered music before the Internet disrupted everything. But the fact is, it’s a radio station that lives exclusively on a cumbersome application, and it’s a radio station that’s designed to be a barker service for the very thing that supposedly made it irrelevant in the first place.

While it doesn’t quite cater to my tastes, it’s an ambitious and decent effort at radio. But when the three-month free trial ends and Apple has to make sure its streaming service earns… that’s when things get interesting. [NB]

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