By now, you probably know that Apple is reportedly counting out $3.2 billion to buy up Beats Electronics, the company co-founded by hip-hop legend Dr. Dre that makes the pricey but so-so headphones you see all over the place. Dre and his buddy Tyrese have all but confirmed the deal with a video praising Dre as "the first billionaire in hip hop."
What you might not know as much about is Beats Music, the subscription-only streaming music service that Beats launched in January. It's time to get to know Beats Music, since understanding the ins and outs of that $10-a-month service goes a long way toward explaining why Apple would be interested in this sort of mega-deal.
How Beats Music works
Launch Beats Music for the first time, and the services tries to get to know you: You select your favorite genres, artists, and songs. The more information you give Beats Music, the better the recommendations will be as you explore the service.
Beats Music really tailors the experience for each user; what's in my Just for You section (a mix of classic rock and modern indie tunes) will be different than what's in yours. Like most streaming music services, you can like or dislike songs that play, and Beats uses those recommendations to learn more about you, delivering a more customized experience. It's hard to quantify, but how Beats learns from your music preferences and adjusts its content accordingly feels head-and-shoulders above what any other service provides--it's just that good at learning what you like to listen to.
One of Beats coolest features is The Sentence, which acts essentially like a Mad Libs for the type of music you want to hear. The Sentence gives you a basic "I'm blank & feel like blank with blank to blank" structure that you fill in with any one of a ton of contextual choices. Beats Music uses The Sentence to play music to fit your mood and activity right now. For example, entering "I'm on a boat and feel like going back in time with my family to vintage soul and funk" plays music that fits the bill such as "Isn't She Lovely" by Stevie Wonder. It's similar to what Songza does with its music curation service, but in a way that jives more with real life.
How it improves on what Apple has
With its strong library, excellent curation skills, and standout features like The Sentence, Beats Music goes a long way toward getting streaming music right. Which brings us to iTunes Radio: Beats Music makes Apple's attempt at a music streaming service feel stale. It's likely one of the main reasons Beats Electronics looks so attractive to Apple.
In its current state, iTunes Radio kind of sucks. There are genre stations, and you can create custom stations based on a particular artist or song (as you can with other streaming services). But the likes of Pandora, Spotify, and--yes--Beats Music rarely feature repeat tracks; iTunes Radio seems to play the same 30 or so songs over and over. While the iTunes Radio interface is decent, it's nothing to write home about, especially when stacked up against Beats Music's look.
Most important, iTunes Radio doesn't really do anything to curate the music experience to its subscribers. Sure, you can create stations based on artists or songs, but that's about as far as the customization goes. By contrast, Beats does curation extremely well.
Integrating Beats Music into the iTunes Radio fold--if that's what Apple ultimately winds up doing--will go a long way toward making iTunes Radio a more compelling music streaming service. I'd even go as far to say that if Apple seals the Beats deal, its streaming music service could easily jump to the top of the charts.