Beats Hopes to Serve Up Music in a Novel Subscription Way; Is the new music streaming service from Beats Electronics a worthy competitor to Spotify and Pandora?

Beats Hopes to Serve Up Music in a Novel Way

MARCH 12, 2014

Is the new music streaming service from Beats Electronics a worthy competitor to Spotify and Pandora? Molly Wood gives her verdict.

Molly Wood

THERE’S a new subscription music service in town, one that purports to know you and your music tastes better than you know them yourself. One that urges you to forget about what you think you like and surrender to a sea of playlists lovingly created by artists and celebrities far more brilliant and beautiful than you.

This is Beats Music. Prominent, well funded, brightly designed and dripping with A-list panache. But is it enough to stand out in an increasingly busy field of subscription music services? With a combination of marketing, timing, name-dropping and a new wrinkle on subscription music, it just might be.

Beats Music isn’t a Spotify killer, but if you’re just jumping in to streaming music, and you’re willing to pay, Beats Music is worth considering because it has a novel approach to recommending new music.

A few months ago, I’d have told you the streaming music services market was all full up. Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music All Access, Rdio, Slacker Radio and iTunes Radio are all vying to stream music to your computer or mobile device.

That plethora of options hasn’t stopped new entrants, though. There are persistent rumors that Amazon is negotiating for a subscription service. Samsung just introduced a service for Galaxy device users. And in January, Beats Music arrived — a brand-new division of the headphones and speaker maker Beats Electronics.

Beats Music has some immediate advantages. For one, the Beats brand is cool, full stop. Anytime your team includes Dr. Dre, the music executive Jimmy Iovine and Trent Reznor, plus you throw a launch party with Macklemore, Diddy and Ice Cube, you’ve got street cred.

Beats Electronics also has some $60 million in marketing and promotion money, hardware tie-ins with some of the most popular headphones in the world and supposedly more artist-friendly royalties than Pandora or Spotify.

Beats Music is meant to be a curated recommendation service first, playlist creator second. The company hired individual curators like Scott Plagenhoef, former editor of the music site Pitchfork, and it also formed partnerships with Target, Rolling Stone magazine, the fitness chain SoulCycle, Thrasher skateboarding magazine and the Academy of Country Music to create, presumably, better lists than you can on your own.

These curators deliver custom playlists like SoulCycle Battle Vol. 2: Madonna vs. Lady Gaga vs. Beyoncé; or Rolling Stone’s Ode to a Biker Jacket. Naxos, a classical music label, put together You Can’t Handel This: The Best of Handel, and On The Rachs-maninov (who says classical isn’t cool?); while Target brings us Movie Songs for Kids.

You can spend hours cruising the playlists — Latin music, alternative rock, country, metal, even celebrity playlists from (or from the assistants of) Diddy, Peyton Manning and Bruce Springsteen, plus Britney Spears’s Workout Mix, to which I subscribed almost immediately.

But you can also get your own customized recommendations based on genres you like and hate, as well as artists you like.

Spotify is the primary competition for Beats, and if you’re already a fan of Spotify, Beats won’t give you much reason to switch, unless you’re starving for this type of curated music discovery.

Both cost $10 a month, although Spotify offers a free, ad-supported version, which Beats does not. Beats bests Spotify with a family plan that is exclusive to AT&T subscribers, which lets five people and up to 10 devices use the service for $15 a month, a remarkable value.

Both let you stream music from their 20-million-song catalogs, and you can download them for offline listening (only Spotify’s paid service includes this option). You can also collect and maintain playlists and subscribe to other people’s playlists. Beyond that, there are few similarities, at least in presentation.

The default screen for Beats on the mobile app, available for Android, iPhone and Windows mobile operating systems, is the recommendations screen. These recommendations, based on what you’ve told Beats about your preferences, range from “very safe” to “try something new.” In the Hits station it created for me, I got radio standbys like “Say Something” by A Great Big World, “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, and “Just Give Me a Reason” by Pink and Nate Ruess. Nothing too risky, but I felt pegged — almost unnervingly so.

Beats recommended that I try Japandroids and Yeasayer. I liked but didn’t love Japandroids, but Yeasayer is now a new favorite playlist. Points for discovery, Beats.

Discovery is the entire goal of the mobile app, although some of the methodology is overly cute. The interface is organized into panes: first your recommended playlists and then a screen called “The Sentence,” a sort of mood music Mad Libs generated by a number of predetermined values. I created an on-the-fly playlist sentence that read: “I’m slacking off and feel like taking a selfie with extraterrestrials to the ‘80s.” First song, “Rapture” by Blondie.

While Spotify is about finding and organizing music, Beats is all about trusting the experts. I liked perusing the curated playlists, but I also missed Spotify’s ability to create a new streaming radio station based on an artist I like. And Beats’s suggestions are all playlists that don’t change often, if at all. You can easily get bored.

As smooth as the app is, the Beats website is terrible. It’s buggy, overdesigned and light on features. You can’t create a playlist from the site, and although you can search for and add songs to your library, you can’t see the library from the web interface, although it syncs to the mobile app just fine.

The page sometimes loads without the left-hand navigation bar and plays music at random, and it usually takes me two tries to log in. These problems appeared with the service in January and should be fixed by March.

Beats is a loud, hard-to-ignore competitor in the subscription music field, and it’s getting louder. Last week the company bought Topspin Media, a marketing service that will let artists customize their Beats profiles and promote events and merchandise directly to fans.

Beats is not likely to take customers away from Spotify, but the idea of a subscription music service is still new, and the flashy Beats will be ubiquitous among the hip young audience it’s after.

As the Beats by Dr. Dre headphones themselves proved, you don’t have to be the best. You just have to be the coolest.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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