Apple has released iTunes 11.1, which includes a major new feature, iTunes Radio. Rather than go the Spotify-like streaming route, where users can choose to stream specific songs, albums or playlists, Apple has chosen a different model, one closer to the way Pandora provides “music recommendations.”
Tunes Radio (currently available only in the US) allows you to create you own, personal “radio stations,” that you can listen to on your Mac, PC, or iOS device. You’ll hear ads while listening unless you’re signed in to iTunes Match; in this case, iTunes Radio streams are ad-free. These stations sync across your devices, if you’re signed in to your iTunes Store account, so you can listen to the same iTunes Radio stations on any of your devices or computers.
iTunes Radio works a bit like Genius, but on a larger scale. Instead of comparing a song you select to the contents of your iTunes library, and dishing up a playlist based on that song, iTunes Radio looks at the entire library of music in the iTunes Store. That’s millions of songs (though it’s not clear if all songs in the iTunes Store are available for streaming through iTunes Radio).
You access iTunes Radio by clicking on your Music library in iTunes, then on Radio in the header bar.
You’ll see a number of “Featured Stations,” which are provided by Apple, and you can add your own stations in the My Stations section below. As you listen to music, you’ll be able to do a number of things. You can skip songs, if you don’t like them, but you can only skip six songs per hour for any given station. You may find that you don’t like a lot of what you hear, and you’ll reach that skip limit pretty quickly.
You can also buy songs, by clicking the price button next to a song in the iTunes LCD. If you click the > icon next to a song, you can also do the following:
- If you click Play More Like This, this marks the song as a favorite. iTunes will take this into account when it plays more music, trying to find more songs like your favorites.
- If you click Add to iTunes Wish List, this adds the currently playing song to your iTunes Wish List. This wish list is visible in the iTunes Store, and lets you later find songs that you heard on iTunes Radio, and that you’d like to buy. Because that’s the main goal of iTunes Radio: to drive you to the iTunes Store so you can buy it.
- You can create a new station from the current song or artist, by choosing New Station from Song or New Station from Artist.
- And if you don’t like a song, choose Never Play This Song, so you don’t hear it again. You’ll want to do this as you listen, to make sure that you hear music you like. Not only will this block specific songs, but it will most likely tweak the algorithm that determines what songs you hear, so other, similar songs won’t be played.
- You can also share a station. If you’ve created a really good iTunes Radio station, you can share it with your friends. Click Share Station, then choose how you want to share it. You can copy a link to the station, send it by email or Messages, or share it on Twitter or Facebook.
To create your own stations, just click the + icon next to My Stations, and start typing the name of a song, artist, album or genre.
iTunes Radio stations don’t play music just by that artist; the music they stream is, as I said above, more like a Genius playlist. You’ll get some songs by the selected artist, but you’ll get other songs by “related” artists. If you choose an album for an iTunes Radio station, you’ll get a couple of songs from that album, others by the same artist, and others by similar artists. And if you create a genre station, you’ll get a broad variety of music from that genre.
Some reports, having seen job ads for music editors for iTunes Radio, have concluded that the entire service uses an army of music buffs to program every radio station that you make. This certainly isn’t true; iTunes Radio most likely leverages Apple’s Genius technology that iTunes uses to create Genius playlists. The job ads are clearly for people who will be creating Apple’s Featured Stations. Because how could the create a station for some obscure song that I choose?
After you’ve listened to your stations for a while, you may want to look at their history. iTunes records your iTunes Radio listening history so you can check the songs you’ve heard, and, of course, potentially buy some of them. To see what you’ve listened to, click on an iTunes Radio station icon, but not on the play/pause button. The display will expand to show your listening history. You’ll note that your History will show all songs that have played, even ones you’ve skipped. For now, I don’t know how far back it goes, but I’ve got some stations that display dozens of songs. In fact, the list can become unruly, so I assume that, over time, older listens will be removed.
You can see what you’ve played, what you’ve chosen to Play more like this, and what you’ve blocked in the Never play this section. You can add items to either section by clicking the + icon and typing an artist or song name.
You can also tweak the station. Just above, you can see a Tune this station slider. You have three choices for how iTunes picks songs: Hits, Variety and Discovery. These three options range from songs you’ve probably heard to ones you may not know, so depending on the station, you’ll want to choose a different type of selection. However, as of this writing, some stations do not display this option. This might be temporary, but the same is true in the Music app on iOS devices.
I’ve been using iTunes Radio for several weeks, and I like it a great deal. It lets me hear music I haven’t heard for a long time, by choosing some of my favorite songs and artists, and music I’m unfamiliar with, by choosing stations by genre or some of the Featured Stations.
In any case, check out iTunes Radio. You may find that a lot of your listening comes from this new feature rather than your iTunes library.
Check out my ebook, Take Control of iTunes 11: The FAQ. Buy now and you’ll get a free update very soon with full coverage of the new features in iTunes 11.1.