Near the end of the workday Friday, an office manager at a startup in San Francisco’s industrial Potrero Hill neighborhood scurried to grab a chilled bottle of sparkling wine. The company was commemorating its App Store approval: Beats Music, which launches Jan. 21 for $10 a month.
The streaming service from Beats Electronics, which came to dominate the premium headphone market after launching in 2006 (and reportedly raked in $1.4 billion in revenue last year), also marks Beats Music CEO Ian Rogers’s year at the company. Rogers joined last January to lead this $60 million streaming initiative, codenamed Project Daisy at the time. In the process, Beats acquired MOG, a well-reviewed service that struggled to gain a user base, for $14 million.
Hoping to replicate its headphones success in the streaming market, Beats is positioning its service–which will take on the likes of Spotify, Google, Apple, and others–as the one that understands users’ emotions, offering the best of human curation and computer algorithm. A deal struck with AT&T will also bundle the music service with the wireless provider’s monthly smartphone service. A $15 family plan will give up to five users separate streaming accounts.
“You want to feel that emotion that only music can make you feel, where it transports you to something else,” Rogers tells Fast Company. “We want to be of service, not just a server for the user.” He elaborates by talking about how other streaming companies make the mistake of viewing music through the lens of data. “Bob Dylan’s discography is his career, not just data,” he adds.
At launch, the company’s catalog will number 20 million titles, and Rogers maintains that it’s not saturated with “spam,” such as cover or karaoke versions. Instead, the company is focused on cleaning up its catalog (e.g., so a remastered album shows the original year of its release) and also bringing in those pivotal albums from indie labels, which ordinarily would go the iTunes route, he says. Personalization and customization are woven deeply throughout the app. During the onboarding experience, users are asked to select genres and artists to gauge their music tastes. Other cues–including liking, disliking, and skipping songs, as well as following artists and playlists–help influence what music is presented to users.
At work are two components: an algorithm that understand user preferences and hand-crafted playlists that “are blessed by human beings.” As of Friday, there were 5,400 playlists created by an in-house team of 15 music editors as well as about 100 outside music experts, including music magazines such as Pitchfork, and Rogers says those numbers are growing. “The technology underneath helps that human touch scale,” Rogers says.
This is the case with the default home screen called Just For You, which surfaces album and playlist recommendations, as well as Right Now, which tailors music to users’ surroundings and mood. Almost like a mad lib, it asks users to fill in the blank: “I’m [at location] and feel like [activity] with [person/people] to [music genre].” Rogers says there are about a million combinations possible with Right Now, all of them curated playlists.
“When these guys showed me how this was being done, I was completely blown away,” Rogers says. “I love this feature. I think it exemplifies what Beats Music is–scaling curation. Here, you have these human-tuned, almost emotional settings for music, but they scale.”
Yet as proud as Rogers is, Beats Music is still a work in progress. The company admits it’s lacking social features, and what exists on the app is bare bones–largely centered around notifications and following users, artists, and playlists. Building out these social features will play a role in the company’s vision for curated music. Because as much as it relies on its so-called music experts, the focus is on surfacing music based on trusted sources, and they doesn’t always come from a magazine or podcast.