We analyzed a month of Beats 1 tracks to figure out Apple’s taste in music

The Weeknd, top artist on Beats 1, at Apple’s developer conference.
The Weeknd, top artist on Beats 1, at Apple’s developer conference.
Image: AP/Jeff Chiu
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When Apple debuted its streaming music service in June, it launched a live radio station to go with it: Beats 1 is billed as “the world’s local station,” with DJs in London, New York, and Los Angeles. Anyone can listen 24 hours a day using iTunes or the Apple Music app.

To get a sense of the station’s tastes and habits, we analyzed data on more than 12,000 songs played on Beats 1 from early July to early August. The song data was collected by Callum Jones, a programmer at Nitrous, who has open-sourced his tool over on GitHub. Jones also has a Twitter bot that automatically tweets whatever song is playing.

Here are the top tracks for the month we studied—the Apple top 20:

Beats 1 has something that is rare in the world of digital music: scarcity. Listeners can’t choose a song and play it over and over. (They can do that elsewhere on Apple Music.) But curation doesn’t mean songs aren’t repeated. We counted 12,445 tracks but only 3,371 unique songs, meaning each track was played an average of 3.7 times. Eighteen of the 20 songs in the table above were played over 50 times.

That’s a lot of repeats, and it’s something Beats 1 has been criticized for. An initial marketing push for Pharrell’s new single Freedom led to a Reddit thread called “Beats 1 Needs to Stop Playing Freedom.” Still, over a quarter of the songs in the dataset were played only once, so there is a reasonable amount of diversity.

Then there is the issue of what these tracks say about Beats 1’s musical choices. It looks like the station is trying to occupy a space that is just edgy enough to not be called mainstream. Apple is like your friend who’s really into music but not the one who’s really crazy. The top tracks on Beats 1 tend to either pair relatively obscure artists with musical celebrity like Drake or Kanye West, or they are indie stars with increasing mainstream appeal, like The Weeknd or Jamie XX.

How varied is the group of artists? About 2,100 artists received airtime on Beats 1, or about six plays each, on average. Here are the artists that show up the most (not including cameos):

The number of songs played per day stays pretty consistent during the week but jumps over the weekends, probably because of high-track-turnover DJ mix shows that play during prime party hours.

Though Beats 1 is an eclectic mix of genres, some listeners have complained that it plays too much hip-hop. “Too much” is a matter of taste, of course, but looking at the breakdown, there is indeed more hip-hop than anything else in the repertoire. (These are the genres as iTunes defines them. Crucially, the dataset only includes genre for about half of the songs.)

Listeners have also complained about Beats 1 repeating 12-hour blocks of shows, even while billing it as a “24-hour radio station.” It is indeed on 24 hours a day, but much of that content, including DJ chatter, is not broadcast live.

Repetition goes beyond just a show being replayed after 12 hours, though. Some pairs of songs are played together several times, in the same order. These are the most frequent song pairs in the dataset.

The song data also challenge Apple’s insistence that Beats 1 is “a truly global listening experience.” Nearly every song is in English and produced by artists from the US, UK, or Canada. Apple’s one and only radio station has proven to be popular so far, but imagine how many more listeners it might get by capitalizing on Asia’s K-Pop explosion.

For your listening enjoyment, we’ve made an Apple Music playlist of the top 20 Beats 1 tracks so far. There’s also a Spotify playlist, though it is conspicuously missing Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood.