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Apple Music subscriptions: Time to pay the piper

The all-you-can-eat streaming service has been free for the past three months. As the first trial periods expire this week, the true test begins for the subscription model.

Apple Music launched in June with three-month free trials, the first of which expire Wednesday. CNET

Apple's first subscription service is taking off its training wheels.

The Cupertino, California, tech giant introduced Apple Music in June as its first foray into monthly charges. To get consumers to try the service, Apple offered a free, three-month trial with unlimited streaming. The first wave of trials expires Wednesday, and Apple will begin charging $9.99 per month for individual plans or $14.99 per month for "family" plans for up to six people.

It's an about-face for Apple, considering co-founder Steve Jobs vocally opposed subscriptions. Apple also has a lot to lose. It remains the king of digital track downloads, which are the primary way music makes money today. But with streaming models on the rise and downloads shrinking, Apple risked losing its crown if it continued to ignore the shift in consumer behavior.

Now that customers must either pay to continue using Apple Music or give it up, Wednesday will mark the first test of whether the company's service has legs. Even as a free trial, the service faced criticism for its complicated interface and how it handles your music library.

The backlash started even before the service launched.

Nine days before the debut of Apple Music, pop juggernaut Taylor Swift warned she would keep her hit album "1989" off Apple Music because of a licensing loophole: zero payments during the three-month free trial. Less than 24 hours after Swift posted the message on her blog, Apple's head of software and services, Eddy Cue, tweeted that Apple would capitulate and pay artists for every stream during the trial period.

The service also sparked a rant from one of Apple's most vocal fans.

Jim Dalrymple is a writer who has tracked Apple for nearly two decades, most recently on The Loop blog. In a July blog post titled "Apple Music is a nightmare and I'm done with it," Dalrymple recounted how songs in his music library disappeared as he tried to integrate his collection with Apple Music. "Adding music to my library is nothing short of a mind-blowing exercise in frustration," he wrote.

He later noted that he recovered most of his music.

Apple Music also irritated an influential music industry commentator. On the first day Apple Music was publicly available, Bob Lefsetz, who writes a blog called The Lefsetz Letter, compared Apple to cable providers, long a prime example of American dissatisfaction with corporations. "When you make it hard to install and want me to give my credit card up front...you look like a sleazy American company, like a hated cable operation, and you make people reluctant," Lefsetz wrote.

Music listening is only one part of Apple Music. The service introduced a blog-like social network for artists called Connect. Earlier this month, website Music Ally studied artists' posts and found that they were occurring weekly rather than daily and that much of the content was recycled from Instagram or mundane promotional messages. "In June, Apple's services boss Eddy Cue said that Pharrell Williams would be posting photos, lyrics and raw mixes of songs -- but at the time of writing, he's posted a single photo two months ago," according to Music Ally.

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Apple declined to comment on complaints about Apple Music. However, earlier this month an executive acknowledged that the service had its problems. Oliver Schusser, vice president of iTunes International, told UK news site The Guardian that Apple is "adding features and cleaning up certain things" in Apple Music.

Now that Apple Music is about to begin charging for its first subscriptions, where does it stand?

Based on what people say online, interest in the service has declined but reactions to it have grown more positive, according to Amobee Brand Intelligence, a marketing technology company that analyzes online reactions. Buzz around Apple Music peaked on July 1, the day after the service first became available. In July, Apple Music was the subject of 808,000 Tweets, and Twitter sentiment was 19 positive and 13 percent negative, Amobee said. So far in September, 310,000 Tweets have been 28 percent positive and 10 percent negative.

In a study last month by researcher Musicwatch, 77 percent of people who use an Apple mobile device in the US are aware of Apple Music, and 11 percent reported they were using Apple Music. While 64 percent of those Apple Music users said that they were extremely or very likely to pay for it after their free trials end, almost as many (61 percent) reported that they had already turned off the auto-renewal option.

Now that Apple is about to start charging, the company isn't taking any more chances. This week, it started posting videos that explain how Apple Music works. The company may soon find out whether offering tutorials three months into the game is too late.