After spending months on revisions, YouTube confirmed today that it will launch a paid subscription service that lets users stream high-quality, ad-free music and music videos. The service, which launches next week in invite-only beta, is to be called YouTube Music Key. "Artists and fans have made YouTube the biggest music service in the world," says Christophe Muller, YouTube’s director of global music partnerships. "We want to continue to make YouTube the best place for artists and fans to connect."
The service is meant to capitalize on YouTube’s status as the largest online streaming service in the world by offering new tools for both free and paid users. Starting today, the Google-owned site begin highlighting a variety of new options for users who want to listen to music. The centerpiece is a new top-level tab for music on Android, iOS, and the web. The tab makes personalized recommendations about music videos, playlists, and music that’s trending on YouTube. The site will also surface full-length albums in a way it hasn’t before, with artists’ full discographies listed on their profile pages along with music videos and related content.
You can get all of that for free if you’re willing to listen to some ads. The more intriguing part of YouTube’s announcement is Music Key, which will have ad-free listening and some other perks when it begins rolling out Monday. For now, the program is invite-only, and beta testers will get six months of free access followed by an invitation to sign up for a promotional price of $7.99 a month. Music Key also includes a subscription to what the company is now calling "Google Play Music," its Spotify competitor, which normally sells for $9.99 a month. (The terrible "Google Play Music All Access" name is dead, and the newly integrated service will let you play "many" music videos from inside Google Play Music.)
The terrible "Google Play Music All Access" name is dead
To start, Music Key will be available in the United States and six European countries. YouTube executives were vague about whom it will invite to try Music Key but said that heavy music listeners will be among those targeted. Eventually — YouTube won’t say when — anyone will be able to sign up directly, with the revenue shared among YouTube, record labels, and the artists. There will be a back door into the service: anyone who wants to try Music Key can sign up for Google Play Music and get access to the beta immediately. The YouTube apps for Android and iOS will be updated on Monday to include the new features.
If that all sounds confusing, there’s a reason that Music Key’s launch has been delayed several times. In its first major effort to build a new product around content already hosted on YouTube, the company has struggled with how to create an experience that feels valuable enough to pay for without disrupting YouTube’s core service too much. In February, Susan Wojcicki, Google’s former head of ads and commerce, took over YouTube; she took a close interest in Music Key, and a planned spring launch was put off. Several top executives then left the company, including Shiva Rajaraman, its head of product management, who defected to Spotify.
The result of Google's efforts is a hybrid that looks likely to increase music listening on YouTube, at a time when YouTube is one of a tiny few companies believed to be profiting from streaming audio. (Google doesn’t break out YouTube’s financial performance in its quarterly results.) And watching ad-free music videos will be a nice perk for anyone who prefers Google’s streaming service to Spotify, Rdio, or their many rivals.
You'll still see ads on YouTube
At first glance, little here seems likely to pry anyone away from their current paid streaming service of choice. Even if you decide to pay for Music Key when your free trial expires, you’ll still see ads all over YouTube — the only ad-free videos will be the ones licensed from record labels. If you have dreamed of storing ad-free 720p music videos on your mobile device, Music Key could be the answer to your prayers. For anyone else, the value looks less clear.
But this is only the first step. YouTube believes it can benefit simply from boosting the overall amount of listening on its platform — it has paid out more than $1 billion to artists and labels based on ad revenues to date, and the more ads it serves, the more it profits. And so building new ad-supported tools to help people listen to more music on YouTube is a logical step. The question of how many people will pay to do their listening on YouTube seems murkier.
Update, 3:12 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that YouTube's iOS app will be updated on Monday along with its Android app.