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YouTube Music finally gets it right

After years of false starts, YouTube is now serious about music streaming

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Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

YouTube Music, the video service’s first full-fledged music streaming offering is here, and it’s surprisingly great. At first glance, it’s largely Google Play Music with a fresh coat of paint and music videos. But look closer, and it’s clear YouTube has been putting in the work to improve upon Google’s previous attempts at music streaming, and the foundation is here to accomplish that.

If you’re new to streaming or if you exclusively listen to music through YouTube, the overhauled Music experience is designed to bring you in with the familiarity of what is already the world’s most popular music streaming service. It’s made to intrigue you with a set of easy-to-use discovery and search features no other streaming service can top and keep you listening (and watching) with the same library full of live performances, covers from unsigned artists, and random songs you already use to procrastinate at work all day (that aren’t available on Spotify or Apple Music).

For the most part, YouTube Music accomplishes all of this, but there are parts that are overly complicated. For example, its pricing structure: there’s a free, ad-supported version of YouTube Music, a $10-per-month ad-free version called YouTube Music Premium, and a $12-per-month subscription for YouTube Premium (formerly known as YouTube Red), which includes YouTube Music Premium as well as YouTube Original shows and ad-free viewing on the traditional YouTube app and website. (Current YouTube Red subscribers get to keep their current pricing, and they will also get YouTube Music Premium.)

YouTube finally has a legitimate challenger for Spotify and Apple Music

That doesn’t take into account the $10-per-month Google Play Music subscription, which will also give you access to YouTube Music Premium. Also, if you sign up before YouTube Red becomes YouTube Premium (there’s no date on that conversion; YouTube just says “soon”), you’ll get YouTube Premium for a $2-a-month discount. Got all that? Good.

Now that streaming music services have already captured the die-hard music fans and power users, they have shifted their gaze toward the casual listener. Older services like Pandora have relaunched with an emphasis on ease of use over everything else, and YouTube Music is no exception. While that is good in many areas, there are a few power user features that are missing, and that may deter some from switching over from their current streaming service until those features arrive.

Despite a few setbacks in getting to this point, YouTube finally has a legitimate challenger for Spotify and Apple Music. YouTube has leveraged Google’s vast AI and search capabilities and combined it with a simple design and a promise to make this the One True Google Music Streaming Service. With a well-built app, YouTube Music has a real fighting chance in the streaming market.

Design and home screen

YouTube Music is an extremely simple app. When you open it — either on Android, iOS, or in your web browser — you’ll find a dark theme. (It’s not exactly beautiful, but it is functional.) There are three tabs: Home, Hotlist, and Library. I’m going to save the best for last, so let’s start with Library. As you’d expect, this is the place where you will find all of your downloads, saved music, recently played songs and playlists, everything that you have liked, and artists you have subscribed to. Yes, YouTube has kept the same subscribe structure for following an artist that exists on the video version of the service, which can be either good or bad, depending on how you use YouTube.

The one thing the Library is missing is a way to filter through your library. There is no way to search through songs or albums you’ve added like you can on Spotify and Apple Music. It’s a small detail, but if you spend a ton of time in streaming apps, adding large catalogs of music to your library, it’s definitely a feature that comes in handy.

The Hotlist is essentially YouTube’s trending page but exclusively for music. Right now, it’s all videos, but that is slated to change in the future. YouTube’s head of music T. Jay Fowler told me, “[Hotlist] is the place that a user would go to see what’s going on right now in their region. It’s cultural impact, it’s brand-new stuff, it’s stuff that’s going on and being discussed in headlines, things like that. So, for example, last weekend with Childish Gambino performing on SNL, he dropped the “This is America” video. This is where you come to find it because it’s in the vernacular. We wanted to give a very, very visual snapshot of what’s going on in your local territory.”

Here’s the thing about music videos in music streaming services: everyone has them. Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify all have music videos available in their apps. The main knock against all of them is: a) they don’t have all the music videos, and b) they really don’t know where to put them in said apps. YouTube Music doesn’t have those issues. It has all of the music videos, and it has given them prime placement without being overly pushy about it. If you want to watch them, you can, but videos don’t take up space that would otherwise go to songs you just want to listen to. That’s thanks in small part to the Hotlist but more so because of how the home tab works.

The home tab, which is the screen you’re first presented with when you open the app, is the big revelation here. It’s also probably the main reason why many people will use YouTube Music. It’s a constantly updated list of music and videos tailored to your taste and to your location. When you first sign up for YouTube Music, it’ll ask you to pick a handful of artists that you like, and the tailoring process will begin. Like most streaming services, as you listen and like or dislike songs, the recommendations will continue to improve. What’s impressive here is how the home screen flawlessly mixes video and audio. I don’t really care to watch music videos on my phone, and yet I don’t find the placement of videos in YouTube Music’s app intrusive at all. More importantly, if it senses that you don’t care for the videos, it will push that “shelf” — as YouTube calls it — farther down on the home screen so you don’t have to see them.

The home screen can display recommendations based on your location as well, a feature that has moved over from Google Play Music. If you turn on location-based recommendations, you’ll see shelves that say “Looks like you’re at home” (or work or at the gym), and YouTube will provide recommendations that are appropriate for those locations. And those recommendations can vary based on time. You will get a different recommendation shelf if you go to the gym in the morning versus the evening, if you commute at different hours, and even if you’re at museums, Fowler told me. “This past weekend, I was at the Berkeley Art Museum, and I opened up my app as I was stepping out, and there was a selection of listening experiences that were matched to “going to a gallery.” And so there are little Easter eggs in there that even I don’t know [about],” he said.

While those recommendations can be fun, there’s a bigger question regarding how much data you want to give up to Google. Spotify and Apple Music don’t ask for your location information, so YouTube is alone here. And while most people may not care, given that Facebook users didn’t bother to change their settings after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s something to consider.

The home screen is also where you’ll find Your Mixtapes, YouTube’s answer to Spotify’s Daily Mix. Mixtape is an endless personalized mix of music you have liked, along with some new discoveries YouTube thinks you’ll also enjoy. As someone who listens to Spotify’s Daily Mix for at least three hours every day, rarely skipping songs, I was doubtful that YouTube could match Spotify’s prowess. But the speed at which YouTube Music’s algorithm got things right was the most impressive thing to me. I listened to some music for about an hour, giving thumbs-up and thumbs-down on every song, to see how good my resulting Mixtape could actually be with limited feedback. With just that hour of feedback and listening history, my Mixtape was on par with my Daily Mix from Spotify, which has seven years of my listening data to work with.

Look, we all know that Google is really good at algorithms. So when you’re trying to stand out in a crowded field of music services, having a recommendation engine that is nearly interchangeable with the one built by the current leader in the clubhouse is a great way to start.

Lean Forward

What you may have noticed about all of these features so far is that they are all largely “lean back” features, as the music industry refers to them. A lean back experience doesn’t require much legwork; with things like personalized playlists and curated homepages, YouTube will figure out what you like so you can just sit back and hit play. And while these features are very good and will appeal to the majority of people YouTube is targeting, where it slips up is with the “lean forward” aspects of a music streaming service — things like control over audio quality, creating playlists, social features, and third-party integrations.

Right now, you can’t change the audio quality in YouTube Music. There is no option in the settings menu, so you’re stuck at YouTube Music’s default quality of 128kbps (AAC on mobile, OPUS for web) with a good connection, and 64kbps in poor network conditions. YouTube tells me it will add an audio quality selector and a higher bitrate option (256kbps) “soon.” But for now, if you listen to music at the highest quality on your current streaming service, you’ll experience an audio downgrade until that update is rolled out.

There’s also no Sonos integration yet, so you can’t play YouTube Music through Sonos unless you plug your phone directly into a Sonos device with an auxiliary port, despite that there’s an integration with Google Play Music. (You could download Google Play Music and use that exclusively for Sonos since that service comes with the YouTube Music subscription.) YouTube says it’s working on integrating with Sonos, and it will add the ability to play to Sonos speakers from the YouTube Music app as well.

YouTube Music is also missing little things like social features, which the company says won’t be coming; it found most of the sharing of music tracks is done off-platform (e.g., on social media), and it didn’t see a need for it. Creating playlists is also more difficult than it needs to be. You can’t add albums to playlists, meaning you have to add each song individually, which is a time suck and a bad user experience. YouTube says that will change this summer when users will be able to add both albums and other playlists to playlists. (There are also no descriptions on any playlists, which is a strange omission.)

And while Mixtape is great, it’s the only personalized playlist on the service. Apple Music has three, and Spotify has a ton, including a different Daily Mix for every genre you listen to, Release Radar, Time Capsule, and, of course, Discover Weekly. YouTube Music’s greatest strength is arguably its algorithm, and it should lean further into that — not just for the “lean back” listener but for users who want variety as well.

The one place where YouTube does stand out for more active users is search, where you can look for songs and albums using phrases, thanks to the service’s integration with Google Assistant. If you search for “that Kanye song about Taylor Swift” it will pull up West’s music video for “Famous,” which references Swift in the opening lines, and Swift’s songs “Innocent” and “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which are both about West.

Those searches can go deeper than just the biggest musical feud of the decade; I searched for “Drake and Lauryn Hill,” and it pulled up Drake’s hit single “Nice for What.” While Lauryn Hill isn’t featured on that track, her song “Ex-Factor” is sampled on it. That deep layer of knowledge in search is largely unprecedented in a streaming service. Apple Music’s search is particularly atrocious, and Spotify’s search engine found no matches for my Drake query.

There are still plenty of bugs and little annoying ticks the service has. It will recommend artists on the home screen instead of specific albums or songs directly, which means you have to click a few extra times before you can begin listening. I’ve also been recommended the same playlist twice after I refreshed the home screen a few times. Still, YouTube Music gets more right than it does wrong. While it may be leaving plenty to be desired for those of us who have been streaming music for years — although there are some fixes in the works — it is an excellent jumping-off point for people who are finally ready to get into the music streaming world.

“I would’ve put this out six months ago if it were up to me. But thank God I didn’t. Thank God it wasn’t up to me,” Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music told me. And he’s right. For an initial launch (or a third launch, depending on how you want to count) YouTube Music is further along than any other streaming service that has debuted in recent memory. To reach this point, it needed all the time it could get.

Now it needs to catch up to Spotify and Apple, and it doesn’t have all the time in the world.

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