The new YouTube Music app is a failure. YouTube is quietly one of the most powerful forces in digital music, and this—THIS!—is the app that’s supposed to change everything. It changes nothing.
Announced last month, YouTube Music is a cornerstone of YouTube’s strategy for getting people to sign up for its new YouTube Red subscription service, which is basically a premium, paid option to access the media services that Google has been offering for years. The YouTube Music app, like YouTube Gaming before it, is an effort to break out one of its top features into a more streamlined experience. So how does it do?
YouTube Music falls far short of being a complete music service. One of its three top sections is devoted exclusively to collecting all the music videos you previously liked. The other two top line sections are a central “What’s Trending”-type global listing of new and notable stuff on YouTube—Missy Elliott’s “WTF” was the top today—as well as a home section with recommendations, and links to stuff you’ve recently played.
YouTube Music’s coolest feature by far is the “offline mixtape,” which can be up to 100 songs long. (You can choose fewer if you want to save storage space.) The mixtape will sync your likes, plus a pretty random assortment of other stuff. It doesn’t always get your taste right: I have not nor will I ever like Ellie Goulding, but thanks YouTube Music for downloading that shit onto my phone.
Other facets of the app aren’t really unique to YouTube Music, and they don’t display any interesting algorithms or technology. For instance, YouTube will generate a playlist based on any artist you search for, or if you prefer, simply play popular songs from a particular artist. You can do this —at higher fidelity!—on Google Play Music, Spotify, and most other music apps. Each video gives you some related tracks, just like every other music app.
YouTube replicates the coolest music feature it inadvertently had on the main platform: Access to live versions of songs, cover songs, karaoke cuts, etc. I’ve been listening to a band called Slothrust, and I was delighted to find a bunch of live tracks under Explore. Cool. But hardly anything to go apeshit over.
It’s not like Google doesn’t have the technology to make something better. In fact, Google Play Music is a robust service with sophisticated playlisting, and generally, much better discovery features than what w’re seeing in the new app. In YouTube Music, I can’t even add songs to a playlist. Seriously? This isn’t minimalism, it’s just a stupid choice that makes the app less functional.
Once you’ve downloaded YouTube Music, you might, as I did, throw up your hands and wonder why the hell Google bothered to make an app that doesn’t really do anything and is kind of a pain in the ass. Google could have at least built some pipes to take you to Play Music, which is where I ended up.
If there’s an argument for YouTube Music, it’s that it doesn’t upset the status quo. As a music platform, YouTube is massive. It’s one of the de facto methods for the viral distribution of music. What other platform can do things like pump 1 billion views, as it did for songs by Psy, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift? If you want to send a track to a friend, the best way to ensure that they hear it is to send them a YouTube link. It’s easy, fast, and free.
There’s evidence that YouTube is both the most influential and voluminous streaming platform by a long shot. A recent Activate Tech slideshow (via The Verge), notes that 53 percent of US adults reported listening to music on YouTube in a three month period in a 2014 survey. And a 2012 Nielsen report found that 64 percent of teenagers listened to music on YouTube—more than any other platform, including radio.
If you look back at the many reports over the last few years, they all show the slow rise of streaming platforms, and YouTube in general. But YouTube has a weak spot: Discovery. In the 2012 Nielsen study I just mentioned, only 7 percent respondents listed YouTube as their common music discovery tool. Radio remains the dominant vector for infecting the masses with your jam. The 2015 version of the same Nielsen “Music 360” study reported that streaming audio/video websites only served as a vector for discovery for 27 percent of people.
In other words, there’s a gap between YouTube’s utility as a music listening service and its success as a discovery method.
YouTube’s newly released app does nothing to fix that, and does pretty much nothing that couldn’t have just been built into the big boy YouTube app. YouTube Red doesn’t need this to succeed—it’s a very good deal! I just seriously doubt YouTube Music will fundamentally change the way anybody uses YouTube for Music.
At the very least, maybe its piddling offering will encourage people to look into other music apps that are without a doubt far superior.