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YouTube (Finally) Releases Its Music App

After a year of beta testing and the launch of its subscription service, YouTube's music app has finally arrived.

The adroit and android enthusiasm targeted towards those attending press previews of apps, initiatives and announcements always falls just outside that which would make a normal human being feel comfortable. It’s a fake situation that is adversarial in nature, dressed in good manners. But when T. Jay Fowler (YouTube’s director of product management and the person in charge of developing the YouTube Music app being released today) showed Billboard a preview of the product, there was a not-off-putting — and, it would turn out, justified — pride he took in the work of his team in trying to conquer what he called “an insurmountable pile of music.”

YouTube has done this by making every song you listen to into a “station” that generates, through a hybrid algorithm/human editorial formula, an endless playlist of music pulled from the music catalogs YouTube has licensed, as well as the user-generated content that originally made the video giant a video giant. (The endless playlist feature will be familiar to users of SoundCloud — Fowler praised the platform when we pointed this out.) Through a slider just like the brightness controls on your phone, listeners can select how adventurous they want their recommendations to be; get weird, or stick with the same artist. Through the “Explore” sub-tab, listeners can dig into related videos, which can include live performances by the band or user-generated content. Viewers are given the option of toggling video playback on or off to save battery. When the screen is locked, the video is removed automatically.

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The center of the app keeps things simple, with three main sections, “Home,” “Music Today” and “Likes.” Home functions much the same as Spotify or Apple Music, with a selection of genre stations and a user’s main, personalized station. Music Today, which Fowler calls “cultural relevance 101,” features a list of the day’s 40 most-popular videos as well stations featuring on-the-rise artists and trending videos or songs. The Likes tab is where a listener’s favorites are saved.

Fowler joined YouTube in March, just a few months into the existence of YouTube Music Key, ostensibly a music streaming service that the company would eventually characterize as an information-gathering beta test. During that testing period, Fowler says data showed that users weren’t using the offline storage feature built in to the app, for whatever reason. So they made offline listening into an automatic and constantly updated “mixtape.” (Users are given the option to control the storage used on this feature, as well as the ability to download specific albums, songs or videos.)

YouTube has done its best to give casual music fans — the vast majority of fans — an experience that falls right between the one-click utility of Pandora and the depth of Spotify (much less the music-lover-attuned Apple Music), while catering as best it can to those with deeper tastes. That it has, basically, hit that mark is a dangerous proposition to its competitors.

So yes, the app has been kept simple, but most of its power requires a subscription to Red, the company’s ad-free video and music product. Without that subscription fans lose the (very useful) ability to toggle between video and audio-only, they can’t play music with their screens locked, will be served ads on most video views, and can’t cache music to their phones.

YouTube is already, not-so-secretly, the king of the music streaming hill, with 60 percent of people saying they use YouTube to listen to music some or most of the time, according to Edison Research’s “Infinite Dial 2015” report. The majority — 83 percent — of 12-24 year-olds say YouTube is how they keep up-to-date with music. “YouTube as a music channel is as mainstream as all of online audio put together,” the report says. 

YouTube has been the subject of scrutiny over its pay to creators and rights holders, though those figures seem to be rising sharply, having paid $3 billion to rights holders since the company’s launch in 2005, a figure that stood at $1 billion in February 2014. With subscriptions bringing in additional revenue that volume will continue to tick upwards. (Randomly, the company’s blog post on the app launch points out that a windowing strategy for new releases — or at least, singles — isn’t encouraged. “Just this month,” Fowler writes, “Adele’s ‘Hello’ became the fastest rising video of the year on YouTube, while also breaking the record for first week download sales.” Whether that could be true for any other artist in the world remains to be seen.) The company says it has solved the problem of monetizing user-generated content — Billboard is still awaiting an answer on the complicated question of payouts on derivative works like Boiler Room sets.

In a congested market, YouTube has every advantage, and the two that matter most especially: money and ubiquity. Now they have a useful music app, too — as long as you pay.