Despite Spotify now streaming tens of millions of tracks to over 75 million paying customers for 10 bucks a month, not everyone has found solace with the market leader. You can count now Google among the rivals that think it can do better.
Its alternative is the brand-new YouTube Music, which now comes with an optional $10 a month subscription with features aimed squarely at Spotify. We got an early look at it, and wanted to share our first thoughts. We're also gonna put this thing through the paces and follow-up with a full review.
But where does YouTube Music fit now?
Unfortunately, Google's streaming app hoedown has gotten a little crowded. So before we get started, we need to take a moment to explain what YouTube Music is, and how it relates to Google Play Music (GPM), YouTube Red, and the new YouTube Premium.
First, you can still get YouTube Music for free. You just have to sit through the occasional ad like with the free version of Pandora. Paying $10 a month lets you eliminate the ads, download all the things for offline listening, and stream in the background while you have another app in the foreground. Google gives you a 30-day free trial to kick those tires.
Second, YouTube Music is still a part of YouTube Red, which also got a few tweaks. YouTube Red is now known as "YouTube Premium," and the price has gone up $12/mo -- unless you were already subscribed to Red as of May 22. In that case, you still pay the old $10/mo.
And for now, at least, Premium still retains Red's free access to Google Play Music. If you're still on GPM's original launch offer of $8/mo, you should be able to continue at that price for the foreseeable future -- but it looks like YouTube Music will be getting the lion's share of Google's attention from now on.
What's YouTube Music actually like now?
In short, it feels like a full-fledged premium music app, rather than just a music-focused extension of YouTube.
On the home screen, the service invites you to tell it which artists you like, presenting them in a catalog of portraits that you can tap on to make your picks. As you tap on them, sub-recommendations are made based on your taps. For example, tapping on John Mayall opens up three more portraits below him: Joe Bonamassa, Cream, and Jeff Beck. All three are pretty sensible connections to make; for example, Cream was fronted by Eric Clapton, who rose to fame as a member of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.
However, tapping on Led Zeppelin gives us Megadeth, Motorhead, and Dio. The dots are there, but these latter three groups came on about a decade later and are more associated with heavy metal than Zeppelin's mix of blues, rock, folk, and psychedelia. We'd expect those kind of recommendations if we'd tapped Metallica or Judas Priest. So there are still some kinks to work out.
Either way, there appear to be hundreds of artists in this catalog picker tool, and each branching recommendation can itself be tapped on to get another set of more refined suggestions. So you could spend all day here, narrowing down your tastes.
At the same time, just like Spotify, YouTube Music can generate a radio station of recommended tracks based on any artist, album, or specific song that you can find on the service. So if you don't want to go through the potentially time-sucking process of picking artists in the catalog, you still have the latitude to just dive into a station and mold it by voting up and down on specific tracks as they come through the pipe. This can be an amazing way to discover new music, if the recommendation system is smart enough and the library is large enough. Pandora has been pretty active in this area lately.
If you want to explore without messing up your recommendations, you can do that too. Tap on your profile picture in the upper right, tap on Settings, then tap on Privacy & Location, and tap the sliders next to "Pause Watch History" and "Pause Search History." That's a lot of tapping, but it can be worth it if you want to indulge in a guilty pleasure. Though it would be nice to have an "Undo" button of some kind, when you accidentally play something that you're not actually interested in. You don't want to be haunted by tuba chillstep years down the road.
On this privacy page, you can also toggle location-based recommendations (off by default), and activity-based recommendations (also off by default). For these last two, YouTube Music notes that these are device-specific choices. Meaning, if you enable location-based recommendations on your phone, they remain off on your tablet. It's not account-wide.
What is YouTube Music missing that the competition has?
While YouTube Music has some cool features, there are a few drawbacks. For one, the Android version of YouTube Music does not have an equalizer. Google Play Music has had one from pretty much the very beginning, so we know that it's not off the table. We asked Google about this, and a representative said, "It's planned as part of the Google Play Music migration-related work."
YouTube Music also currently lacks presets for bass and treble, and you can't choose specific bitrates for streaming or downloading. For now, at least, you get what you get. We're willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a freshly-baked streaming app, but the competition here is stiff enough that YouTube Music will have to get some feature parity soon if it wants to get traction against established rivals like Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and Pandora.
Don't forget the power of YouTube video
Since this is a YouTube thing, there's also an entire section of the app called Hotlist that presents you with a river of trending music videos, and each artist page has a dedicated section for their own video performances. When you open one of these in the app, there's an audio-only slider at the top of the screen if you just want to play the tune in the background.
Again, we'll have a full review of YouTube Music once we've spent more time with it. But in the meantime, we can say that this not just a fresh coat of paint. This is now a premium music streaming platform, which is also powered by a cavernous archive of live performances -- a few months ago, the company said that users are uploading 400 hours of video every 60 seconds -- and these recordings are often impossible to find in any other format. The competition has its own collection of videos, some of which are exclusives, but at the end of the day, the sheer size of YouTube's collection has been impossible to for its rivals to replicate.
Our guide to the best music streaming apps of 2018 will be getting updated soon.
A note on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
One feather still in Google Play Music's cap is the native app for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which YouTube Music doesn't have yet. (However, you can get a Google Home to stream it after changing a few settings.) So if you listen to a lot of tunes on the road, we wouldn't swap from Google Play Music to YouTube Music right away. And YouTube Music doesn't have GPM's feature that lets you upload your own MP3s to fill in gaps in the catalog, although we are told that you will be able to migrate your Google Play Music uploads into YouTube Music.
We asked Google when or if YouTube Music will come to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and a representative said, "Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are coming soon."
Should you get on this train?
If you already have YouTube Premium/Red, you should definitely grab the YouTube Music app when you get access to the new version, since you're paying for it already. The new YouTube Music will also be available in your web browser at music.youtube.com. If you're not a YouTube Premium subscriber, you'll be able to get a free 30-day trial to check it out and decide for yourself.
But in a nutshell, the new YouTube Music feels like a worthy choice in a hyper-competitive market. Though if you need Android Auto or Apple CarPlay functionality, or you want more settings to adjust your audio quality, we'd recommend sticking to whatever you've got for now.
- YouTube Music, a new music streaming service, is coming soon (Google)
- YouTube Music kicks YouTube Red to the curb (CNET)
- YouTube has a dark mode. Here's how to turn it on (CNET)
- YouTube Music stuff, OnePlus 6 launch, Surface tablet rumors (ZDNet)
- Why Spotify's IPO could bring more innovation to music technology (TechRepublic)
- Video: How the business of music licensing works (TechRepublic)