YouTube Music serves up obscurities and video
There is a tech-industry joke that whenever Google has a free moment, it launches a messaging service. Nowadays, that could also be said about music services.
YouTube Music is the latest, and while it launched in the U.S. four months ago, it is now available in Canada. YouTube’s parent company still has Google Play Music and YouTube Premium (formerly Red), which is its, uh, premium video service offering shows created for it, like Cobra Kai. If you pay for YouTube Premium, you get the other two as well. Makes sense? Not really, I know. Well, they’re Google, they’re supposed to be smarter than us average bears.
It does make sense for the company to try to capitalize on music fans, because even though YouTube is a video service, a 2017 report pegged that it accounts for 55 per cent of on-demand music streaming online. YouTube Music, which we got access to last week, looks to be a pretty good music service that benefits from YouTube and Google’s strengths, yet it still needs work if it really wants to stand out in the crowded music-streaming market.
All of these products operate in the exact same way. They cost around ten bucks a month, and for the most part have fairly similar multiple-million-song catalogues; how they differentiate themselves is by how they serve up, and help people discover, relevant music.
Getting on board is very easy. Once you sign into the app, it brings up a number of suggested artists; your selections will begin to shape YouTube Music’s future suggestions to you. The look is very much like Spotify — although it is images of artists as opposed to albums, with a “Your Favourites” in the first row, and as you descend down the page, it offers up suggestions, and themed playlists and topics such as “Made in Canada.” The tools for finding new tunes are not bad, and over time they will likely improve, but after a few days of exploring, they currently pale in comparison to Spotify’s Discovery Weekly and Release Radar, algorithmically and personally prepared playlists which are the current gold standard in music discovery. YouTube Music just feel more general in its recommendations. That’s important to me, because I’m a big music nerd, but maybe not for most people — the truth is most people listen to their same favourites, all the time.
Where YouTube Music does stand out is the fact that it really does have everything. There are live performances and obscure videos that people have uploaded over the video site’s 13-year history. I tried to stump it with some really obscure stuff, and it did an excellent job of coming through, even if the results were a bit messy and disorganized. A perfect anecdote from this past weekend was that Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s new album as The Carters, Everything is Love, dropped. At first, it was a Tidal exclusive, but a piracy-minded user uploaded it to YouTube shortly after it was available; though the performers were listed as Various Artists, the search algorithm was smart enough to find it. I don’t want to say that there is almost too much here, but here’s one example. Search for an artist’s name and you get songs, videos and playlists. Then put it in same artist’s name with “live” and you get a completely different set of results. That said, YouTube search does shine through when you try to search for lyrics — even if you enter something incorrect, it oftentimes has uncanny accuracy in giving you what you are really looking for.
Listen, the real reasons to pay for this service are two things that the regular YouTube won’t allow you to do: get rid of the advertisements and listen to music offline and in the background. Those functions work pretty well. The third reason to switch might be if you are music-video freak —while YouTube’s rivals also offer them, they often don’t know what to do with them. YouTube has them all.
There still are some missing features, like Sonos integration, which is likely coming soon; also, the Library section, where you can save music, feels bareboned compared its competitors. YouTube Music really wants to be a deejay for a casual user — it’s best when you hit a band, or genre of music, and tell it to make a playlist and let it go. It is definitely a competent player in the music-streaming field, even if there are some quirks and video-centric aspects to its services that make it feel lesser than its more purely musical competitors.
YouTube Music’s paid service is $9.99 a month, but there is a free, ad-supported version with fewer features. YouTube Premium is $11.99 a month, and includes YouTube Music; both are now available with free three-month trials.