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New YouTube Music Subscription Service Won’t Launch in March After All (EXCLUSIVE)

The eyes of the music world are on Texas this month, as bands, label executives and media companies flock to the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, which is set to begin on March 12. SXSW’s annual conference is being keynoted by YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen, who is supposed to speak about “seismic changes he’s witnessed and the importance of embracing the future,” according to a panel description.

However, there’s one thing Cohen, a longtime music industry insider who at one time served as the CEO of Warner Music, won’t be doing during his moment in the spotlight: unveiling YouTube’s long-awaited new premium music service.

“It was never our plan to launch at the festival,” a YouTube spokesperson told Variety Thursday.

That’s counter to expectations of industry insiders, who had been anticipating a launch of YouTube Music at SXSW for months. It’s also despite the fact that YouTube has been able to secure the rights from all three major labels for the service, removing a key roadblock for launching it.

Bloomberg was first to report about a planned March launch of YouTube Music late last year. Sources with knowledge of the Google’s plans told Variety that the company recently made the decision to significantly scale back YouTube’s presence on the ground in Austin, and instead use the event to highlight some of Google’s other products and initiatives.

For the past three years, YouTube has hosted a number of artists as part of a multi-day event at SXSW. In 2017, artists playing on YouTube’s stage included Solange Knowles, Migos and Lil Yachty. YouTube has not yet announced its plans for this year, but sources tell Variety not to expect a similar line-up.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is still scheduled to speak as part of the SXSW conference program. YouTube’s decision to not use SXSW, and the appearances of key executives at the event, as the launchpad for YouTube Music could mean that the service simply isn’t ready for a public unveiling.

There have also been mixed messages about the way Google is going to position the service, especially as it relates to premium video on YouTube. Google’s video service first launched a $10 paid tier, dubbed YouTube Red, in late 2014. At the time, YouTube Red was advertised as a subscription service for premium YouTube content that would also get subscribers ad-free access to the rest of YouTube’s catalog, including music videos,  as well as to streaming music via the company’s Google Play Music subscription service.

Some of the shows commissioned for YouTube Red included a “Karate Kid” sequel, as well as subscriber-only content from YouTube stars Rhett and Link. However, more recently, YouTube put a bigger emphasis on ad-supported originals that are available to everyone, regardless of whether they pay for a subscription or not.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki further muddied the waters during an appearance at Recode’s Code Media conference last month, where she said that YouTube Red was “really a music service.”

At this point, it’s unclear when Google is ultimately going to launch YouTube Music. The next opportunity on the company’s corporate calendar would be its Google I/O developer conference, which is scheduled to be held in early May.

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