On Tuesday, YouTube began rolling out early access to its revamped music streaming platform, YouTube Music, which will cost users $9.99 a month for the premium tier. As an avid music consumer, the concept of streaming an infinite number of songs is basically a god-sent miracle – and one that I’d willingly pay for. The ability to listen on-demand wherever I am in the world is the sort of futuristic dream generations of music fans before me could only dream of, and YouTube, which is owned by Google, is perhaps best positioned to forge ahead and innovate the space.
But in order for YouTube Music to claim a spot in streaming’s new world order, it needs to have something to set it apart, especially considering that Spotify is king and Apple Music, in second place, is closing in on the Swedish company. (If you’re wondering, I’m a subscriber to Apple Music’s paid tier and a user of Spotify’s free service.)
I gave YouTube Music a test drive on my laptop and the first thing I noticed was how the user interface looked incredibly familiar. A quick scroll through YouTube Music’s main page reveals curated playlists pretty similar to what I can find on Spotify, and even the cover art designs YouTube Music presents seem derivative.
However, YouTube has the power of Google’s search algorithm behind it, and Today’s Biggest Hits is a good playlist if anyone’s curious about what’s trending in the music world that day. If you’re not down for listening to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” or Portugal the Man’s “Feel It Still” for the umpteenth time, YouTube Music has a series of “Hotlists,” their version of Spotify’s playlist, for whatever genre suits your fancy.
As an avid hip-hop fan, I immediately took note of YouTube’s Hip-Hop and R&B Hotlist, featuring four hours of “the hottest songs in hip-hop and R&B.” Of course, I was curious as to how it would stack up to Spotify’s massively influential RapCaviar playlist.
The verdict: It’s a pretty solid playlist, but I can’t see myself discovering a hungry mixtape master on it, at least not while it’s stacking Drake, Migos and Nicki Minaj back-to-back and then sprinkling in R&B megastars like SZA, Khalid and The Weeknd.
So what really sets YouTube Music apart? I expected the service to stick to its roots by providing more music video-based content, a sort of MTV for the 21st century (worth noting: Apple Music recently announced access to its own library of music videos, which also includes original content). With the Hotlist tab, the service took me to a list of the 20 top trending music videos on YouTube right now. After I clicked on Minaj’s “Chun-Li,” a video window opened and a track-list of songs popped up on the right of the screen. Dubbed “song radio,” this track-list utilizes YouTube’s curating algorithm to craft a music video playlist based on similar songs I might like.
This is what I was looking for when I signed up for YouTube Music. With the Hotlist tab, I can set up my laptop on the coffee table and relax on my couch while I shut off my brain and enjoy some music videos for an hour or two. In fact, I did just that until my mellow got interrupted by Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” followed by Sam Smith’s “Pray.” Sporadically, the radio function would throw in Backstreet Boys’ “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and Camila Cabello’s “Sangria Wine” just to keep me up-to-date on songs that are currently popping.
I really wish YouTube Music embraced the music video side of the service more, and I have to wonder how much more effort was spent on the platform’s “smart search.” This feature touts YouTube Music’s ability to find any song based on whatever lyrics you might have caught.
With Google powering the tech, I wanted to test how strong the search engine was, and I’m happy to report it returned my “that one ninja turtles rap song” query with “Shell Shocked” by Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa and Ty Dolla $ign, just like I’d hoped. It’s a pretty fun tool to play around with, and it’s definitely quicker for me to use than asking Siri to listen to the nearest speaker at a crowded, noisy restaurant.
YouTube Music is certainly a strong platform for streaming music, this I can’t dispute. However, the problem is that it’s just too late for the average listener. Most people have already carefully tailored their Spotify experience with curated playlists, that it makes the act of switching over to an entirely new platform for essentially the same experience a chore.
Even its other feature, the Offline Mixtape, which downloads your favorite songs to your mobile device automatically, isn’t a unique feature, it’s the standard (even if “download” really means temporarily store the song on your device until you stop paying for our subscription fee and then we’ll take it back). Streaming is a hyper-competitive sector of the music business where, in an instant, the game could change completely. That means a long uphill battle for any upstart, even one owned by Google, and as far as YouTube Music is concerned, little truly sets it apart.