Can YouTube produce a Spotify killer?

by Peter Griffin / 23 May, 2018

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The launch of YouTube Music brings some harmony to Google's music offerings. Photo / Getty Images

YouTube will today roll out its revamped subscription streaming service YouTube Music, upping the stakes in a market dominated by Spotify and Apple Music.

Late last year I lost my free access to ad-free Spotify when I moved off the mobile phone plan Spark bundles it with as a free extra.

That was a sad day. I love Spotify, I still think it provides the best experience for discovering music, with its suggested streaming stations and ability to follow curated playlists such as Hipster International, the must-follow collection maintained by Napster founder Sean Parker complete with a heavy dose of Lorde. I also used it for following numerous podcasts.

But rather than sign up as a paying Spotify member ($14.99 a month), I decided to look around and compare the options.

That led me to the confusing collection of Google apps - YouTube Music, YouTube Red and Google Music Play, all of which have been available since May 2016 for one monthly fee of $12.99. It was a bit of a messy collection - YouTube Music had tens of millions of tracks available but its interface wasn’t as good as Spotify’s. The older Google Play Music service seemed to have a broader selection of music but a very minimalist design and little in the way of music discovery tools.

Red becomes premium

But YouTube Red, which was mocked for being so similar-sounding to the porn site Redtube, had a massive killer app - it removed all of the adverts from YouTube and included music videos, bootlegs, remixes, covers and live recordings you don’t get on Spotify, Apple, Tidal, or any other platform.

You could also download videos and audio tracks and play music from YouTube in the background - previously the track stopped playing when you turned off your phone’s screen. It also granted you access to YouTube’s original productions, thought to date they’ve been a waste of time - no Netflix by a long stretch.

I’ve been on YouTube Music/Google Play ever since - but it is fairly clunky moving between the various apps available and I still yearn for Spotify’s discoverability.

The debut today of YouTube Music Premium will see it supercede Google Play Music, which for the meantime will continue to exist but mainly as a cloud storage locker for those users who have uploaded their own music to it to stream to their devices.

YouTube Red disappears and becomes YouTube Premium continuing the ad-free experience and including YouTube Music, the dedicated streaming music service for a monthly fee of US$15.99.

You can get YouTube Music Premium as a standalone service (without the ad-free YouTube experience) for $12.99 a month. No word yet on whether a family plan will be offered - Google says additional plans will be announced after launch.

Existing YouTube Red subscribers like myself will continue to pay $12.99 for the total bundle which is a great deal and there is a free, ad-supported YouTube Music option, much like Spotify offers, but without the downloads and background play.

This will bring some much-needed coherence to YouTube’s apps.

“YouTube was made for watching, which meant fans have had to jump back and forth between multiple music apps and YouTube. Those days will soon be over,” the Google blog post announcing the change promised.

But will it offer a better experience for finding music and stumbling across great new acts? We won’t know that exactly until the app is live on the Google Play store later today, but the images Google has released of the new user-interface suggest a Spotify-style makeover.

What do you fancy?

Personalised play

There is also a personalised home screen to reflect your music listening history, and location-based music playing suggestions.

“At the airport? We’ll recommend something relaxing before the flight. Entering the gym? We’ll suggest some beats to get the heart-rate going.” claims Google.

That could get annoying if it isn’t done well, but mirrors the often quite useful functionality in the Google Assistant. There will be thousands of playlists to help you discover new music. Spotify has done a great job here, and particularly on developing local playlists reflecting the music charts and interests of New Zealand listeners. Google has the technology to do this, but it is yet to be seen if it can deliver it with the finesse of Spotify.

What Google does well is search and it is suggesting finding music with incomplete search terms will lead you to the right music.

“YouTube Music search works even if fans don’t know exactly what they’re looking for … we’ll find it if they describe it (try “that hipster song with the whistling”) or give us some lyrics (try “I make money moves”).

The new subscription service will tidy things up for YouTube users, but it will really appeal to people like myself, who spend a lot of time on YouTube watching videos and can’t bear the thought of going back to an ad-littered viewing experience. Bundle in a fulsome music library and the unofficial extra tracks and videos YouTube boasts and it is a pretty compelling offer.

But it will be hard to make inroads against Spotify, which has 70 million paying users and does the basics so well.

Apple Music is available on iOS devices as well as on the Android platform and desktop computers and has made good progress in the last couple of years amassing nearly 40 million paying subscribers. It doesn’t offer a free, ad-supported version so its growth has been impressive launching well behind Spotify.

Apple Music’s big selling point is the early access it often gets to new releases and the exclusive music station Beats1 it runs through the day, featuring famous New Zealand export Zane Lowe as well as my personal favourite, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich interviewing other stars of the rock world. Those shows sometimes make it onto Youtube, but if you want them first and in the slick Apple Music interface, you’ll have to pay up.

It also integrates Siri for voice-activated searches and plugs into iTunes, which opens you easily to a world of video and podcast content.

The also-rans

Amazon Music Unlimited offers an extensive music library, but has very little visibility here so far - it may take off if Amazon Prime memberships come to New Zealand - in the US, Prime subscribers get the music service at a discount (US$7.99 a month).

The other big player, and hardly registering here is Tidal, which is known for offering top quality audio streams, exclusive releases and for paying artists more than the other streaming services.

That latter point deserves attention. YouTube and Spotify have been criticised for the low per-stream rates paid to artists - Tidal pays artists more to feature their music. The flipside is higher per-month subscription fees and the reality is that Tidal has tiny subscriber numbers - it will struggle to survive the next year or two.

The big question is how seriously Google wants YouTube Music to succeed. Google doesn’t disclose YouTube’s annual revenue, but analysts estimate it at around US$10 billion in 2018. That’s a healthy business built on running ads on YouTube, which faces the prospect of cannibalising that ad revenue as more people go premium and ad-free, an issue its rivals never faced.

Some commentators suggest the main motivation for ramping up its subscription service is to appease a music industry increasingly upset at the slow streaming rates YouTube offers. On the other hand, if YouTube can amass large numbers of subscribers it is well placed to merge music and video subscription services as a powerful rival to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

YouTube Music Premium
YouTube Premium
$15.99 (includes YouTube music Premium)

Premium $14.99
Family $22.50

Apple Music
Student $7.49
Individual $14.99
Family $22.99

Premium US$9.99
Hi-Fi US$19.99
Family Premium $14.99
Family HiFi $29.99

Amazon Music Unlimited
Individual US$9.99
Family US$14.99


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