YouTube Music Key launches (softly, partially, and finally)

Music Key web promo splash

After over a year of rumors, hints, announcements, delays, and public wrangles with labels, Google’s YouTube platform has unveiled Music Key, the new music service. The launch is partial, and Music Key is more complicated than expected.

Music Key has two parts: free and paid. The free portion is open for exploration now on the YouTube website, and via the latest upgrades of YouTube Android  and iOS apps. The paid subscription service will start rolling out, slowly and incrementally, next week.

Music Key splashThe Free Music Key

While open for business, Music Key (free) is preliminary and officially in beta mode. Google says features will be added. It exists as a fairly inconspicuous tab in the web version. Clicking on it keeps you in the familiar YouTube environment, presenting whatever music playlists you created, plus curated lists from YouTube. More on that below.

Opening one of the updated mobile apps throws you directly into the new Music section — not inconspicuous at all. the difference in approach is interesting. On the website, the Music tab appears shyly, as if Google didn’t care whether you opened it. The new apps, though, are clearly designed as Music Key (free) vehicles. A three-part splash page which introduces the new iPhone app promotes YouTube Mixes (curated playlists), the new music homepage, and a promise to find music faster — “Start playing albums or artists right from search.”

The mention of albums is both expected and a startling official sanction of long-standing reality. Ripped and uploaded albums, sometimes with timed links to individual tracks, has long been one of YouTube’s key differentiators, adding incalculable depth to the world’s most immense music catalog. As we pointed out when Spotify made its “exclusive” deal with Led Zeppelin last December, the entire Zeppelin discography was plainly laid out in YouTube.

We tested whether Music Key (free) carried over this album-rip crowdsourcing by searching for The Beatles, whose entire catalog has been readily available for on-demand streaming exclusively in the wild musical forest of classic YouTube. We found it all easily; the 1965 Rubber Soul album provided a soundtrack to composing this review.

Music Key (free), as first launched, is a music suggestion environment. Its purpose is to make finding your music, and listening to new music in lean-back mode, easier when separated from all of YouTube’s non-music content.All your music-oriented saved videos and playlists are gathered in a tuneful walled garden.

Music Key android playlistThe emphasis is on playlists, including “endless” streams representing about 20 music genres. We were interested to explore playlists based on favorite artists based on historical listening and saved videos. We encountered many instances of YouTube’s “TSYN” (The Sound You Need) brand. Usability of the playlists was good in the apps; unlimited skipping is supported (or a limit so high that our rampant skip reflex didn’t reach it).

As an organizational enhancement, Music Key (free) is convenient and enjoyable. It is appropriately positioned as an option in the main YouTube platform. The real action, yet to be fully revealed, is in the subscription service.

The Upcoming Paid Service

We don’t know what the $10/month Music Key subscription service will look like, but even if it looks and feels the same as the free side of the fence, three main features will set it apart:

  • No ads (a standard perk of subscription music)
  • Offline listening (also standard)
  • Background listening

A few words on that third point. Background listening means the music keeps playing if the user switches to a different, non-music app … like a phone or tablet browser. Background listening is a standard feature — for example, Spotify, Pandora, and Songza (owned by Google) keep playing when you take up other tasks in the mobile device. It is our measured and grouchy opinion that making users pay for this basic aspect of mobile life is unseemly.

Eliminating ads, however, is more significant in YouTube, which carries three-minute movie trailers and 15-minute infomercials in its inventory. If you’re not watching the screen to skip past the ad (often an option), the experience can be ruinous.

In addition to enhancing YouTube native features, the paid service will combine with Google’s All Access music subscription platform. It is hard to know how much unduplicated content will spill out of that marriage, but $10/month for a combined All Access and YouTube music jukebox certainly packs in a lot of library.

Will It Sell?

Matching YouTube’s unfathomably deep catalog with an ad-free, online/offline experience adds up to a potential killer app. At least, that’s what Google hopes.

The difficulty with a reinvention of YouTube is with reinventing its user expectations and habits. Some research indicates that YouTube is the de facto music consumption platform for hordes of digital natives who have little experience with, and no interest in, paying for music. But meaningful relative success in the streaming music field might come quickly in YouTube monumental audience of one-billion monthly users. If YouTube converted one percent, the resulting 10-million subscribers would equal Spotify’s hard-won subscriber base, which is about 20 percent of its total users.

Brad Hill