YouTube’s reported music service: Has Google missed its own boat?

YouTube, the gorilla in the room when it comes to online music listening, is reportedly ramping up to launch a freemium music service, probably modeled after Spotify and Rhapsody with a video component. (See Billboard’s breaking report here.)

If true, activating YouTube’s rampant music-listening audience in a formal offering is a sensible idea, and one that has been rumored for a long time. The unanswered questions are around how Google will differentiate value on the free side of the rumored service against an already-free YouTube, and what added value will be poured into the subscription package. 

Because YouTube is historically a UGC (User Generated Content) platform, its content boundaries are vast and flexible. Today, an unregistered, unpaying YouTube visitor can access a cosmic selection of music, some of it in album form with tracks delineated and linked for random-access listening. In addition to indie and amateur content that cannot be found elsewhere, an exceptionally long tail of vintage recordings from hidden back catalogs has been ripped and uploaded by the creative side of YouTube’s user base.

So the looming value question is how a YouTube music service would be separated and distinct from the larger YouTube experience — especially if the overarching YouTube platform offers better selection, lower price (e.g. free), years of familiarity to users, and an unregulated atmosphere that appeals to millions of young users.

The answers will probably be folded around packaging. YouTube is not the easiest or most elegant media consumption interface, to put it graciously. Comparing YouTube on the web to Spotify’s desktop app is like comparing a teenager’s bedroom to Martha Stewart’s dining room. If Google puts some design effort into a new service, it might be able to leverage its brand clout and ecosystem footprint to bring new listeners into a platform that historically serves a young demo.

In addition to improved merchandising, ad-removal will probably drive some interest in the subscription side. Even staunch advocates of the unregulated YouTube experience dislike the delay of pre-rolls and the intrusion of ads layered onto the screen during video playback.

All this boils down to one question: Has Google missed its own boat? YouTube is already the dominant music service (skewed to youth) and distribution outlet. John McVey, a music producer at Coupe Studios in Boulder, Colorado, told RAIN that YouTube was “the world’s largest record label.”

Can Google formalize YouTube as a listening platform, package it neatly enough, and somehow give it more value than YouTube already has?

Brad Hill