The YouTube Music app revives the the video site’s ambitions around songs.
Here’s a familiar refrain: YouTube just launched a new home for music.
Thursday’s release of a dedicated YouTube Music app follows last year’s debut of YouTube Music Key, a subscription service that never expanded beyond a small, invite-only crowd of testers. It also comes after last month’s introduction of Red, the video site’s $10-a-month subscription service that strips away ads and gives members other mobile perks.
YouTube Music paired with Red renews the promise of Music Key after its failure to launch. YouTube is the Internet’s biggest video site by audience and the dominant legal source of music online. That reach puts YouTube in a unique position to popularize subscription music services with a mainstream audience. Not all people understand what a music subscription is, but almost everybody knows YouTube, and paying $10 a month to get rid of ads is a simple concept.
YouTube’s challenge is to make that concept attractive to the masses.
How big is YouTube? Every month, more than a billion individuals visit the Google-owned site — that’s one out every seven people on Earth. And that number is surely higher now. It hasn’t been updated in more than two years, all while other measurements of YouTube’s reach have grown. In March, daily viewers climbed 40 percent from a year earlier, and as of June the number of hours watched rose 60 percent.
With its music reboot, the company wanted something “uniquely YouTube,” said T. Jay Fowler, the company’s head of music products, who previously helped launch former music services Mog and Beats Music. “I’ve built two of these. Coming back to build a third, with things that are more the same than different, is just not the right approach,” he said.
A YouTube Red membership improves the music app. The monthly fee means ad-free watching. Members can listen when they’re not connected to a network, as on a plane or in a subway, and they can keep the music playing if they hop into a different app to respond to text messages or check their email.
But YouTube Music is open to nonpaying visitors. Similar to the site’s kids and gaming apps, YouTube Music carves out a special corner that makes finding and watching what you want easier when you’re in the mood for tunes. Fowler said YouTube “did something slightly less Google-y” with the app’s search, veering away from straightforward results to highlight a top pick, then stations based on that search, then other videos and songs. He said a lot of investment went into surfacing the right user-generated content — mashups, covers and dance homages — that distinguishes YouTube from rivals.
The recording industry is hanging hopes on music subscriptions as its best shot for making money in the digital age. Paid services are growing fast, but they’re still niche in the US. Subscriptions accounted for 15 percent of US music sales in the first half of the year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America trade group. Spotify is the world’s leading subscription music service, with 20 million paid subscribers and more than 75 million active listeners as of June.
Fowler disagreed with the idea that YouTube Music Key failed. He framed its year-long “beta” pilot with a narrow group of customers as a valuable testing ground. It taught Google that YouTube needed to switch gears and create a bigger paid service spanning all of the site’s videos. “We do betas at Google. Historically, things stay in beta for a long time,” he said.
A lot has changed in the year since the San Bruno, California-based site unwrapped Music Key. Apple debuted its first subscription service, Apple Music, in June. Like YouTube, the electronics giant benefits from a large base of potential customers, with credit card numbers for 800 million people on file in its iTunes store. So far it has signed up 6.5 million paying members. Meanwhile, Facebook, the biggest social network in the world, has lunged at video. It has doubled the number of daily video views to 8 billion in the last six months, quickly growing into a legitimate YouTube rival.
YouTube Music is available for devices running on Google’s own Android operating system and for Apple mobile devices. Downloading the app includes a 14-day free trial of YouTube Red with all the bonus features you normally need to pay for. YouTube Red offers a one-month free trial for new customers, which should give you the same benefits in YouTube Music at no charge for a longer time.