Internet giant Google have been dabbling in the music world since their digital distribution service Google Play Music launched in 2011, and though it’s not enjoyed quite the same levels of popularity as rivals Spotify and Apple Music, it remains a major player in the streaming market, thanks in part to its inclusion as the default music player on all Android smartphones. This summer, Google doubled down by launching YouTube Music, a second music streaming service that’s billed as an extension of the famous online video platform.
Though they are one of the world’s most recognisable brands, Google is not a company that most people traditionally associate with music, and it’s likely that this is one of the reasons behind their decision to launch a subscription-based streaming service to be offered alongside Google Play Music. Christened “YouTube Music” and branded as a side-arm of the online video portal YouTube (a platform they’ve owned since 2006), the service debuted in 2016, but has recently been relaunched with a revitalised interface and a wealth of new features.
YouTube has had a complex and sometimes troubled relationship with the music industry: 2015 figures suggested that 52 percent of all music streaming took place on the service, while Google only paid out 13.5 percent of revenues that year. As consumers have moved further away from physical purchases and towards streaming services over the past ten years, YouTube provided a haven for those who want to stream their music but don’t necessarily want to pay for it. It’s no secret that most popular songs can be found on YouTube, sometimes illegitimately uploaded by users and available to listeners for free: as such, it has the largest catalogue of any legal music service.
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Following push-back from the industry throughout the 10’s, copyright-infringing content has been greatly reduced, with advertisements introduced and increasing amounts of royalties being paid to artists. However, the service still reportedly pays 1/7th of the rates that other streaming services pay, due to legal differences between payments to artists due from the streaming of ad-adjacent music videos (like on YouTube) and streaming of songs themselves, as with Spotify and Apple Music. Though it’s technically the most popular digital music service in the world and is often used by consumers solely for music listening as opposed to video consumption, YouTube is not considered as an equivalent to subscription-based services like Spotify, but as a video-focused platform supported primarily by advertisements.
Enter YouTube Music.
This is YouTube’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music, a dedicated streaming platform that gives users unlimited access to a library of songs numbering in the millions. Like Spotify, YouTube offers a free, limited version of the app that is funded by advertisements, and a premium subscription service that is ad-free. The service officially rolled out in 2015 in five territories, but has been revamped and re-released this summer with a new app and web player, ready for launch in several new markets: Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Unlike YouTube itself, it offers many of the same features that other streaming services do: playlists, library-building, offline streaming, and music recommendations are available. It’s essentially Google’s answer to the big-name streaming platforms, and with Google Play set to be folded in 2019, it looks as if this is a long-term strategy that they are hoping will eventually compete with, or even overtake the major players in the streaming game.
Does YouTube Music have a chance at taking a bite of the massive global music streaming market, which now accounts for the majority of the music industry’s total revenues and has its fastest-growing user base?
Some are saying that their latest effort is too little, too late. They’re several years behind in a race to dominate a space that’s already becoming increasingly crowded, with Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Pandora, Deezer, and Tidal already firmly established within the market. However, Google Play Music does have a relatively strong foothold and a substantial user base on Android devices, and when these users are migrated over to the new platform, it could start to look more like a serious rival to the major players and possibly make a significant mark on the global streaming market.
Google’s music strategy has been criticised as overly diverse and more than a little confusing. While YouTube Music has now rolled out, Google Play Music is still available, though it is set to be dissolved in 2019 with existing users transferred to the new service. YouTube Music has multiple tiers available to consumers: there’s a free, ad-funded service available to all, and a $9.99 music-only, ad-free option called YouTube Music Premium. And for $11.99 a month, users can access YouTube Premium, (a service that was previously named YouTube Red – are we confused yet?) which offers original video content, ad-free access to YouTube itself, and benefits like background play and video downloads. Consumers could be forgiven for being a little put-off by the baffling range of options as compared to platforms like Apple Music that offer a simple, single-tiered service with one easy price point.
Moreover, there’s the fundamental issue that people don’t tend to naturally associate YouTube with the same kind of traditional online music experience that’s offered by Spotify and Apple Music. This could work against them if they aren’t able to shift the public’s perception of the service through marketing and brand. Though I can’t speak for an entire user base, I know that personally I have only used YouTube to find songs that couldn’t be found elsewhere, or to view live versions of songs, unofficial remixes and music videos. I’ve never associated YouTube with the kind of curatorial, library-building experience that I use Apple Music for – an experience that’s based around discovering, collecting and saving music to listen to again and again – and it’s likely that many music fans share a similar perspective. If they aren’t able to transform the way their music service is perceived, creating a distinct and separate brand that distinguishes YouTube Music from the video portal itself, it could be their undoing.
Despite these disadvantages, YouTube Music has a strong chance of success, even if it may not outgrow the streaming giants of the music industry.
They have a strong and recognisable brand that could be leveraged in their favour, if they are able to dissociate the distinct video and audio platforms that it now represents. They have a sizeable existing user base that’s not likely to go elsewhere – and, they have features that other services can’t offer. Some content is user-uploaded, which means that remixes, live versions and covers are often available. And while the inclusion of video content may potentially obscure their brand identity, it does allow them to provide another unique feature that Spotify, Apple and Amazon cannot. Visual content has always been an important accessory to the musical experience and is only becoming moreso with time – YouTube is the number one online destination for such content, and to be able to offer that alongside music in the same place, is a potential game-changer. Being owned by Google, YouTube also has the advantage of utilising both the untold masses of data gathered from its users, and the sophisticated machine learning technologies that can process that data effectively. In combination, these could be used to engineer advanced tools for music discovery that outpace the equivalents offered by other platforms. YouTube Music currently offers a feature named Your Mixtape, which uses algorithms to create a single, personalised music channel for each user, tailored to specific factors such as location and time of day – it’s innovations like these that could draw in new users unsure of which platform to align themselves with.
As it stands, YouTube Music isn’t likely to persuade any devotees of Spotify or Apple Music to cancel their subscriptions. Paid-subscription streaming services are the dominant force in the modern music industry, and it’s likely that there’s enough room for growth remaining in the field to allow YouTube to gain a serious foothold without challenging the dominance of the major platforms. Their unique approach will undoubtedly draw in video-focused users that aren’t taken with the more conventional options, but with a disjointed brand identity and competitors that have a head-start of almost a decade, it’s unlikely that YouTube Music will equal the levels of sovereignty commanded by Spotify and Apple music any time soon.