by Andrew Heinzman on
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Google is planning to eventually bring all of its music services under the banner of YouTube Music. It’s a decent start for now, but it could use a lot of improvement.
The idea of using YouTube as a music service makes a certain kind of sense on paper. We’ve all watched music videos on YouTube. Between the record label joint-venture Vevo and users uploading their own music, almost every song you could want to listen to is available. Still, does that mean that YouTube makes sense as a competitor to something like Spotify or Apple Music?
Well. Sort of.
Let’s start with the things that work: music videos. YouTube is amazing at this already, but it’s always been a little awkward to use regular YouTube to play music. You can enable the autoplay feature that will go to the next video, but that’s about it. This is fine, at least until YouTube’s algorithm sends you to a video essay or a 10-hour epic sax guy mix, completely throwing off your groove (which still occasionally happens with YouTube Music, but far less often).
YouTube Music makes YouTube behave a bit more like a real music service. When you first open the app (which looks remarkably consistent across the desktop and mobile versions), you’ll get suggestions for automatic radio stations that you can listen to. Some of these suggestions are brilliantly targeted. For example, in the above screenshot, I got suggestions for music to listen to on a rainy day right around the time it started raining in my area. YouTube will also suggest playlists based on the day of the week or things you’ve listened to before. You can expect to get different suggestions on a Monday morning than on a Saturday night.
This feature has existed for a while in Google Play Music, so if you’re coming from that service it might feel familiar. It shines all the brighter in YouTube Music, though, since some of these playlists can be composed of music videos. You can search for a K-Pop video and end up watching thirty more. Which you should because they’re great. If you want to switch to just listening to the songs, you can flip the toggle in the mobile app or collapse the video panel on the desktop and the music will keep playing uninterrupted.
Strangely, however, YouTube Music can (and usually does) suggest playlists that are music-only, even when there’s a video available. When you search for a specific song, search results are split up into “Songs” and “Videos,” and, frustratingly, the music-only version is usually under “Top result” at the top. This makes very little sense, considering that music videos are the primary distinguishing feature of YouTube Music and Google is making you dig to get it. It doubly makes no sense considering the mobile app has the perfect solution: a master switch at the top of the app to always switch between music and video. Hopefully Google will iron this out in a future release, but for now, YouTube Music’s best feature is being hidden in the most Google of ways.
When a new service launches, you expect that you’ll be able to try it out like it’s brand new. Unfortunately, switching to YouTube Music feels more like getting a used car, when you know you’ll have to fix several problems before it’s fun to drive. Because it turns out, you have been using YouTube Music for a long time, without realizing it.
If you’ve ever created playlists on YouTube, you’ll notice the biggest problem right off the bat: your library is full of junk. To its credit, Google tried to ensure that it only imports playlists from YouTube that actually contain music, but it’s still questionable whether you actually want that in your music library. While my playlist of Team Fortress 2 intro videos didn’t get brought over, several playlists of mostly dead links to video game ambiance videos were now part of my library. I had to spend a few minutes cleaning up all this old data before my library was useful.
I could handle the one-time issue of cleaning up my library, but the frustrations didn’t end there. A couple times while playing a music video playlist, I noticed that some videos were at wildly different volume levels than others. This was jarring while I worked. I’d either have the volume so low that some songs are essentially silent, or I’d turn it up to hear those quiet videos only to get blasted when the next, louder video started playing. This is likely a symptom of using the many, many music videos uploaded to YouTube to fill the playlists, especially when the company hasn’t traditionally required any kind of volume normalization. I can guess why it happens, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying.
Everything you watch also ends up in your normal YouTube history. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since even watching an embedded YouTube video on a news page will end up in your history if you’re logged in. However, if you use your history (like I do) to find that funny video you saw earlier that you want to share with a friend, YouTube Music completely torpedoes this function. You’ll end up scrolling through dozens of videos because you put music on in the background for a couple hours. Thankfully you can still search through your YouTube history (on some platforms), but it would be nice if Google could separate your YouTube Music history from your regular YouTube profile.
My instinct is to compare YouTube Music to competitor services like Spotify or Apple Music, but frankly that feels premature. Google has made it clear that it plans to bring features over from Play Music and eventually phase it out to focus on YouTube Music exclusively some day. That leaves us in a weird limbo, though, where Play Music is still technically better.
For starters, if you’ve used Play Music at all, exactly none of those playlists have been imported to YouTube Music. Obviously this will have to happen at some point, if Google plans to do away with Play Music entirely, but for now the company isn’t helping you with the transition at all. You get a bunch of playlists you probably don’t want from YouTube, and none of the playlists you do want from the music service Google is eventually going to make you leave.
You also can’t upload any of your own music yet. Google has said this feature is coming later, but it’s not here now. You also can’t buy music to keep in your collection even if you stop paying for the subscription, which Google also says is coming. Oh, also Play Music has a podcasts section. Google has not confirmed that this will migrate over to YouTube Music. That would be something of an odd fit, but it’s not clear where else Google would put podcasts, and it seems unlikely the company will kill them off entirely.
For now, YouTube Music feels more like a proof of concept than a proper music streaming platform. What it has is nice. It’s very nice. Watching smart playlists of music videos, and switching to music-only when you just want to listen is exactly what you’d want from a music service powered by YouTube. There’s promise here if you look for it.
However, not only do competing music services do more than YouTube does, even Google’s own other music service is currently better. Unless you’re really into music videos, it might be worth holding off on moving over for a year or two while Google irons out all the kinks. Just hope that the company doesn’t decide to invent a new music service by then.
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