Is YouTube Music worth switching to?


The music industry is going through a drastic change (again), and music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are the main reason. While those are two names that get brought up most often, they’re not the only two players in the game. For a long time, Google Play Music (GPM) has been a fan favorite because of a number of features including the ability to upload thousands of songs from your own music library for free and some great curated playlists to choose from. That said, it never became a dominant player, which is weird to say considering everyone with a Gmail account has a GPM account.

Luckily for Google, the largest search engine in the world, it also owns YouTube which is the second largest search engine in the world. Last year, the company announced that it would be replacing Google Play Music with YouTube Music sometime in 2019 to capitalize on the popularity of the video-dominant platform, but is that good news? With Youtube Music now available, we thought we’d try it out and see if it’s a worthy replacement for GPM.

The Timeline

We should probably first explain the timeline because it can get confusing. Google was surprisingly early to the streaming market, launching GPM in November of 2011. For reference, this was just three years after Spotify launched in 2008, and four whole years before Apple Music in 2015. That said, in the Googliest of moves, Google launched a second music streaming service in the fall of 2015, called YouTube Music which, at the time, was bundled with YouTube Red. The two services coexisted for a while, but then in June of 2018, YouTube Music was relaunched with new features and a new design. Google has said that YouTube Music is going to be its primary focus moving forward, and it will fold GPM into it sometime in the next year or two.

Why launch YouTube Music?

To be fair, at the time that YouTube Music was originally announced it came bundled together with YouTube Red (Google’s premium ad-free YouTube service). The service was primarily geared towards those people who didn’t use GPM and instead just searched YouTube for music, which was a lot of people. How many? Well, considering Despacito alone is currently sitting at 5.7 billion plays, it’s safe to assume that it was a crazy-large number.

Close-up of the YouTube Music interface,

The YouTube Music interface is a weird mashup of YouTube and Spotify.

Separating the music side of YouTube from the video side of things just made sense. Essentially, YouTube Music consolidates all the music on the platform into a separate app, with useful features like radios, playlists, and background listening so you can listen to music when your phone screen is off.

What about Google Play Music?

Good question! While GPM amassed a somewhat cult-like following in the music streaming world, it’s, unfortunately, going to be discontinued at some point in the future and folded into YouTube Music. Thankfully, users don’t need to worry about losing their playlists or personal music libraries as Google has promised all of that will transfer over when the transition happens, which looks like it could be happening as soon as 2019.

What’s good about YouTube Music

Before we dig into the negatives, I should say that my overall experience with the service hasn’t been bad. There are still some great features that make YouTube Music truly unique and shows signs of brilliance by incorporating some of the features that made GPM so good.

Unofficial music

This one is near and dear to my heart and is by far the best thing about YouTube Music so far. YouTube has a plethora of unofficial music that I thought was lost to history or just wasn’t aware of. No offense to the mumble rappers of today, but I grew up in the mixtape era of hip-hop. Nine out of ten times, I’d rather listen to a classic mixtape than whatever is on Billboard’s Hot 100. That’s a problem in today’s current streaming system as the only way to listen to something like Lupe Fiasco’s A Rhyming Ape is to have the MP3 in your library so you can upload it to Apple Music or play it locally on Spotify. If you don’t have them, you’re out of luck… unless you go to YouTube. As great as browsing the internet for direct download links on sketchy websites is, I much prefer not having to leave my music app to listen to a song.

Screenshot of YouTube music.

YouTube Music lets you listen to (or watch) live performances just like YouTube.

Besides mixtapes, there are a plethora of fantastic covers that you can now listen to with ease. It also means that all of those live performances from your favorite artists can just be added to a playlist now. No more ripping the audio from via some ad-filled website with pop-ups. If YouTube Music can fix some of the bigger issues I have with it (we’ll get into that later), this alone is reason enough to make me switch from my current service.

Down the rabbit hole

You know when you open up YouTube to quickly search for something, and somehow find yourself watching tutorials on the proper technique for folding clothes an hour later? Seriously, that can’t just be me. Well, going down the rabbit hole is a real thing and that’s just as true with YouTube Music. A quick browse for this article turned into a 30-minute jam session, and I regret nothing.

Discovery

That leads me to my next point. The YouTube algorithm is already insanely good. For better or for worse, there’s rarely a time when I log in and don’t want to immediately watch one of the recommended videos. When you apply that to the music you listen to, it means that you’re constantly discovering new songs and artists every time you open the app. It’s still not quite as good as something like the weekly Discover playlist from Spotify, but I’m sure if I spent as much time in YouTube Music as I do Spotify that would change fairly quickly.

Same great playlists from Google Play Music

Speaking of playlists, one of my favorite features of GPM was the playlists. I’m not sure if it’s algorithm based or if there’s someone at a desk making them by hand, but I’m rarely disappointed when I press play. That said, basically every streaming service has passable playlist curation. Ultimately, this isn’t as big a selling point for me as some of the other features.

So what are the downsides?

Close-up of the YouTube Music interface,

The YouTube Music interface is a weird mashup of YouTube and Spotify.

The interface

When you think of a digital music library, you probably think of something that looks like iTunes. A glorified spreadsheet with sections for artist, title, album, length of the track, etc. It’s not the best, but it works. It could be that I’m just used to digital music being organized in that way, but the YouTube Music interface forgoes that completely in favor of something that feels weird. It’s like a mash-up of the Spotify homepage with its horizontally scrolling shelves and the YouTube homepage with its recommended videos bar. As I already mentioned, the actual content of the home page is great (related artists, music videos, playlists, etc), but navigating it doesn’t feel intuitive.

Sound quality

According to this post, Google does plan on increasing the sound quality on the service in the future, but that isn’t the case right now. As it stands, audio streams at 128kbps in HE-ACC with 256kbps supposedly coming in the future, which still isn’t great. Not a promising sign for a music platform.

Starting from scratch

While Google does plan to import your personal music library from GPM and give users the ability to upload their own songs, that feature isn’t available just yet. So if you wanted to give Youtube Music a shot, you’re going to be starting from scratch. This means you have to spend your first minutes in the app picking artists you like and dislike which is annoying, considering you’ve probably already done this with GPM.

How long will it last?

I use and enjoy many of Google’s products, but its track record for successful standalone apps isn’t the best. Allo, anyone? While YouTube Music appears to be Google’s legitimate attempt to take on Spotify and Apple Music, I can’t help but wonder how long it’s going to be a priority for the company. Will YouTube Music eventually be folded into another yet-to-be-thought-of service? I have no problem being an early adopter for most of Google’s products, because there isn’t really anything at stake. That said, that isn’t the case here. My uploaded music library is a carefully curated database of thousands of songs that I don’t feel like experimenting with.

Should you switch?

While I had no problem being an unofficial GPM evangelist when it was launched, I’m hesitant to give my stamp of approval to YouTube Music just yet. Not because it isn’t good, just because everything from its interface to its laissez-faire attitude toward sound quality makes it feel like it isn’t made for music lovers—rather it’s just for people who listen to music. Basically, if you weren’t already using YouTube as your primary music streaming service, this service probably isn’t for you. For those that are going to be switching from GPM, this transition is going to take some getting used to.

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