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YouTube Music's Secret Weapon: Music You Can't Get Anywhere Else

Every $10-a-month music service is basically the same. But the world's biggest video site is planning something different.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You Tube has already said, on the record, that it is launching a music subscription service. And YouTube has explained, on the record, why it is launching a music subscription service.

And now we know why YouTube thinks you might pay for its music subscription service: It will have stuff you can’t get from other music subscription services.

This revelation comes from images published by Android Police, which purport to show leaked screenshots of the upcoming service’s pitch.

YouTube isn’t commenting on the report, but based on everything I’ve heard about the service — which has been in the works for more than a year, and delayed several times — it appears to be the real deal.

The screenshots also don’t show much that’s surprising. Like almost every other music subscription service — and there are many other music subscription services* — “Google Play Music Key” will offer ad-free, portable music, which you can listen to on- and offline, for $10 a month.

And, of course, it lets you watch videos, which you can already do for free.

But YouTube’s service will have one thing that all the other paid services won’t have, at least for now: The ability to listen to many of the songs users have uploaded, via videos, that aren’t part of music acts’ official catalogs, like concert recordings or remixes.

YouTube spells it out on this screen:

YouTube Music

We’ll have to see how this plays out in the real world, but my hunch is that the idea is to give subscribers access to a large “gray zone” of music that has been on YouTube for a long time, often with copyright owners’ permission, but unavailable most other places.

That could include everything from dance mixes to fans covering famous artists to famous artists covering famous artists. It’s a really, really long tail, and it seems impossible to imagine it existing anywhere but YouTube. Spotify gives me on-demand access to all of Wilco’s albums, and all of Radiohead’s albums, but it won’t let me hear Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy covering Radiohead.

Music licensing is convoluted and frequently nonsensical. So I wouldn’t expect every cover, concert recording or remix you find on YouTube to be available on YouTube’s subscription service.

But no matter how much of that stuff is ultimately available, I wonder how much difference this will make to YouTube’s prospective audience. YouTube may have the same ambivalence, which is why it doesn’t seem to be playing up the feature that heavily in the promotional slides — it’s just one of many features it is pitching, most of which you can get somewhere else.

Which is probably the real reason YouTube thinks it will succeed: It won’t really be competing with other subscription music services at all, because most people aren’t using subscription music services. Instead it will be competing with free — that is, with itself.

So when YouTube converts some of its billion-plus users into subscribers, YouTube wins. And when the rest keep using YouTube for free, YouTube wins. Good odds.

* Partial roll call of paid subscription services available in the U.S.: Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Beats, Xbox and Google Play Music.

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