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YouTube, the World's Biggest Music Service, Finally Launches Its Own Music Service

YouTube Music lets you watch videos, listen to music -- and maybe pay up, too.

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.

YouTube is the world’s largest music service. It’s also the world’s largest free music service, to the dismay of some people in the music business.

Now YouTube is trying to change that. After years of stops and starts, the video service is finally rolling out a dedicated music app, which will include a paid subscription option.

We can get to the features in a minute. But first, the context, which is more important:

For years, YouTube and Google have been locked in a simultaneously contentious and valuable relationship with music owners: Music videos are huge on YouTube, and YouTube is a big promotional tool for music owners. But music owners like the big music labels also complain that YouTube doesn’t generate nearly enough revenue for the free, on-demand music it provides, and YouTube (generally) thinks the big music labels are grasping luddites.

On top of that, the big music labels’ distribution deals with YouTube and Google are coming up for renewal in the next year. And for the first time, there is a plausible opportunity for the labels to bail on YouTube. Facebook’s big video push is finally providing the first real competition for YouTube, and Facebook has made it clear that it’s interested in music, too.

So that’s at least one of the reasons why YouTube, which has been telling the labels it would make things right for years, is finally launching its new service now. YouTube is about as up-front as it can be about this in its blog post announcing YouTube Music, which is, in large part, written for musicians and labels.

Or, in YouTube’s language: “Today, any artist can upload a video to YouTube and get discovered by over 1 billion people around the globe. That global exposure has allowed YouTube and Google to pay out over $3 billion to the record industry to date. But it’s also provided an incredible source of promotion for artists, helping fuel ticket sales, move merchandise, and boost album and song downloads. Just this month, Adele’s ‘Hello’ became the fastest rising video of the year on YouTube, while also breaking the record for first week download sales.

“But we want to do even more to support artists and all the fans who turn to YouTube to discover music, so we’re making the experience even better with a brand new YouTube Music app. ”

Look, we’ve been giving you a lot over the years. Now we’re going to give you more.

On to the app itself, which you can download for free via Apple’s App Store or Google Play. YouTube Music is free, and doesn’t technically offer a standalone subscription service. But! People who subscribe to YouTube’s new $10-a-month YouTube Red service will get a different version of YouTube Music, which strips out ads and offers features like the ability to listen to music offline.

YouTube Music

Does this confuse you? We can make it more confusing if you’d like: YouTube Red subscriptions also include subscriptions to Google Play Music, Google’s other music subscription service. Ah, Google. So Googley.

Per above, YouTube Music is coming online in 2015, when there are many other paid music subscription services available, including ones from Spotify, Apple and, um, Google. So YouTube execs are playing up the differences between their paid music service and other peoples’. The big one, obviously, is that their service offers video.

So, what else? In an earlier version of this app, YouTube stressed that its catalog included not just mainstream songs, but stuff you couldn’t find on other services, like covers, concert recordings and fan-uploaded versions of songs. Those are still around, but this time YouTube isn’t leading with that stuff: It figures you’re likely to want the real Adele before you get to Adele-related content.

YouTube also figures that computers will do a better job at picking music for you than humans do, so the playlists it generates are created by computers. Apple Music aside, that’s par for the course with digital music services.

One thing that YouTube doesn’t do is offer playlists based on the mood or activity you’re in: No “Getting Ready to Go Out” or “Intense Studying” options here. Instead, you’re supposed to pick a song you like, and YouTube Music will automatically create a playlist for you based on that song; a slider gives you the option to make that playlist more or less related to the one you’re playing.

Other features are only relevant for people who have decided to subscribe to a music service that’s based around videos, like the ability to turn those videos off and just listen to the music. Another little grace note: If you play a video that has a lot of other things in it besides the song you want to hear — say, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — and turn to audio-only mode, YouTube will replace the video soundtrack with a stripped-down version of the song.

But comparing YouTube Music to the other subscription services probably doesn’t make sense, because it’s unlikely that people who want to subscribe to music services will do that; 20 million of them are already paying for Spotify, 6.5 million more are paying for Apple Music, and another three million to six million are paying for Deezer.

Instead, my hunch is that most people who end up getting the subscription version of YouTube music will do so because they like other parts of the YouTube Red bundle, like the ability to watch regular YouTube stuff without ads, or exclusive PewDiePie videos. (Yup! PewDiePie.)

Are there enough of those people to make the music labels happy, or less unhappy, about their relationship with YouTube? Can Facebook make them a better offer? That’s a 2016 question.

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