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Music legend Lyor Cohen works for YouTube now, and he wants you to pay $10 a month

Why? Let him tell you.

Youtube Head of Global Music Lyor Cohen raises his middle finger to the camera while standing beside Chance the Rapper, who points to the camera.
Lyor Cohen and Chance the Rapper at a 2017 Grammys party
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for GQ
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.

Lyor Cohen used to complain about YouTube. Now he wants you to pay $10 a month for it.

What changed?

The very short answer is that Cohen used to run big record labels. Now he works at YouTube, as its emissary to music labels and the people who make music.

The longer answer is that Cohen wasn’t the only person at a music label with a gripe about YouTube. Many label executives have long complained that YouTube, which makes billions of dollars selling ads, doesn’t send them enough of that ad money.

In response, YouTube introduced an ad-free subscription service in the hope of mollifying the labels. Today they are rolling out a new version of that service.

And if you want the really long answer, with a bunch of turns, stops, starts and weird pauses, then I have a podcast for you: It’s the interview I conducted with Cohen last week, when he stopped by the Vox Media offices in Manhattan to show off the new service.

Cohen is one of the people I’ve been hoping to get for Recode Media since I started the show a couple of years ago. He’s a unique character in the music business — he got his start in the 1980s, as a road manager for early hip hop stars like Run DMC, and worked his way up the ladder from there — and he has a unique delivery, which can be both intimidating and hilarious, depending on your perspective. I always wanted to know how that would work as a long-form interview.

Now I know. Here’s 43 minutes of us chatting about YouTube, and Childish Gambino, and that famous/infamous Kanye West photo that Cohen showed up in a few weeks ago, and the role of music labels in 2018, among other things.

You can listen to that one below, or via Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Enjoy!

What about the new version of YouTube Music? As I always say when someone has a new app, it makes more sense for you to check it out than for me to tell you about it. So if you’re in the U.S. or a handful of other countries, you can start listening — or, at least, sign up to start listening — today.

But I do have a few quick thoughts about what YouTube is doing here:

  • At its core, the new YouTube Music is like the old YouTube music: It combines an ad-free version of YouTube, the video service, with the functionality of Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play’s music-only service.
  • There are a few new features, most notably the promise to serve you music suggestions “based on what you’ve played before, where you are and what you’re doing.” A year ago, it would have been no big deal for YouTube to tell you it was watching your usage so it could offer smarter suggestions about what you want to hear. Now, in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, that kind of surveillance seems like a double-edged sword to me, optically speaking. But Cohen and YouTube execs don’t seem to think it’s a problem. (Cue slightly uncomfortable Barry White discussion.)
  • As I noted last week, one of the big changes with the new version of YouTube Music is that it effectively comes with a price hike: YouTube used to bundle its music service along with YouTube Red, which gave you ad-free access to all of YouTube, along with original programing. Now YouTube Red is gone, and its replacement has a confusing name and costs $2 more (for new subscribers).
  • To me, the most interesting part of the new YouTube Music service isn’t the service itself, it’s YouTube’s efforts to get you to subscribe. Part of that will come from a big marketing push, but another part will come from YouTube’s efforts to make using free YouTube less attractive — to “frustrate and seduce” free users into becoming paid users, in Cohen’s words. So it will be interesting to see how hard YouTube really pushes the idea of making their core service less attractive. On the one hand, they wouldn’t mind if people signed up for subscriptions. On the other hand, they certainly don’t want to frustrate free users into using the service less and not paying for a subscription. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

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