The streaming music field is a crowded space that sees companies large and small battling for your ears. YouTube Music, Google’s music entertainment arm, manages to stand out from the pack by combining customized playlists, search-by-lyrics functionality, and official studio releases and community uploads. This mix is a good one, though it probably won’t make someone ditch LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Spotify, or Tidal, our Editors’ Choices. Still, YouTube Music is an excellent service that’s definitely worth a listen, especially if you intend to sign up for YouTube Premium, of which this service is a part.
YouTube Music Plans
Google and its subsidiaries have a long, rich history of releasing new products that are similar to existing products (see Google Allo, Duo, Hangouts, and Messenger) and/or rebranding services to the point of confusion (see Google Apps for Your Domain, Google Apps for Works, G Suite, Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, and Google Drive). That approach is now being applied to the company’s music arm.
YouTube Music, comprised of a web player, mobile apps, and millions of songs, doesn’t represent the first time that YouTube has dabbled in the space (remember YouTube Music Key or the original YouTube Red?). Still, the company’s current music service is far more focused and complete than previous efforts.
You can partake of YouTube Music in three ways. There’s a free, ad-supported version for people who want to give the service a risk-free shot. There’s also the $9.99-per-month YouTube Music Premium, which serves up an ad-free experience, as well as mobile app background listening and offline playback. In this regard, YouTube Music Premium is very much like the competition. Note, however, that LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio offers a $3.99-per-month Plus plan that splits the difference between its Free and Premium options.
Like Spotify, Tidal, and many other paid streaming music services, YouTube Music has a family plan. The option gives six people access to YouTube Music’s catalog and premium features for $14.99 per month.
In addition, if you subscribe to YouTube Premium—the company’s $11.99-per-month ad-free entertainment network—you also receive YouTube Music Premium as part of the package. Now you have something to do between Cobra Kai episodes.
YouTube Music Replaces Google Play Music
You may be wondering what all this means for Google’s other streaming music service, the $9.99-per month Google Play Music. At the moment, Google Play Music is still up and running, but it is coming to an end later this year. The company even added a quick-transfer button to YouTube Music, a function that ensures that your Google Play Music uploads, purchases, added songs and albums, personal and subscribed playlists, likes and dislikes, curated stations, and personal taste preferences carry over to their new home.
The YouTube Music homepage has three main sections: Home, Explore, and Library. Home is where you find recommended content—more on that later. Explore is where trending songs, live performances, and deep cuts live. Library contains your liked songs, favorite albums, listening history, and created playlists. I’m happy to see my holiday playlist created on regular old YouTube carried over here, for example. The homepage is well designed, easy to navigate, and attractive, too.
YouTube Music leverages the mountains of data that Google has on its users to provide customized experiences—at least that’s the goal. If you’re in an airport, for example, YouTube Music should deliver relaxing tunes for the stressful flight experience. If you’re at the gym, YouTube Music should feed you heart-pumping beats and riffs.
In my testing, YouTube Music detected the time of day and my location, and served me the appropriate playlists. For example, in the early morning it suggested listening to the energy-boosting “Classic Rock Party” and “’90s Hip Hop Party” playlists. In the early evening, YouTube Music recommended the “Happy Hour” playlist. Weather even plays a role; YouTube Music Premium detected clear skies in New York City, which resulted in the “Feel Good Favorites” playlist.
If you’re okay with exchanging your personal data for customized playlists, it’s a really slick, if somewhat sobering, experience. It’s definitely a more personalized experience than what other music services offer.
YouTube Music has another cool gimmick: lyrics-based searches. The service doesn’t display lyrics as songs play, but you can type “took a test to become an MC and didn’t fail” into the search box, hit the enter key, and see RUN-DMC’s “Rock Box” accurately listed as a result. That said, that same search returned Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” for some inexplicable reason.
The YouTube Listening Experience
Of course, YouTube Music also recommends songs, albums, and playlists based on songs you’ve liked or listened to in the past. While researching The Offspring for my bi-weekly column, The Pop-Off, my YouTube Music feed was flooded with Korn, Limp Bizkit, and other suburban aggro-rock tracks. The algorithm works, regardless of taste.
Still, the tunes, in terms of audio quality, sound good. YouTube Music’s tracks carry a 256kbps AAC bit rate on the web and mobile (Google Play Music streams at 320kbps AAC). Naturally, the bit rate dips if you stream music over a weak connection. The average music listener with a decent pair of headphones will melt into a world of big beats, soft vibes, and hard rock. Still, the service lacks Hi-Res Audio. Audiophiles with more discerning ears may want to check out Amazon Music Unlimited or Tidal for master-quality sound.
Unfortunately, YouTube Music doesn’t do much more than music at the time of this writing, which makes it feel a bit of a bare-bones offering. Over the last few years, streaming music services have expanded to offer non-music content, such as news and weather updates (LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio), podcasts (Deezer, Spotify), editorial (Tidal), or concert listings (iHeartRadio). However, I did find a few Chris Rock and Kathleen Madigan comedy tracks. YouTube Music also lacks Spotify’s collaborative playlists and LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio’s informative DJ-curated-and-hosted programming. Nor does YouTube Music replicate SiriusXM Internet Radio’s live radio streams.
Video Music Box
Naturally, YouTube Music has lots of video. If you search for, say, Flatbush Zombies, the results page will contain a dedicated video section where you can view official music videos, as well as content uploaded from the community. I like this wild mix of curated and non-curated content.
Most streaming music services only serve up official music videos, but YouTube Music gives you karaoke tracks, people performing covers in their bedrooms, and uploaded music from random users. If you like journeying down YouTube rabbit holes, you’ll dig the lack of curation.
Still, I would completely understand if someone disliked this open door policy. If you just want to watch an official music video and not wade through the noise, check out Tidal, which has numerous videos in its curated library.
YouTube Music Mobile Apps
Besides the browser-based version, YouTube Music is also available on the Android and iOS platforms. I spent a good amount of time with the Android app, testing it on my Google Pixel XL smartphone.
The app is very much like the desktop version in that it has a simple, attractive, grid-based interface that places playlists front and center. You can download offline playlists and let YouTube Music play in the background as you toy with other apps. The new Explore section is a nice way to find out what’s new and hot in the music world, as well as check out live performances and deep cuts. Overall, the app performed well, not crashing or freezing during my many hours of testing. According to reports, lyrics are rolling out to the Android app.
Google’s latest music attempt may not have some of its competition’s more endearing features, but YouTube Music’s location- and time-based playlists, as well as the ability to search by lyrics, are fun additions. However, that may not be enough to lure you away from LiveXLive Powered by Slacker Radio, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Spotify, or Tidal, PCMag’s feature-packed Editors’ Choices.