A few weeks back, Music Week jokingly compared the launch of a new Google music service with the arrival of an England World Cup campaign: a lot of hype that usually ends in inglorious failure.
So it’s somewhat ironic that YouTube Music – the new subscription service that we seem to have been waiting for even longer than a Raheem Sterling goal for his country – should launch in the UK just a few hours before England struggled through their World Cup opener against the footballing might of Tunisia.
YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen flew in to England for the occasion, playing the man manager role and eagerly talking up YTM’s prospects. Director of product management, music products, T Jay Fowler was there too, reeling off stats designed to prove the new service's worth in the same way an England analyst might point to yards covered to justify Kieran Trippier’s place in the side.
And of course, a YouTube music service, like England, ought to be a contender. It’s a big name, with huge resources and plenty of talent. And yet all too often, when up against the big boys (and for Brazil, Germany and France you can read Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon), they wilt under pressure. Anyone else remember YouTube Music Key? No, thought not.
The new YouTube Music, however, may be made of stronger stuff and, in Cohen, they have a key motivator who refuses to be haunted by the misfires of the past. Just as well. YTM went live in the UK yesterday at 4pm, 3051 days after Spotify did, and 1085 days after Apple Music made its own, somewhat belated streaming bow. That’s a lot of catching up to do.
YouTube Music, then, needs to make an immediate impression. And testing the app ahead of its launch, two things immediately stand out. One, Google has crafted a beautifully simple interface (not necessarily a given for a company that has been known to over-complicate email). Everything is intuitive, takes one click and, to paraphrase someone else’s marketing, just works.
The other thing is: where’s the video? YouTube is known around the world by billions for one thing and one thing only: video. Yet only three of the app’s 14 homepage “shelves” feature video as YouTube goes all out to prove it can compete with the audio streaming giants.
On the basics of a streaming service, it certainly can. It has The Beatles, it has Taylor Swift (although weirdly Reputation seems to only be listed as individual songs, not as an album) and it has Mega Armageddon Death by the Electro Hippies, the ultra-short hardcore track that Music Week likes to stream multiple times on any new service to confuse the algorithm (and earn the band a few pence in the process).
YouTube’s data-crunchers do, indeed, seem confused initially, serving up only fairly obvious suggestions based on the initial selections of artists we like. Although how Liam Gallagher would receive Oasis being listed under ‘Similar to Blur’ might be one reaction YouTube wouldn’t want to track (the fanbases overlap significantly, according to Fowler).
But YouTube’s USP – given it seems to be placing less emphasis on editorial curation at first, despite the recruitment of Tuma Basa from Spotify – is that it learns as it goes along. Not just from your actual music consumption (although the amount of times it’s served up Babe by Sugarland Feat. Taylor Swift over the last few days suggests it sussed me out quicker than most), but from your location, the time of day/week and your listening habits. New releases are high on your homepage on Friday then sink down the page. With little to go on, endless playlists called things like Relaxed Weekend (ironically served up as we battled the shitshow that is the Thameslink to get to our interview with Cohen and Fowler on time) suggests this is more theory than practice at first – and there was certainly no Scraping Through: Music For Celebrating A Narrow World Cup Victory waiting for us after Harry Kane’s late winner. Maybe they’re saving up a Crushing Disappointment emo playlist for the knockout rounds.
But like England, YouTube Music keeps plugging away. It might consciously downplay its video content, but it makes judicious use of its catalogue – bigger and deeper than anything anyone else in the market can offer – to serve up rare live performances and quality UGC videos, with none of the usual “Cats dancing to Weezer” nonsense you have to put up with on regular YouTube. (If you consume a lot of video on the app it should start serving you up proportionately more on your homepage, apparently, although there are only so many times Music Week could watch Anne-Marie’s 2002 in an attempt to make that happen).
And the app places so much emphasis on personalisation that even two users with broadly overlapping tastes listening to the same playlist will, according to Fowler, be served up tracks in a different order. Given the emphasis the music biz puts on playlist placement right now on Spotify’s fixed lists, you wonder if it will have some labels calling for the VAR.
But then, having largely placated the music industry in recent weeks, YouTube Music’s priority seems to be the consumers here. Fowler is big on “assistive actions” like the Offline Mixtape that gets automatically downloaded so you always have music on the move.
Features like that are clever and will be appreciated by subscribers, but whether they’re enough to tempt people away from streaming’s big three remains to be seen. Fowler and Cohen are adamant the emphasis on audio is correct, although it seems counter-intuitive to play down the YouTube brand’s one, true USP.
Because, ultimately, if presented to someone who’d never used a streaming service before, YouTube Music stands up well against the other main services, with video possibly being the potentially match-winning element to tip things in their favour. And, given that the other services have a massive headstart, why would you leave that on the bench?
Ultimately, in the streaming World Cup, YouTube Music does more than enough to make itself a contender on a level playing field. Will that be enough for them to lose their ‘nearly men’ tag? Well, 3051 days of hurt never stopped anyone dreaming…
To read our interview with Lyor Cohen about the new service, click here.