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YouTube unveils Music Key

By | Published on Thursday 13 November 2014

YouTube Music Key

Ah, YouTube. Do you remember YouTube? It’s where you used to go to access the very latest episodes of your favourite American TV series which had yet to debut in the UK. All neatly split into ten minute segments, just like God intended. But then YouTube got slightly better at policing copyright infringing content and suddenly segment three of your favourite show would disappear without warning, taking a crucial plot development with it.

So we all shifted over to Veoh, MegaVideo, PutLocker and all the other video-sharing sites with slacker DMCA policies. Well I say we did, I don’t know what those websites are. And anyway, at that point you all probably switched to the file-sharing networks which, once BitTorrent and broadband made video downloading less of a ball ache, became the primary source of all and any US TV shows.

Until Netflix started pumping legit telly vids onto our iPads, and we were no longer reliant on Hank Marmaduke Jr, the rampant uploader of downtown Detroit, to access our favourite American shows. And then it came to pass that every new and archive television series of note was made available to us via legit channels in a logical timely manner, as if the TV industry had suddenly been struck by a dangerous bout of common sense. Hang on, I think this paragraph may have strayed into the future.

Anyway, what about YouTube? Well, while it may have lost the battle to be the primary provider of lost episodes of ‘Lost’, the Google-owned video site remains the indisputable market leader for anyone seeking the very latest supermarket commercials, cat-based theatre or sex-pest pranksters. But what about the music? Well, it’s often been said that – while pretty much every formal attempt by Google to launch a music service has ended up not only lacking lustre but becoming something of a lustre vacuum – in YouTube, Google ended up with the world’s biggest music streaming service by accident.

But, because of those accidental origins, the YouTube music experience has always been a bit like going in a record store in the midst of a closing down sale.

Everything’s a little chaotic and all over the place. There’s plenty of great content on offer, but it’s all been thrown into random crates, and quite a lot of it is a bit dusty with slightly torn artwork and seven layers of discount price stickers. And some of the content seems decidedly knocked off, as if the owner of this metaphorical record store didn’t always get their stock from legit sellers. But if someone would just take over this mounting mountain of musical madness and clean it all up, something very special could emerge.

And YouTube hopes that that something special is YouTube Music Key, so called because Google’s product naming team are really shit at their jobs. Because yes, yesterday – with the music and tech communities still a little shaken from all the “Taylor Swift! Spotify! Two billion dollars! Freemium! Argh, Bono said something sensible!” flim flam of the last ten days – Google cleared its throat, donned its “we’re not evil, honest” t-shirt, and announced YouTube’s all-new, long awaited, much anticipated music offer.

And here it is. Are you ready? Deep breath now. YouTube is ramping up freemium music to upsell a new premium product and Google’s existing subscription streaming service. Hmm, that didn’t take as long as I expected. Though having taken 450 words to even start getting to the point, I feel I owe it to you all to go into this in a little more detail. So here goes. Like all good things (and some bad things), there are three stages to go through.

One. YouTube has launched a new ‘music tab’ within its existing video platform, accessible via the company’s website and mobile apps. This page better organises music content across the YouTube platform with a heavy focus on existing and new playlists. The aim here is to make the music listening experience as easy as possible, Pandora-style.

Two. Within the new YouTube music tab curated discographies will start to appear – ‘watch cards’ if you prefer (I don’t) – making it much easier to listen to albums or an artist’s entire oeuvre on the platform. And not only because the ‘watch cards’ help you to navigate the catalogue. Album tracks not previously officially available on YouTube will start to appear in audio form with some visuals. Though everything so far will remain freemium and ad-funded.

Three. Premium. For a £9.99 a month subscription all of this will be available without the ads. And, probably just as important, listening to music will become a whole load more mobile friendly, the one place where music consumption on YouTube has previously lagged behind the audio services. Background play and offline consumption will be available. The service will remain video-based (which possibly provides capacity issues once content is downloaded to the device), though users will be able to switch over to the existing audio-based Google Play streaming service if they so wish.

And boom, there you go. The first bits are going live as we speak, premium – which, technically, is the Music Key bit – will go live in invite-only beta-form in seven markets including the UK, before being properly rolled out in 2015.

As we already knew, the majors are all on board as content providers, with Sony and Universal’s video content seemingly still flooding through from Vevo. “Hundreds of indies” are supplying content too, YouTube said. The firm’s dispute with those indies repped by Merlin, of course, caused PR challenges for the web giant earlier this year, and likely delayed the launch of Music Key. Merlin itself is yet to formally comment on the FT report it has finalised a licensing deal covering all of YouTube’s musical innovations.

Now we finally know the specifics of how the new service will operate, all focus from this point onwards will be on whether it works and whether home-of-the-free YouTube can actually turn freetards into paying subscribers. And, if not, whether a ramped up and refined YouTube freemium makes it harder for Spotify et al to sign up free users which – as Spotify boss Daniel Ek himself said in a blog post earlier this week – is vital for the audio streaming platforms to subsequently sign up premium users.

Of course, unlike Spotify, for which freemium is really a sales platform rather than a business in itself, YouTube’s free level, simply because of its size in terms of users and traffic, coupled with the power of Google’s ad-selling machine, is and will be a lucrative venture in itself, especially if the refinements further boost viewing and listening.

And we all know that the future of digital music is some combination of free services, cheap services, ten pound a month services and super premium options for musos. But while freemium-to-premium remains the main method for selling any subscriptions, having too good standalone freemium channels remains an issue.

But with YouTube – as Ek would be the first to point out – it’s not an issue artists, labels, songwriters and publishers necessarily have any control over, certainly as long as US copyright law allows the video site to operate an opt-out rather than opt-in system for content provision at the base level.

As much previously reported, YouTube has been at the receiving end of plenty of rage from the music community this year. The Swift/Spotify thing has been a big distraction this month. And the Google company will be hoping that with its tabs and watch cards and keys it can get artists and labels (and especially the indies) so excited, that they stop moaning so publicly about the issues. But that will likely prove to be wishful thinking.

Still, there are always future YouTube ventures Ad Tab, Cat Card and Comedy Sex Pest Key for everyone at Google HQ to look forward to.