YouTube Music: a review, Jan 2020

When YouTube Music (re)launched in May 2018, I jumped on it. Was it the service for me? Well, no, it wasn’t. It was hopelessly half-baked, and I didn’t even last the free trial month.

I was up for trying again in mid 2019, since my Home Hub from Google came with six months of free YouTube Premium (including YouTube Music), but I couldn’t have it because I’d tried YouTube Music previously and then cancelled. That seemed like a miserable company denying me significant value from my purchase.

But here we are in January 2020, and it would seem that it’s worth giving YouTube Music another go, and I appear to have another free month available. It is now good enough for Google: it’s pre-installed on all new Android phones instead of its predecessor Google Play Music, and so therefore it can’t be as bad as it was, right?

The good

YouTube Music is aimed, I’m taking a wild guess, at a younger audience than Spotify. As a result, it leans heavily on playlists, not albums. Albums are for old people like me; playlists are for young people.

The playlists are cleverly done: chosen by time of day and location. If you’re driving, it’ll give you a set of playlists for that; if you’re at home, there’s a chill out list; if it’s early in the morning there’s a “getting you going” list, and so on.

To my delight, there are some algorithmic playlists based on my tastes. There’s a “Your mix” list, which plays things it thinks you’ll like; a “Discover Mix” which appears similar to the Discovery Weekly service from Spotify, suggesting things you don’t yet have in your library; a “New Release mix”, and a “liked songs” mix.

It’s too early to really tell you how good these algorithms are. But I’ve plugged in my “A list” of about 250 tracks I like, “liked” all of them, and already the algorithms are giving me songs I really enjoy.

And this is perhaps the most useful bit. Spotify just has a concept of “in your library or not in your library”. YouTube Music is a little more granular: you can have songs in your library or not, but you can also mark them as “liked”. With Spotify, you can add a Beatles album into your library, and every track is treated as “liked”, even the one Ringo wrote that most people skip past. With YouTube, you can have albums in your library, but “like” the songs you actually, um, like. Revolutionary.

Also revolutionary: different versions of the same album are correctly categorised. Archive’s With Us Until You’re Dead has two versions, one with a remix as an extra track that nobody wants. But if you search for the album, you get the proper version, with the additional-track-version listed at the bottom of the page under “Other versions”. Yes, Spotify, this is how to do it. Band on the Run has nine tracks, not 18.

And, as a by the way, each album is accompanied by what looks to be Wikipedia descriptions. They’re fine, helpful, and any hand-holding like this is entirely missing from Spotify, except those Genius lyric things that people never read.

Offline listening

Offline listening appears to work quite neatly: you can download things you want to listen to offline, but it will also download an “offline mix”. I’m not sure what that is, to be honest, but it does that automatically and keeps it up to date.

I’ve never had much luck understanding how Spotify’s offline listening works. YouTube Music’s is nice: if you’re offline, it takes you to a screen with everything you have downloaded (playlists, albums, etc), and one big button marked “shuffle all”. The equivalent of the iPod’s “shuffle everything” is, quite astonishingly, totally impossible on Spotify: and if you’re a fan of flicking through four hundred albums to work out which you’ve actually downloaded, you have much more patience than I do.

The real test comes in a week or so, when I’m spending 23 hours flying to Europe, and then the same back again. I’ve emptied Spotify’s downloads, so will be entirely reliant on YouTube Music.

The odd: video vs audio

YouTube Music Free plays the video versions of songs. This was good: much of my consumption of Spotify was to cast to the TV, and then read or fiddle about on the internet. Music videos are fun, and the very thing that Spotify can’t do.

YouTube Music Premium plays the audio versions of songs, with a switch at the top of the player if there’s a video version available. Oddly, even if you cast to a television, it still only plays the audio version by default. (It even hides the switch when you cast).

Surely the very point of the product is that it’s a mix of video and audio? If it knows it’s being cast to a TV, shouldn’t it automatically show me the videos?

As an aside, the audio Chromecast experience is also really poor, if functional, on a TV. You get a full-screen album cover, and that’s it. No title/artist; no playback countdown; no additional information. It’s much better on a Home Hub; but surprising that the experience on a TV is so unadventurous. There’s no Android TV app, either.

The odd play queue; the great shuffle

I’m still trying to understand how the play queue works. Sometimes I’ll listen to a few tracks from an album, decide I don’t like it, and choose an interesting-looking playlist. It’ll play one track from the playlist, and then go back to the album I wasn’t enjoying. Sometimes it starts playing as soon as I hit a playlist. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve still not really understood when it auto-plays and when it doesn’t. It’s very odd.

That said: the shuffle functionality is brilliant (for my requirements, anyway). If I’ve understood it right. Spotify has a difficult-to-see, sticky shuffle button as part of the playback UX. You can easily forget you had it on shuffle yesterday, and get annoyed that it’s playing Sergeant Pepper in the wrong order. YouTube Music, on the other hand, doesn’t have a shuffle button as part of the playback UX: it’s a separate button: either “Play” or “Shuffle”. If you hit shuffle it seems to fill the play queue with a shuffled version of the playlist/album you wanted to listen to. This means you can re-order them if you like, so you retain more control. It also means, unlike Spotify, if you have a playlist of 200 songs, if you hit “shuffle” it will play all 200 songs in a random order. Spotify doesn’t do this: instead, choosing a song at random from the playlist every time, so you hear repeated songs.

The only drawback from a “shuffle” that actually works as a “shuffle” is that the app always tells you what’s going to play next. This seems like a mistake.

What I miss from Spotify

The biggest thing, oddly, is synchronised playback controls between apps. With Spotify, open the web app, and start playing an Eels album on your computer. Then open the Spotify app on your phone. Oh look, it’s showing that it’s playing an Eels album. Hit pause on your phone, and your computer will pause. Hit play, and it’ll play again. Cast from your phone to your speaker. Now your phone controls your speaker. And so does your computer. Go to open the Spotify app on your television, and it’ll be showing that it’s playing the Eels album. It’s entirely frictionless. YouTube Music doesn’t do this; and you’ll notice it the first time you want to “like” a track you’re listening to on your speaker.

Spotify’s behaviour is also handy for the lazy. “Hey, Google, play some music” in the office used turn my Chromecast Audio speaker system on and play whatever it was I was listening to on Spotify; and I could later open the app and control it if I wanted to. The YouTube Music experience has to start from the phone.

(And, by the way, only from the phone. The website does support Chromecast, but not natively: it seems to be transcoding from the Chrome tab, and quickly turns into a horrible stuttery mess if you decide to be reckless and actually open another tab on a $2,000+ 2018 MacBook Pro).

Is it ready to replace Spotify?

There is plenty in YouTube Music that I like. The algorithmic playlists are significantly better than I remember them, and the offline functionality seems better than Spotify.

Spotify does recommend me albums, which YouTube doesn’t do as much. However, on thinking about this, I’ve never actually got very much out of the album recommendations, other than a list of twelve unfamiliar songs. And so far, the playlists seem very good, though I wonder how often they are refreshed.

The disappointing bit is the lack of the actual “YouTube” bit when using it on the telly. The whole value proposition of YouTube Music appears to have been forgotten when used on a TV. That’s a glaring omission, and one I hope they’ll fix.

We’ll see: AUD$14.99 seems a lot to just remove ads from YouTube; but if it’s also a better way of listening to music, it might have me interested.