16 months later, YouTube Music is still a missed opportunity

Google's vast library of rare and live music could be a major selling point for the company's streaming music service. Instead, it's a barely-connected footnote.

YouTube Music, Google Play Music

As Yet Another Streaming Music Service steps into the on-demand listening arena -- this time Pandora, with a new Premium offering that adds a more traditional twist into the company's long-standing personalized radio option -- I got to thinking about Google Play Music and what sets it apart in a sea of streaming-audio sameness.

Nuances aside, after all, we're reaching a point where most of the major streaming music services are pretty darn similar when it comes to both pricing and features. So aside from the occasional lingering issues of platform compatibility (namely how Apple Music somehow still doesn't offer web-based access -- iTunes, in 2017? Really?), the decision of what service you use comes down mostly to a combination of familiarity and inertia.

It may sound silly, but when you stop and think about it, it's usually true: Like with so many things in our modern tech world, once you get invested in a particular product or platform -- in this case, uploading your personal music collection, building playlists, taking the time to thumbs-up and -down tracks, and so on -- the thought of moving to a different service can be daunting. So, understandably, most of us tend to start with what we know and then stick with what we've got.

But then I remembered something: Google Play Music actually has a pretty compelling point of differentiation from all the other music services, and it's been around since November of 2015. Google just treats it as more of a footnote than a feature -- and with as much as it's downplayed, most people probably don't even realize it exists.

I'm talking about YouTube Music, Google's barely-promoted afterthought of an app that could be a spectacular part of the Play Music subscription. YouTube Music takes YouTube's enormous collection of music-based videos -- including the countless live concerts recorded by fans around the world -- and essentially turns it into its own streaming audio service.

It's "a YouTube built for music," as Google explains it: You can look up concerts, official music videos, and anything else that's music-related on YouTube. You can even create personalized stations from any YouTube music clip. And while actual on-screen videos are available if you want 'em, you can also just treat YouTube Music like a regular audio app. It'll play music in the background, keep playing while your screen's off, and even let you listen offline.

Here's the kicker: All of that comes with a standard Play Music subscription. Yup -- who knew? If you're forking over 10 bucks a month for unlimited streaming from Google, you've also got that entire YouTube music catalog available for your on-demand listening pleasure. (Without an active subscription, you can still use YouTube Music -- but it has ads, doesn't work offline, and doesn't let you listen to music in an audio-only mode.)

Pretty nifty, right? It's an ideal next-level extension to a streaming music subscription: In addition to having access to the usual sprawling catalog of recorded music, you can also play a practically infinite array of live music, rarities, and indie-level tracks. That's something any music-lover would adore. And it's something no other music service can match.

But while it's technically a feature of Google Play Music, you can't access songs or concerts from YouTube Music in the Google Play Music app; instead, you have to install and then switch over to the separate YouTube Music app for any such activity. And that's simply not logical from a user's perspective. You don't think "Gee, I'd like to listen to music from YouTube" vs. "Golly, I'd like to listen to music from Google Play." You think "I want to listen to music" -- period.

And that's how YouTube Music should work. You should be able to search for an artist in a single app and get back a collective list of everything available from that artist -- albums, songs, radio stations, and all the video-based concerts and clips. You should be able to create playlists that combine live tracks from YouTube with recorded cuts from your regular collection. It should all be unified, effortless, and in-your-face easy.

However things end up being branded, the services need to coexist in a way that creates a sensible and coherent user experience -- something that isn't being achieved with the way they stand right now. Even separate apps with a shared universal search system would be a start.

The good news is that there is hope: Word broke just last month that nearly a year and a half after YouTube Music's launch, the product teams working on it and Google Play Music were finally being combined into a single team. That's leading to speculation that a single merged Google music app could be on the horizon -- a theory that, as Variety points out, seems to be supported by something Google's CEO said during a recent Alphabet earnings call:

We have YouTube Red, YouTube Music, and we do offer it across Google Play Music as well. You will see us ... bring together the experiences we have over the course of this year so it’s even more compelling for users.

As those of us who have watched Android for long know, it often takes Google a few tries to get things right. Here's hoping this is one of those situations -- and that despite its perplexing start, YouTube Music ends up being a streaming music asset instead of an oddly detached afterthought.

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