Google has recently realised that their current music subscription offering ‘Google Play Music’ wasn’t sharing as much of the light on the same stage as offerings like Spotify or even Apple Music as they would like. And, as Google has often done in the past, they have decided not to fix the existing platform, but instead to scrap it and start again. This isn’t a new strategy, they’ve done it with Hangouts/Allo, Android Market/Google Play, and Android Watch/Wear OS to name a few. For some, this strategy works, for others, it hasn’t solved the underlying issues and made people wonder ‘Why bother?’.

And therein lies the problem.

It seems a few important concepts and questions have been missed:

  1. What was preventing Google from pushing the existing Play Music service to where it should be with a redesign and some love and care?
  2. If you’re going to even sniff at developing a new platform to compete with the likes of Spotify, you really need to get it very close to right the first time.
  3. If you do decide to start sniffing around that idea, make sure that the platform you decide to build upon makes sense.

First of all, to avoid repeating myself, when I say GPM, I mean Google Play Music. When I say YTM, I mean YouTube Music.

Let’s look at the first point. What was stopping Google from just improving GPM? My guess is branding combined with contractual simplicity.

Purely as a brand, what is your average person going to recognise more? Google Play, or YouTube? Of course it’s going to be YouTube. Not a difficult question to answer that one. Job done.

The contractual side of things also makes a lot of sense. Music publishers are already engaged in contracts with Google for YouTube due to the music videos posted. It stands to reason for Google to want to simplify their contractual situation by having it all on the one platform and make life easier for them, the publishers and artists.

But, given the two paragraphs above, branding recognition and contractual simplicity doesn’t translate to customers seeing YouTube as a music service off the bat.

While GPM may not be in the forefront of people’s minds when they go looking for a music subscription service, they also generally don’t think of YouTube, either. Afterall, YouTube is for videos (including music clips) and streaming. Not firing up a music subscription service, seeing artists and albums and picking what I want to listen to.

Yes, I can see the implied similarities. It has a ‘player’ you can build ‘playlists’ and you can ‘subscribe’ to artists. But a dedicated music player and service it is not. What’s more, customers don’t see it like that. Do people use it to listen to music videos? Yes, absolutely. Can they fire up a playlist of favourite music videos and leave it on in the background? Again, yes. But, as I said, a dedicated music service it is not.

Google will have some serious marketing to do to convince people that it is. But we’ll cover that a bit later.

In reality, nothing was stopping Google from improving the existing GPM service to compete in the marketplace. All it needed was an updated interface on mobile and web, some refinement of the procured playlists, possibly some notifications when artists I listen to release new material, and maybe some true cross-platform love. We’ll also come to this shortly.

Now to the second point, and this is where it really begins to get nasty. If you’re going to sniff at seriously taking on the likes of Spotify, you cannot afford a soft launch and improve it over time as Google tends to prefer. You need to get it right the first time and you need to come out swinging to let people know that you’re serious and you want to win. And with what I’ve experienced with the early access to YTM, so far all I’ve seen is what would be considered to be a pretty, but limited, proof of concept only. Not even close to being ready for prime-time.

I fired up the early access web site and was met with a list of the music videos that I’ve liked on YouTube. Obviously, they want to populate the service with something so you can build from there. But, again, I’m after a music subscription service, but a video player. Any YouTube playlists I had filled with video clips in it were included. But they were included as videos.

I decided to start fresh so I cleared out all those playlists and started playing around with building a new library based off my existing GPM library. Since they don’t have a built-in function for this yet, I started doing it manually. Time consuming, yes, but I figured it would be a good way to start building a comparison and get familiar with the service.

This was where it began to fall apart for me. I quickly came across entire albums that exist in GPM, and not YTM. And, no, these weren’t albums that I uploaded to GPM manually and so they were never going to be there. These were albums that I added to my library through GPM natively. Which leads me to believe that all those possible contractual simplicity points that I raised earlier may not be so simple, or consistant. Or, because it’s still Early Access, it just hasn’t been uploaded yet.

Another issue I noticed is that one problem from GPM has carried over to YTM. Some albums in the library show up twice, with the same tracks, but with different album covers.

As I was adding albums, I noticed that the drop down menus to add or remove albums weren’t updating contextually. If I went to an artist page, added an album, and then realised I clicked the wrong album and wanted to remove it from my library, the menu to add was still there, not to remove it. Not a deal breaker, it’s clearly just a programming oversight. After all, if I went to my library, I can easily remove it from there.

‘No problem’, I thought, ‘I’ll keep adding stuff and see how I go. As I did, more serious cracks began to show.

I didn’t see an ‘I’m feeling lucky’ function to have the service suggest things to me that are similar I have in my library. But, in fairness, that may be because I haven’t really listened to much on it yet and it doesn’t have the amount of information it requires to generate that list. Or, it’s just not included yet.

As I added albums to my YTM library, one-by-one, I decided to go and take a look at all the artists I had added so far (even if it was a small amount) by clicking the ‘Artists’ link under ‘Library’.

It was empty.

I thought ‘Wonderful, my additions haven’t been recognised’. I clicked ‘Albums’ and all the albums I added were there. ‘What the hell?’ I thought. And this next part was one of the big killers.

For an artist to show up in the ‘Artists’ list, you have to go and visit that artists page on the service and click ‘Subscribe’. Then, it will show up.

I have to manually subscribe to an artist for them to show up in my list as opposed to adding an album to my library so I can see all the albums of theirs I’ve added instead of seeing everything.

I’ll be honest, I don’t like every album from every artist I listen to. So I don’t want to see everything. I just want to see what I’ve added and I want to know what artists I’ve added to my library. Nope. You can’t do that. The two things are separate and are not linked in any way shape or form. Frustrating.

It seems YouTube’s idea of subscriptions has been folded into the music service. The problem is it makes no sense and hinders the normal workflow of what a music subscription service should be.

So, we have a library that isn’t as complete as GPM, minor programming/UI bugs, a workflow that seems to hinder intuitive usage, a non-sensical desire to push YouTube Video watching concepts into music listening, and no way to bring across your library or usage and listening data to YTM. For me, pretty big deal breakers.

But, let’s look at the positives. Because there are some here.

The web site is snappy, it is pretty, and it’s simple enough to get around.

Your current playlist flys out to a full screen UI, and it’s big and clear. They’ve added a nice little ‘Autoplay’ function that will add songs to the end of your playlist that are similar to what you’re currently listening to. Quite handy!

They have a section for ‘liked songs’ which is populated with videos you’ve liked from the YouTube service. And when you play one of those songs, it doesn’t play the video unless you’re looking at your current playlist flyout, just the audio. Which I assume will be the behaviour for any video from YouTube they include on this service. While you could say “But I already do this in YouTube?! Why double up on this?” This could be a star feature for the service if marketed correctly and explained. There’s some versions of songs on YouTube that aren’t available on albums or music subscription services that I love, like live versions of songs. Here, I could have the best of both worlds.

The ‘Home’ section displays the usual ‘Here’s some playlists for chilling out, or starting your day, or bedtime’ playlists. And the GPS ‘Looks like you’re at home’ features are all there.

‘Hotlist’ shows a selection of popular artists overall. Which, for me, is useless because I don’t listen to pop music. If the service looked at my library and said ‘Hmm, this guy seems to be a fan of metal. Let’s show him what’s new or popular in metal!’ I’d probably use it more. Or give me the option to choose what I want to see. So, lesson here, Google, is that not everyone listens to Kylie Minogue! Again, this may be due to me not having used the service all that much. But, I’ll tell you what service I have used a lot of? GPM! So, why not leverage that data?

On the mobile front, the app is just as pretty.

The idea of an ‘offline mixtape’ is a nice one. According to the app it will “Automatically download a playlist made just for you. You’ll get a mix of the music that you like and listen to the most.” Meaning, maybe I won’t have to individually download all the albums I want to keep cached on my phone. This was one complaint I always had with GPM. I like to keep big swaths of music cached on my phone and there was no simple way of keeping that consistent and easy whenever I reset or change devices.

Chromecast functionality is baked into the app.

There is no ‘burger menu’ on the app. If you want to get to your settings, you have to tap on your user profile picture.

Now, before we move on to the final point let’s take a look at things that Google should really include soon if they want to be considered a serious contender for Spotify.

Social features. The ability to easily share and collaborate on playlists on the service, make a friends list, and easily and reliably share albums or songs on Facebook/Twitter etc will be very nice.

Another thing Google needs to embrace is true cross-platform compatibility. A Windows UWP app for Windows 10 and XBox would be a huge feature to include that I’ve been secretly dreaming about for GPM for years. An app for Playstation falls under this category, too. Though, Google have never uttered a word on this. Which is annoying as they are supposed to be champions of cross-platform love. And in this arena, they have failed miserably.

And, obviously, a nice, big, and impressive library. I don’t know what else to say about this one. It should be first and foremost on the list. Clearly.

Now, for the final point. If you do decide to start sniffing around taking on Spotify, make sure that the platform you decide to build upon makes sense.

And YouTube Music just doesn’t make as much sense as Google would like it to make.

As mentioned previously, YouTube is for watching videos, not a music listening service. It feels like they are shoehorning a music service on top of a well established and recognisable video service because of branding. It just doesn’t make sense and could well hinder Google’s attempt to revive their music subscription aspirations.

A few people I’ve spoken to about this shift from GPM to YTM have all had the same question: why? It makes no sense and it’s not what people use or recognise the service for.

Throughout other sections of this article I’ve listed things that bring into question why Google decided to use YouTube as the brand and platform to use. It’s for videos, not music listening. Subscribing to artists separately even though I’ve added an album of their to my library is not intuitive.

After all this has been said, I want to make one thing very clear: I fully understand that this is an early access and that alone negates a lot of the issues I’ve raised. But, with Google’s intent on taking on Spotify, it does make me wonder about how they plan to do it with such an anaemic offering as it stands right now. While I’m a fan of Google and I’ve been using GPM for years, I do still feel like Google could, and really should, be doing a hell of a lot better than they are. Even with this new service.

So, what do we have here? We have a proof of concept, as I mentioned earlier. It has some usability, workflow, and feature issues that need to be resolved well before this goes prime time.

To me, this is one area that Google can’t simply rely on “Close enough is good enough” as they have with so many other product launches. They need to get this right the first time to impress users and convince them not only to move over, but to prove that they are serious about being serious. Unlike products like Hangouts. Google’s history of abandoning or stagnating on products is well known and they need to come out swinging on this one.

So far, there’s a lot of talk. But I’m not yet sold on how they plan to achieve their goal with this offering. It’s confusing, incomplete, and slightly unintuitive. Even though it’s pretty to look at. So, basically, it’s very Google.

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    yeah look. on one hand it’s not quite as bad as i expected it to be. on the other, it’s completely unusable for me in its current state. i guess the reality of music streaming services is that if they have the most popular current music on there, the vast majority of their user base is satisfied. but of the 10 or so new albums i searched for (all of which are on GPM), only half were on there. there also doesn’t appear to be gapless playback. and crucially, as dylan said… no beatles. the other problem i have with… Read more »

    Dylan Jones

    I really like the interface and was very excited about populating my library until I realised they didn’t have the Beatles.

    Come on.

    Dan J

    I tried the early access, I think it’s a terrible idea. Even worse than GPM

    James O'Brien

    Hi Allan, I like much of your review, but I’m not sure if I agree with your underlying assumption that YouTube is not a music platform, that it’s only for watching music videos. As early as 2012, YouTube was very much a music platform for younger people.


    Well I’ve been playing around with it for a few days now, and given the early access/beta status and its limited feature set I am fairly happy with it and can see it being my service of choice…all it really needs for me is access to all my uploaded music and playlists and the ability to upload more (which makes or break any music service I could consider using – which is why spotify was never an option for me). Even at this early stage I’m finding it much much better at promoting playlists of interest compared to Google Play… Read more »