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YouTube Music rolls out: ‘Leading with audio is the key for us’


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YouTube Music Premium, the new subscription tier for Google’s video service, is launching fully in 17 countries today, including 12 additional markets to the five that were announced in May.

The UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Canada, Norway, Ireland, Finland, Norway and Sweden are among the countries joining the US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea in getting the new service, with fans able to sign up to a three-month free trial before deciding whether to pay $9.99 a month for an individual subscription or $14.99 a month for a family plan. There is also an ad-supported free-to-users version of the app and website.

Music Ally met up with YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen and its director of product management for music products T. Jay Fowler ahead of the launch, to talk about the new service; the impact they hope it will have on the industry; and the longstanding tensions around YouTube’s safe harbour protection and the ‘value gap’.

Cohen fielded the latter questions, and you can read that section of the interview here. But Fowler talked us through YouTube Music itself, including some elements that undercut many preconceptions of what a YouTube music-streaming service would look and feel like.

Among them: a focus on audio rather than video. “We are leading with audio, because for people paying their 10 dollars or local equivalent, what they expect to do is have an experience that soundtracks their commute, which soundtracks their run or their workout,” said Fowler. “Leading with audio is the key for us here.”

This sounds counter-intuitive: isn’t YouTube’s mammoth catalogue of music videos – from official videos to live clips, covers, UGC dance videos and the rest – its big advantage over established music-streaming services?

That’s certainly an ingredient, but it was interesting to hear Fowler talk about it as a potential banana skin too, in terms of attracting subscribers.

“What we’re trying to do is overcome users’ preconceived notions of what a YouTube experience would be. For example they’re going to expect it to be video, so that means we need to bias pretty heavily towards audio,” he said.

“We actually have to establish the understanding with the fan that we actually have that full audio catalogue… It’s a pretty big bias for us to get over, because the brand is so strong to video. We want to make it clear that we have those table stakes for the 10-dollar subscription.”

Something that’s key to understanding YouTube Music, though, is that there’s no way of tying down a figure for the ratio of video to audio within the service – because of the way the service is intended to adapt to the behaviour of each individual user.

That’s something that came through as Fowler showed us his home-screen within the YouTube Music app, and its ‘shelves’ (the scrolling horizontal carousels of albums, playlists and artists that are a familiar sight in music-streaming apps) of music suggestions.

“What we’re building here is something that adapts. So, we are merchandising video – it’s on every home-screen out of the box – and as people interact, if we find out that they are interested in video, we’ll start programming more, algorithmically, for them,” he said.

“But I’m an album listener, so you’re seeing a lot more albums here. If I were a stations listener, I’d see more stations. And so if someone doesn’t watch much video, then video will actually become deprioritised.”

This is the key point to understand: at least the way Fowler explains it, video is not the killer app for YouTube Music, but the adaptive nature of the service – its Google-driven smarts – are the key feature.

“At the very basic level, we’re using some technology which understands what you do, and what you’re listening to while you’re doing that, and helps to surface the right music for that moment,” is how he puts it.

Examples? On Fridays and at the weekend, the top shelf on YouTube Music will be ‘New Releases’ – albums, EPs and singles from artists based on your listening preferences – but that shelf drops down the home-screen over the course of the week.

There’s a ‘Listen Again’ shelf of music that you’ve recently listened to, but tuned to your current context. “It takes into account time of day and patterns, so it would be music that you’d listened to at home, or music that you’d listened to on your commute,” explained Fowler.

“It’s contextual recency. On Friday nights I spend a good deal of time listening with my kids, so I’ll see a lot more video on Friday nights. In the morning, I tend to listen to more energetic music, in the evening I tend to listen to wind-down music, and that’s what’s reflected here.”

YouTube Music also offers a Your Mixtape feature: a playlist based on tracks you’ve thumbed-up; deeper cuts by artists you like; and “a few discovery items” of new tracks and artists – the emphasis here is more on the familiar.

Fowler is particularly proud of another feature called ‘Smart Shuffle’ which is applied to a number of YouTube Music’s programmed playlists – those curated by its editors. He demonstrated it with one of the playlists served up on a shelf titled ‘Chilled beats’.

“Let’s say that Lyor and I both get this shelf, and we open up this playlist. When he opens it, it will look exactly like this, but when I click play, my playback order’s going to be different than his,” said Fowler.

“The reason is this: we’re actually personalising the order to make sure that people are eased in to the listening experience. We know that when you start with the familiar, it actually allows for a much longer experience: people don’t feel like they have to skip or take control.”

So two (or more) people can listen to the same programmed playlist, and in shuffle mode, they’ll each hear the most familiar tracks to them first.

This kind of “personalised ordering” is interesting not just because of the proposed benefits to listeners, but because of the implications it has for labels. On Spotify, when a track gets added to one of the service’s popular playlists, labels are keenly aware of what position it’s on – the higher, the better.

In theory, ‘Smart Shuffle’ on YouTube Music throws all that up in the air: a song will be higher up for listeners who are already familiar with it (or at least its artist) and lower down for those that aren’t.

It provides similar headaches on an analytics level to the kind of things Amazon is doing with personalised streams on its Echo devices – the ‘play me happy indie music from the 1990s’ dynamic where the results and order will differ between listeners – but could at the same time have benefits in terms of putting music in front of the right listeners when they’re most receptive.

“From a differentiation perspective, I don’t think anyone else has near the breadth and depth of the catalogue, or has the ability to bring the artist voice alive in the way we do,” said Fowler, of YouTube’s overall pitch to the industry and listeners alike.

“But when we couple that with your listening behaviours and habits, we can make something – we’re close to it now, and there’s going to be more innovation required – where we make an experience that’s almost as easy as radio. Where it’s just super-ridiculously easy to get the music that matches what you need right now playing.”

I got a taste of this the morning after the interview, while sweating on an exercise bike at the gym in the village where I live. A shelf called ‘Looks Like You’re At The Gym’ is at the top of my YouTube Music app’s home-screen, suggesting a series of playlists for running and working out.

It’s a little bit spooky – the gym, in a converted cow-barn, is so new it’s not even on the public version of Google Maps yet, yet the app knows I’m there. This is the sort of thing that Spotify CEO Daniel Ek was talking about back in 2013, inspired by the Google Now service: truly contextual music recommendations. It’s probably not a surprise that one of the companies best-placed to deliver that is the one that made Google Now in the first place.

“Assistive” features are going to be key for YouTube Music. Fowler showed the ‘Offline Mixtape’ that sits within the app’s Downloads section as another example: users can choose a number (up to 100 tracks) and then always have a playlist of recent favourites and listening available for offline listening.

“This will give you a sense of where we’re going. We’re building in assistive actions that help users get more out of their subscription,” he said. “We’ll continue investing in these things: you can think of a new release shelf, or stations that you interact with a lot, or videos from artists that you love, and being able to have this online-like experience offline.”

Back on the home-screen, Fowler hopes another shelf – ‘More From’ – will answer one current industry headache. The shelf takes an artist that a user has currently listened to and suggests more videos, singles and albums from them. He explains it with reference to one of his current favourites.

“Say you haven’t heard Superorganism, but I recommend it to you today and you go and listen to them. Tomorrow you might see a shelf that shows up on home-screen saying ‘More From’, and it’s going to open up the world of what Superorganism looks like on YouTube,” he said.

“We’ll probably give you a playlist where they’ve been placed, we’ll show you a video, we might show you a live performance because they were on Later With Jools Holland or late-night television. The idea is that we really bring the artists alive, when the user’s given us a little bit of an indication that they’re interested.”

“This is one of our tenets that we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about: how can you bring the artist’s voice back in to these music experiences? We’ve gone from the vinyl gatefold sleeves where you could actually get a good sense, then we went to CD which was a little bit less, and then we went to the track download, and now it’s music in your pocket. We want to actually bring that artist’s voice back in for the fan.”

YouTube certainly isn’t alone in this goal: in fact, it might just be one of 2018’s biggest challenges for every streaming service: to prove that artists are more than just a few characters in a line on a playlist in their environments. Pretty much every service sees video playing a key role in this, and YouTube is starting with a huge corpus of material on that score.

There’s more to come, stressed Fowler, noting that Google Play’s locker service and ability to play sideloaded media is high on the agenda, in response to user requests.

YouTube Music already has features designed for voice access via smart speakers like the Google Home family, for example, with some Alexa-like inventiveness: tell the speaker to ‘play the hipster song with the whistling’ and it’ll cue up Peter, Bjorn and John’s ‘Young Folks’, for example.

“I would argue that ours is probably one of the best experiences on voice devices, mainly because we’ve tapped in to a lot of the Google smarts,” said Fowler.

“I still think there’s a lot more innovation to be done there, making it more conversational. I’m excited about looking at innovations where you can do a little bit more steering, for want of a better word. As opposed to just play, save, skip, what song is this? There’s a lot of magic that’s going to be coming in that platform.”

“Shortly after we merged the two teams, Google Play Music and YouTube Music, we took a step back and thought what could we do to make something that is a.) competitive and b.) hopefully attracts new users to subscription, which is a pretty important goal for us,” he said.

“We wanted to have, instead of two reasonably-resourced teams, to have one well-resourced team. We are on a path to merging the two products. What I’ll show you today is not that product. It will come in the coming months. Our goal is to have one product that attracts, engages and retains users in the subscription space.”

Fowler also has a keen sense of how YouTube Music Premium compares to regular YouTube, as in the ad-supported, all-kinds-of-content service that has more than a billion monthly music users. He suggests that’s very strong for “snacking and discovery”.

“I would argue that what we’ve built here is a place that’s actually complementary to that, which is that if people want to consume, lean back, listen, we’ve built something that has that full catalogue access,” he said.

“And I would argue that this is something that is optimised for music, whereas YouTube is kind of optimised for everything. So you’re going to end up with a much more tailored and personalised music experience in the music app.”

As the free trials kick off today in 17 countries, we’ll find out if listeners agree – and enough to start paying for the subscription service in three months’ time.

Now read our interview with YouTube music boss Lyor Cohen on why he believes YouTube is a friend not a foe for the music industry.

Music Ally’s Eamonn Forde also contributed to this interview

Stuart Dredge

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