youtube music key
The homepage for YouTube Music Key. Screenshot

Google took the wrapping off of a new music service last week, YouTube Music Key, billing it as "a new way to enjoy music ad-free, anytime, anywhere." It sounds exactly like the music service Google already offers, Google Play All Access, which makes one wonder why Google is trying to compete with itself.

YouTube Music Key is the company's effort to turn YouTube into a more fully featured music streaming service. There are already countless hours of music across all genres sitting on YouTube's servers, but there's never been a cohesive way to interact with the site strictly for music-listening purposes. Music Key enables background listening when a user is on mobile, which is to say that the YouTube app doesn't need to be open and active for a user to listen to a song or album. It also enables video downloads for listening to music offline and kills YouTube ads. Both services cost the same, $10 per month, and a subscription to Music Key comes with a free subscription to All Access, which turns the Google Play music catalog, home to some 22 million songs, into a music streaming free-for-all.

Google vs. Google

"Having both Google Play Music All Access and YouTube Music Key, of course, makes little sense," said Mark Mulligan, co-founder of MIDiA Consulting. "The fact we have both is illustrative of internal divisions within a large corporate entity. Over time, expect one, probably All Access, to be mothballed in favor of the other."

Others are optimistic. "If one hook doesn't catch you the fish you're hoping for, drop another in the water and see if one hits," said Brian Zisk, founder and executive producer of SF MusicTech Summit.

Google says the overlap is all part of the plan: "There's intentionally a lot of overlap, which is why one subscription gets you both services," a spokesperson said. "Differences to call out include Google's integration of Songza playlists, and YouTube's broader music corpus like live shows, remixes, covers and more."

It remains unclear which songs-as-videos will get the YouTube Music Key treatment. The official uploads from artists and labels? Everything? Considering the vast user-uploaded riches on YouTube, Google seems poised to turn the video-sharing site into a streaming music platform that could rival major players in the arena such as Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody.

Competing With Free

Another problem: YouTube's audience has spent the last eight years getting accustomed to free. “YouTube has built its brand around free video, and they’ve got their work cut out for them to successfully pivot their model to a premium music service. It will be interesting to see their evolution,” Paul Springer, senior vice president of Americas for Rhapsody International, said.

For musical pragmatists who want a quick listen of a song or album while at work on a laptop or desktop, they can easily keep YouTube open in a tab and listen while working on something else entirely, no fees involved. This might be the only determining factor some care about before deciding against using either service. "Youngsters are content with the current state of their YouTube music access, and it's free," Andrew Mager, developer evangelist at SmartThings and former global hacker advocate at Spotify, said.