YouTube Music Key is a solid start, but needs more polish to win subscribers

youtube music key
Derek Walter

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People are increasingly turning to YouTube as a free way to listen to their favorite music. But the service isn’t really ideally suited for that; too often you have to endure an irritating ad, and the music won’t keep playing in the background when your phone’s screen turns off or you navigate away from the YouTube app. 

Google apparently understands the discontent about this, and with YouTube Music Key has found what it hopes is a way to get you to pay for ad removal, while also strengthening its own Google Play Music service—subscribers to one get full access to the other at no cost. YouTube Music Key and Google Play Music are two parts of a the same subscription package.

music key video

You’ll know it’s a Music Key video if there are no ads and you can download it for offline viewing.

I’ve been a Google Play Music subscriber from the beginning, so I landed access to YouTube Music Key a few days ago. After checking out the Android and web apps, here’s a rundown of what it gets right and where it should get better. 

Ad-free music videos

You’ll have to squint to notice anything different about the YouTube app interface, which is a little surprising given the hullabaloo about launching a new music video service. The first time you sign in after gaining Music Key access, you’ll get a rather prominent pop-up notice about all the awesome new features. Beyond that the only thing that changes is a small “offline” tag in the slide-out menu. I expect a more substantial revamp when Google does its next big YouTube app update.

youtube videos offline

The YouTube app gets a dedicated tab for your offline videos.

Supported music videos now have an “Ad-free” tag highlighted in blue as a way to alert you that it’s part of your subscription and you won't see any ads. 

After watching several music videos it kind of hit me—hey, I haven’t seen a single ad in the last half-hour! It’s actually a great feeling to know you can hop over to YouTube and check out a video and not have to worry about some company trying to hawk you a car. Of course, this only works for videos in the Music Key program, not all videos on YouTube. You’ll still get ads for all the other stuff you watch.

youtube ad free video

Most videos from major record labels are now part of Music Key.

Sure, you may swear by ad-block services, but some advertisers are finding ways around them. Besides, defeating ads on ad-supported services you use is not the best way to be an Internet citizen.

I like what’s here, but I would love to see Google build an even stronger bridge from YouTube to Google Play Music. For example, after watching a YouTube video, let me add that artist or song to a Play Music playlist, start a radio station, or save it to some kind of “listen later” section (like YouTube’s “watch later” option).

And feel free to data mine my watching habits. Use my YouTube viewing history to suggest more artists to listen to in Play Music. Make the tie-in between YouTube and Play Music even deeper so I want to spend all my music listening and video watching time there. 

Save and play videos offline

If you want to watch a YouTube video later, you can now save it offline in case you end up in an Internet dead zone, or just want to cache something while you’re on Wi-Fi so you don’t burn through your carrier data cap while on the go.

Videos you choose to cache this way are stored in the Offline section so they’re easy to find. There is also an option to remove them in case you start eating up too much storage space. Playback worked well when trying it without a network connection, so this part of the service looks to be put together very well.

youtube offline video

Download videos at HD resolution, but only at 720p for now.

One minor annoyance: the highest resolution you can download is 720p. With so many phones sporting resolutions four times that high, and most new videos available at 1080p, why not let us download it at full resolution? 

The other perk of YouTube Music Key is that videos will now continue playing in the background, just as music apps do. So you can multitask or lock the screen and continue rocking out. This is another step in Google’s effort to make YouTube a full-fledged music player, not just a home for cat videos.

But this privilege causes a minor hiccup. If you leave YouTube running on your phone, then go to launch Play Music in your browser, you may get hit with the “only one device at a time” warning. It was hit and miss—as I type this I’m streaming Play Music in my browser and on my phone with no problem. Other times I have been blocked from a YouTube video even though the Play Music app was open, but not playing anything. There’s some wonkiness here that needs to be worked out. 

Google Play Music gets better

Music Key adds some nice links into Play Music, promising to be the start of great way to enjoy and discover artists’ music and videos.

As an example, when you tap the overflow button (three-dots), one of the choices is now to watch the video for that particular song. Or if you swipe up in the mobile app, a YouTube icon sits in the center of the page, alerting you to an available video.

play music youtube music key

Get a not-so-subtle hint about YouTube videos for songs you listen to in Google Play Music.

Select that and your device will flip you over to YouTube. Frustratingly, it kept asking me to select my main account or YouTube channel before starting the video. Google needs to remedy this for a smoother experience.

Both the Android app and desktop version now group together suggested videos by artist. On a desktop browser they play right inside of the Google Play Music screen. Yet just as Google’s Songza-inspired playlists now get prominent play when signing on, it would be great to have similar YouTube mashups. There are also plenty of behind-the-scenes videos and documentaries about artists that would be great to highlight here.

google play videos desktop

YouTube videos get prominently featured in the Google Play Music desktop version.

When playing music in the browser, you also get the same subtle hint to a YouTube video for that song. The icon will appear along the bottom next to the overflow button. However, a few of these turned out to be lyrics videos, which many labels are doing just to have something to put on YouTube, where users are increasingly looking for music. There’s nothing to be gained by watching one of these, so Google needs to find a way to connect Play Music songs specifically to real music videos.

Also, a great addition to the overflow button would be an option to add it to the “watch later” playlist inside the YouTube app. I may not want to watch the video now, especially if streaming music while working, but I wouldn’t mind the option of checking it out later.

How do you get it?

Google says it’s offering YouTube Music Key to “a select group of YouTube’s biggest fans.” The promotional page also teases the ability to send out invites to others once you’re on board. 

YouTube Music Key has an “introductory rate” of $8 per month, though that’s after a six-month free trial. Presumably it will return to the regular subscription rate of $10 after the promotional run.

If you want to try it out, your only option right now is to submit your email address to YouTube, which promises to let you know when it’s more widely available. If you already subscribe to Google Play Music, you will automatically be given access at some point.

In all it’s a solid service, even though it still has the Beta tag. It may not sway you from Spotify if you already love what you’re getting there, but Google already has a pretty good streaming service in Play Music, and adding enhanced YouTube features makes for a pretty compelling package.

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