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YouTube Music app brings background listening (hands-on)

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If you're like me, you probably use the YouTube desktop site a lot to listen to your favorite artists and songs on a computer -- there's no other place online where you can hear the original piece along with dozens of covers, remixes, live performances, mash-ups, and more.

The problem is that the YouTube app experience hasn't really been mobile-friendly, since the app automatically pauses playback when you change apps or turn off the phone.

Today Google hopes to better serve music lovers with a new app for iOS and Android called YouTube Music that organizes all the different versions of your music into a central hub, with guided paths for artist discovery and song curation that make your experience a real listening adventure.

Powered by YouTube Red

When you download the YouTube Music app, you'll automatically get a two-week free membership to YouTube Red, a new paid subscription service that Google announced last month that lets users experience the site (and the Music app) without ads for $10 a month.

Of course, you can download and use YouTube Music without a Red subscription, but ads will probably run before a lot of the videos and you won't get the multitasking and battery-saving benefits of background-play mode.

After checking out the app at the YouTube Creator's studios in New York last week, it's definitely worth it to continue paying for the subscription after the trial so you don't get interrupted as you create your own YouTube Music mixtape.

Music-specific search

The app starts with the search bar, which was rebuilt from the original app to be music-specific, so the app will only show you music-related results. The team tells us that the main design principle for building the app was that the music should never stop for the listener, so every song you play within the app is saved into a personal history log and used to create individual radio stations of genres, bands and tracks that the algorithm thinks you'll love.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You can even control how much variety you'll hear for any given station, similar to Pandora: there's a slider inside the app settings for this purpose -- if you position it all the way to the left, you'll hear less variety (meaning only the original artist's work will play).

Drag it all the way to the right and you'll open yourself up to more variety with live performances, fan videos, lyric videos, tributes, related tracks and more.

Once you start listening to a radio station, you can hit a thumbs up or thumbs down icon just like on the desktop Youtube site that tells the algorithm to serve more or less of something. Songs you "like" are also saved into a repository for you to come back to later, so you don't have to remember everything along the way.

Audio-only mode

Personally, one of my favorite things about YouTube Music is that the app gives you control over whether you want to watch the actual video or just listen to a stream of the audio alone. Say you're browsing records at a music store and come across an unfamiliar track you'd like to preview.

If you do a search and bring it up on the YouTube Music app, you can toggle a little red "audio only" button on top of the screen that pauses the video so you can turn off the display and put the phone back in your pocket while you listen and continue to browse the racks.

YouTube Music Today

So much of the app is designed to bring the user into a "lean back" listening experience where YouTube curates a playlist for you to enjoy based on your individual music taste. There's a separate section of the app called YouTube Music Today that organizes playlists into thematic silos according to genre, popular music, internationally trending songs and albums, eye-grabbing videos, and more.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

For a more personal approach, check out another trending tab called The Daily 40 that populates a constantly-updating list of 40 songs that YouTube thinks should be in your rotation.

There's also good news for commuters that travel in network dead zones: if you subscribe to Red, the app will show an offline mixtape section that automatically saves discovery items based on your taste profile.

For convenience, you can adjust settings that tell the app your preference for video or audio (or both), how much local storage you want to allocate to offline access, whether or not you want to save over Wi-Fi, and the resolution quality of the videos.

There are some social elements built into the app for now (like the ability to send videos and post them to various social media feeds), but YouTube tells us that as future versions release, you can expect to see more elements like collaborative playlists and friend feeds built into the app.

YouTube Music and Google Play Music

Lastly, you might be wondering how a YouTube Red subscription and the new YouTube Music app will work with Google Play Music, the company's pre-existing streaming music service. Well, if you already have a Google Play account, you'll automatically be grandfathered into the benefits of Red and will never see an ad play before a video as long as you continue paying $10 a month.

Everyone else will get a free two-week trial of YouTube Red when they download the YouTube Music app; after the two weeks is up, customers can get an additional month of free access when they sign up using a credit card.

The YouTube Music app is available for download today in the Google Play store and iTunes.

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