YouTube's Music Key takes aim, but doesn't quite surpass Spotify

In a sea of music streaming options, is YouTube's new subscription music video service right for you? CNET's Donald Bell has the answer.

Donald Bell Senior Editor / How To
Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.
Donald Bell
6 min read

Watch this: YouTube Music Key

Music on YouTube is no longer just music videos. Behind the scenes this month, the service has been quietly adding extensive song catalogs to its site with complete discographies that run the full gamut of music genres. The result is YouTube Music, which has been up and running since last week. But that's not all, as Google also unveiled YouTube Music Key, an ad-free version of the feature that includes a subscription to the Google Play Music Service.

How it all works

Let's say you want to hear Paul Simon's music video for "You Can Call Me Al." YouTube's been able to play the video for years, but only recently can you hear play the entire Graceland album it comes from, for free, and with the full blessing of the music label. YouTube Music blends so seamlessly into the rest of the YouTube experience, you'd be forgiven for not noticing it.

If a song has a video, that clip will play as it normally would while you're listening to that track. And if a song lacks video, you'll just see a static image of the album cover in the player. It's all very accessible and easy-to-use, but the "free" element does mean that you'll have to take the ads that come it.

Fortunately, though, there is a way out. For those who would prefer to listen to YouTube Music without pharmaceutical ads popping up between songs, you can pay a monthly fee to make those ads disappear. This subscription feature is what YouTube calls Music Key, and it's currently offered as an invite-only beta.

For a promotional monthly price of $7.99 (regularly $9.99) Music Key subscribers get ad-free access to YouTube's recently-bolstered catalog of streaming music and music videos, including the ability to temporarily store your favorite songs for offline playback on your smartphone. In addition, Google throws in a membership to their music-only subscription service Google Play Music (formerly known as Google Play Music All Access). It's a compelling one-two punch that ties together a traditional, Spotify-like music subscription service (Play Music) with a video-focused service that no one else can match.

How it stacks up

Will YouTube Music and its ad-free Music Key subscription change the way you consume music? Possibly, but not immediately. This doesn't feel like the kind of sea change we felt when Spotify broke loose. What Google has really accomplished here is make everyone question why they would pay for a Spotify or a Beats Music subscription when everything you want to hear is already available on YouTube at no charge.

The YouTube Music Key subscription is just the icing on the cake. If you're one of those people who routinely turn to YouTube as a convenient jukebox and the interstitial ads have become tedious, then Music Key solves a problem for you.

YouTube artist page for The White Stripes
Artist pages on YouTube now include a playlist section for full albums, in addition to the top songs that surface at the top of the page. YouTube

YouTube as music service

YouTube has every reason to call themselves a music service. By any measure, it is an insanely popular destination for music fans. And the fact that its music streams are often accompanied by moving images does not make the catalog any less legitimate than Apple's or Amazon's.

In fact, for many music fans, YouTube has been a safe haven for rare, live, or out of print recordings that couldn't easily be found elsewhere. For example, if you want to hear Stray Cats' full 1981 Live at Montreux performance (and you should), YouTube is one of the few places where it can be streamed and shared.

But more of us know YouTube as a bastion for today's pop music (and viral hits like "Gangnam Style"). And when you click on YouTube's newly unveiled Music tab at the top of both their website and their mobile app, it's clear that Pop music is still front and center. Curated playlists of the latest hits sit alongside automatically generated playlists of trending artists. This isn't Pitchfork. Like the rest of YouTube, popularity triumphs over good taste.

Paul Simon's Graceland album in YouTube Music
YouTube Music allows you to stream full artist albums, not just the hits. YouTube

Fortunately, YouTube and its parent company know a thing or two about search. Your favorite artists are only a few key presses away, and once you've found them you'll find a listing of not just their music videos, but their albums, top songs, and sometimes even the top cover versions of their songs. Click through to an album, and you have the ability to hear it from start to finish.

Sometimes the songs are associated with a music video but more often than not you're just hearing the music along with a still of the album art. From here, you can save songs or entire albums as a playlist, and like any video on YouTube, it's easy to share the link for others to hear.

Music Key membership

YouTube's Music Key subscription service is a simpler proposition than it sounds. For YouTube fans who already treat the service as their always-running jukebox, Google now offers a way for you to strip away the advertising between music videos in exchange for a low monthly fee. All other YouTube content will still have ads, but so long as you stay in the music tab, most of your streams should be ad-free. To drive this point home, YouTube places this little blue badge next to the video that says "ad-free."

Google Play Music
Subscribers to YouTube Music Key can use Google's Play Music service as both a file locker for their existing music library and an ad-free subscription music service stocked with a vast catalog of songs. CNET

To sweeten the deal, Google gives Music Key subscribers access to their Google Play Music service, which is their more traditional Spotify music competitor. They'll also bestow the Android version of the YouTube mobile app with the ability to cache YouTube videos for offline playback or keep playlists running as background music, even when the app is closed or the screen is locked.

Within the YouTube mobile app for Android and iOS there is now a Music tab populated with recommended playlists and a history of previous listens (left). Artist searches (right) now reveal full length albums that can be played entirely within the app. YouTube

The competition

We're lucky enough to live in a time with an embarrassing number of options when it comes to online music streaming. Assuming you haven't already signed up with Spotify, Beats, Rdio, Amazon Prime Music, Slacker, or even Google's own Play Music, there's presently little to make YouTube Music Key stand out.

Really, the best thing I can say about Music Key is that you're probably already using it in its free form. Assuming you have YouTube installed on your phone, there's no new app to download or navigation to figure out.

Perhaps the most glaring deal-breaker for many is Music Key's seeming lack of a family subscription plan. Unlike a Spotify or a Beats Music, there's no family pricing plan yet that would allow you to use this as a blanket music subscription for your whole family. While Google graciously allows you to sign-in on up to 10 devices, you're only allowed to stream from one device at a time.

I should also mention that those devices had better be in the US, Spain, Italy, Finland, Portugal, Ireland or UK, because other territories have yet to be added. Spotify, by comparison, is available in 55 countries.

Another criticism I have is that even though YouTube's catalog is sizable and growing, the tools for discovering new music are pretty blunt compared to most competitors. Oddly, even though the Google Play Music Manager software can crawl through your music library and make insightful recommendations on other music you might enjoy, this same info is seemingly not piped over to YouTube's recommendation engine.

Let's also take a moment to discuss sound quality. YouTube also makes no promises on minimum or maximum bit rate. It's understandable coming from a service that necessarily needs a lot of bandwidth wiggle-room to squeeze video over a cell phone connection. You also have to consider that facets of their music catalog come from user uploads. The bottom line is, if you're concerned about audio entering your precious earholes that is anything less than audiophile quality, YouTube is not the place for you.


YouTube's Music Key subscription is an intriguing mix of services and features that music fans and YouTube regulars may find worthwhile. But for my money, YouTube's ambitious effort to offer entire artist discographies at no cost is the move that will have the largest and most disruptive effect on how we listen to music from this point forward.