Here’s how it works.
First of all, YouTube Music Key doesn’t need a new app or a different URL to access – it simply adds extra features to your regular YouTube experience. The aim is to allow YouTube to act as a jukebox. That’s something many people have done for years, but once you activate Music Key, YouTube really starts to play along with the idea, getting rid of the barriers that previously resulted in a sub-par music experience.
When you listen to music that is licensed under Music Key, you’ll never get preroll ads and you can listen on mobile with your screen switched off, or while using other apps. This is nicely done on Android, where YouTube really feels like a proper music player. The YouTube iOS app doesn’t yet support Music Key, but it will soon.
In the screenshot below, I’m listening to a song with the app running in the background and there are play controls available. If you’re on a playlist, you can skip forward (although strangely, not back) and pause. If you’re playing a single video, you can simply pause/play the track.
YouTube says that “millions” of songs are covered, and I couldn’t find many songs that weren’t. As The Guardian reported today, Taylor Swift’s singles are included, but her album tracks aren’t. Other artists, like Beyoncé, have an ‘albums’ tab available that includes full albums.
Licensed songs that don’t have official videos have been uploaded with a still image. In the case of Beyoncé’s track ‘Radio’ below, the track is assigned to a ‘Beyoncé Knowles – Topic’ channel that was automatically generated by YouTube. Ms Knowles’ songs that do have videos, however, have been uploaded by Vevo.
So how do you know what tracks are covered by Music Key? You’ll see an ‘AdFree’ label, as with this Frank Turner song below.
Additionally, on mobile, you’ll also get an ‘Add video to offline’ option, where you can choose (if a choice is available) which resolution you’d like to download in. In the case here, I could choose from 360p and 720p, but other videos only had a 360p download option.
Songs saved for offline playback are available in a new Offline menu. There’s also an Offline Playlists tab that stores any full playlists that you choose to store. However, you can’t create your own playlists of offline tracks, which is a shame.
One final thing, Music Key keeps tabs on your activity across devices and limits you to one at a time. Here my enjoyment of LFO’s classic anthem was blocked on Android because I was playing something else in my desktop browser.
So is it worth $7.99 per month?
On its own, unlikely – unless you’re a huge consumer of YouTube music, and I’m willing to bet that most people who fit that bracket use YouTube precisely because they can stream music for free. For them it’s a workaround to avoid paying for a streaming service, rather than a preference. Those people will put up with the ads and lack of background playback, just as they’d put up with them on the free tier of Spotify.
As added value for Google Play Music subscribers though, it’s really nice, and something that Spotify, Deezer and the rest can’t offer. I personally prefer Google Play Music to Spotify, so for me it’s just a nice thing to have available. Will I use it every day? Probably not.