Google's music-streaming services remain in an awkward transitional phase after the company said it would replace the long-standing Play Music with a revamped version of YouTube Music last year. The decision is the next step in Google's push to brand its expanding entertainment ventures under the banner of the immensely popular video-sharing platform.
A new music-streaming service might be exactly what Google needs to take on the growing giants in the crowded space. After all, Play Music hasn't bloomed like Apple Music or Spotify, while YouTube continues to boom in popularity, in part, because it's a gold mine for live performances, music videos and covers.
As a longtime Play Music user, I was intrigued and admittedly a bit worried that a music- streaming service I've come to love would be dismantled for an inferior product. Unfortunately, after several months of using both Play Music and YouTube Music, those fears have only grown.
Google hasn't yet released a time frame for YouTube Music's takeover, and new features, many of which are adopted from Play Music, are still being added on a regular basis. However, my advice to Google stands: Don't replace Play Music with YouTube Music until some of these deal-breaking shortcomings are resolved.
Play Music boasts a catalog of more than 40 million songs, putting it right in the mix with its more popular rivals, Spotify and Apple Music. If you expected YouTube Music to share the same trove of songs, then I'm afraid you'll be greatly disappointed. Of the problems I've run into, the gaps in YouTube Music's catalog are the least excusable.
The first time I was forced to return to the comforts of Play Music was when I learned that Sampha's critically acclaimed debut album Process, was not on YouTube Music. After comparing my Play Music library with YouTube Music's collection, I discovered that the debut album from one of my favorite bands, City and Colour, was also missing.
Those artists aren't exactly household names in the U.S., so I ran a quick Google search to see what else I could find. To my surprise, angry YouTube Music users have been flooding Reddit to complain about major omissions, which range from Dr. Dre's Compton album to Radiohead's entire discography.
These exclusions are likely explained by some legal fine print about how Google can and cannot license music from artists featured on Play Music, but if Google is going to call YouTube Music a full-fledged app, then it needs to plug the holes.
Chaotic search results
For the company that wrote the book on search, Google has done a poor job optimizing YouTube Music's search results.
Don't get me wrong, there are some great features on YouTube Music that you won't find on any other platform. For example, you can find songs and albums with snippets of lyrics, though, in my experience, it only works consistently with popular music. You can also punch in a vague phrase like "John Mayer song about Taylor Swift" and YouTube will pull up "Paper Dolls."
As impressive as those are, I'd trade these niche additions for a better basic search function. When I ran a simple album search for Death Cab for Cutie, a karaoke cover by Ameritz and a song called "Media Baby" by Glenn McDonald appeared before the popular indie band's 2002 EP.
The results it pulled when I searched through Thrice albums was even more troubling. Buried beneath singles and albums and songs that have "Thrice" in their name was the band's "Alchemy Index 3 & 4," falling 24 places below Thrice's other studio albums. For comparison, that same album is listed fifth in Play Music, behind only Thrice's more recent albums.
I stumbled over several additional usability issues that only exacerbate the misfiring search feature. For one, you can only sort songs by date added, not alphabetically or by play count. There is also no way to shuffle all the songs in your library or add individual songs to your library without liking them.
My Favorite Play Music Feature, Missing
Podcasts, music genre tabs and the ability to upload your personal audio files (a music locker is coming later) are all missing from YouTube Music, but it's a relatively unknown feature that I miss most: cached music.
Found on the Play Music home screen when "Downloaded only" is turned on, the cached music album contains a playlist with your most-recently streamed songs. Those songs are automatically saved onto your device for a limited time so you can play them offline. This feature has come in handy for me on countless occasions, especially when I'm traveling and forget to manually download a playlist.
The cached music feature is, unfortunately, not available on YouTube Music. Instead, you can manually have the service create an "Offline mixtape" with up to 100 songs that are chosen "based on the music you listen to and rate."
I have no complaints with the selection of tracks that YouTube Music selected for me, but I wish it had downloaded these automatically. Also, that playlist won't adapt as I find new music or grow tired of the songs I'm currently listening to.
Really, Google? Taking up one of only three tabs on the YouTube Music app is something called "Hotlist," which is supposed to house "New cool and trending" videos. Based on that description, I was hoping for a personalized music version of YouTube's always-interesting "Trending Page."
Instead, Hotlist is a page taken up by oversize icons directing you to an assortment of tracks based on their popularity on YouTube. At the time of writing, a song by the boy band BTS topped the charts. If Google's algorithms were firing on all cylinders, they'd know I have no interest in Korean pop (sorry, ARMY).
Even worse, that list of tracks has remained static since I started testing the feature two weeks ago. YouTube didn't select another deck of songs, even after I ignored the 18 featured tracks for several days.
Google Play's equivalent, called "Top Charts," doesn't try to do too much. The tab shows a simple list of the 50 most popular songs. It's not fancy, but it gets the job done for those who want to keep up with the hottest tracks.
If Google killed Play Music today, I would end my subscription with YouTube Premium and switch to Spotify. In its current state, YouTube Music has a scant music catalog, hit-or-miss search results and pointless categories that don't adapt to your musical preferences. It also lacks certain features that kept me tethered to Play Music, like cached music.
Despite my complaints, I still have hope for YouTube Music that it could one day make for a better platform than Play Music. The service has a sleek, modern interface and music videos, unreleased recordings, live performances and other content YouTube brings to the table could differentiate YouTube Music from other music streaming services.
Also, YouTube Music's customized playlist, Your Mixtape, is miles ahead of Play Music's "I'm Feeling Lucky," and holds its ground against Spotify's Discover Weekly. However, nearly a year after Google revamped YouTube Music, the service still doesn't feel ready for primetime.
Credit: Tom's Guide