Headlines in the music world have recently been utterly dominated by the war of Spotify vs. Apple Music - seemingly a bona fide clash of the titans. The real titan of music streaming though, in terms of cold figures, isn't Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, or any of the rest of them - it's YouTube at 57% of all streams worldwide.


Taken For Granted?

It's in many ways bizarre how often YouTube is left out in conversations about music streaming. Think about it - how many people do you know that routinely default to YouTube when on the hunt for music, whether it's a particular song or to discover something new? Perhaps it's precisely this ubiquity, and every day familiarity we have with YouTube that prevents direct comparisons with other steaming services. Add to this the MTV style effect of visuals and music combined, and it makes a lot of sense why the video streaming giant is so rampant in the music realm, and even less sense why this isn't discussed more in relation to other streaming services.


Music Key

After Music Key's beta launch last November, the tumbleweed seemed to descend on YouTube's new subscription service for a while. That is, until company CEO Susan Wojcicki recently announced Music Key's full release for later this year.

But just how well can it stack up against the competition now that it's joining the ranks of paid services? For a start, YouTube's new service will feature ad-free music, background play on mobiles and offline access, just like the competition. But beyond these core functionalities, further parallels can be drawn between Spotify, Apple Music, et al. and how YouTube already functions. Playlists have been possible for quite a while on YouTube for example, which if anything will become more sophisticated in Music Key's final form. Furthermore, the addition of the autoplay feature adopts a similar role to the recommendations features of other streaming services - after all, they all rely on algorithms.


Distinguishing Features

The unique aspect to YouTube of course, is the enormity of its video content. We're not just talking official music videos here, but also the expansive collection of unofficial uploads of live recordings, acoustic sessions, cover versions, obscure remixes - you name it. This is the entire reason YouTube is so huge in the first place, not just with music, and their competitors will hardly be able to match this pedigree.

Having said that, where YouTube holds a large advantage in terms of video, it falls well behind in audio quality. Contrary to popular belief, YouTube's audio quality is not tied to the video quality, meaning your audio will usually stream at about 126-165 kbps in either AAC or MP4. To compare, Apple Music is at 256 kbps AAC and 320 kbps MP3 - for exactly the same price, the quality is significantly lower. Although Music Key will give users access to Google Play, which has similarly decent streaming rates to its competitors, it rather defeats the point of having YouTube's service as a separate entity.

Another aspect to consider is the payment process itself. Spotify is already set apart in this regard that the credit card-less, prepaid solution paysafecard can be used to pay, as opposed to using entrusting Apple with your credit card details. With concerns over fraudsters taking advantage of Apple's fledging e-wallet service, Apple Pay, a few jitters over just how safe your private data is may not be misplaced. This is especially so given how the footprint of this data is spread across a variety of different, but interconnected Apple services such as iCloud, which has notoriously also encountered security issues.

Google are of course the kings of data, so these concerns could justifiably apply to YouTube as well once Music Key is launched in full. It might not be the most glamorous aspect of music streaming, and many have already surrendered their credit card details already, but in a post-Snowden context, it's fair to say people are being more aware of the information they give onto the internet. This is no different.

Despite these potential drawbacks, it's difficult to see how the giant of music streaming could fail to make a significant splash with their subscription service. Even if it's not perfect, given the weight of YouTube's influence, its potential to drive forward the already huge shift to subscription based streaming is considerable.