For nearly a decade, YouTube has been a smorgasbord of free music online, making just about every song imaginable — Top 40 hits, bedroom ukulele covers — available at a click. But soon the site will start asking users to pay for additional perks.
On Wednesday, YouTube announced YouTube Music Key, a long-awaited upgrade of its music offerings that will include higher-quality audio and also give its users the option of paying $7.99 a month for extra features, chief among them removing YouTube’s ubiquitous ads.
The change has been in the works for more than a year and is in part a concession to the music industry, which tends to view YouTube as a phenomenally useful promotional platform whose royalty payouts have remained frustratingly low. The site, which is owned by Google, says that it attracts one billion unique users each month around the world, and music videos of various kinds have long been one of its biggest attractions. Related Coverage “We want to give fans more ways to enjoy music on YouTube, but also give artists more opportunities to connect with fans and earn more revenues,” Christophe Muller, YouTube’s music partnerships director, said in an interview.
Music Key will become available in the coming days to users in the United States, Britain and a handful of other European countries. Following Google’s preferred pattern of introducing new products through “beta” testing, the service will at first be available by invitation only and is expected to be offered to all users by next year. For the first six months, access will be free and then go up to $7.99. The charge will be $9.99 for people who are not invited but sign up next year.
YouTube has charged for access to some content before, including a small number of special channels. But this is the first time that the site has instituted such a broad payment plan across the site, and for Google it is partly a test of the subscription model itself, something that its executives have said the company is considering generally as an addition to its free offerings.
As part of the introduction of Music Key, YouTube’s music catalog is getting a makeover for all users, paying or not. The site will now offer complete albums, adding static video files with high-quality audio where no official videos are available. For paying subscribers, YouTube will add two features that will be especially attractive to users on mobile devices: the ability to play songs in the background while using other apps and to save songs for offline listening.
As a bonus, paying users will also get Google Play Music, the on-demand audio service that has been Google’s main competitor to Spotify. (As part of the change, that service will change its name from the rather unwieldy Google Play Music All Access.)
To build the new service, YouTube has been negotiating with record companies and music publishers for well over a year to grant new and more extensive licensing deals. It closed its deals with the three major record labels, Universal, Sony and Warner, last year, but the service was delayed in part over a negotiating dispute with independent labels, which complained that YouTube was offering unfair contracts.
That dispute ended recently when YouTube signed an agreement with Merlin, an organization that represents thousands of small labels.