While UAE residents are already familiar with subscription music services, thanks to the entry of Spotify and Apple Music in recent years, a new entrant to the space is hoping to catch their ear in a different way.

From Dh19.99 per month, Android, iOS and desktop users can enjoy an ad-free listening experience to a sizeable music catalogue on the YouTube Music app.

“The availability of different options for consumers is an amazing thing,” says Tarek Abdullah, Marketing Director for Google Middle East and North Africa, when asked about YouTube’s entry into a fairly crowded space.

YouTube is betting on a few features to bring in subscribers: a library of somewhere between 40 and 70 million tracks, all of which can be downloaded and played in the background if your screen’s off or you’re using another app; Google’s smart search technology, which lets you search for songs by lyrics, even misheard ones; playlists generated by AI (and helped by humans) that are served to users according to time and their location; a swathe of video content linked to artists you’ve told the app you like, including live performances; and content the developers say is more locally relevant than offerings by competing services.

“If we had taken the approach of some of the others in the market, we could have launched in 60 to 100 markets on the same day,” says T. Jay Fowler, Director of Product Management, Music Products at YouTube.

“But we spent a huge amount of time making sure that we are reflecting local music culture, that we have the right catalogue available locally, that we are thinking from a global footprint perspective, yes, but we’re making sure that we’re optimised for local markets.”

App experience

To set up the app, YouTube asks you to pick some of your favourite artists from a thumbnail gallery. Tapping on one will expand a new shelf of related artists — for example, picking Led Zeppelin will lead the app to recommend Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The primary feature on the home screen is Your Mixtape, an endless playlist automatically generated according to your liked and most-listened-to tracks, with a sprinkling of songs you may not have heard before. The app includes a smart download feature, which lets it automatically download up to 500 tracks overnight on Wi-Fi to the mixtape for offline listening. Handily, for Android users, you can have the songs go directly to your SD card.

There are loads of playlists. As a rock fan, I can see Nu-Metal Rage, Aggro Rock & Rap for Lifting, Rocking Party Anthems and Classic Easy Rock.

“We also use humans to help layer in information to the algorithm,” explains Fowler. “Things like mood, feelings or other kinds of things that algorithms can’t necessarily derive and we use that to create even better packaged music. And then there are situations where there are topics that algorithms don’t understand. So you might see this playlist on my screen — Happy in the Alt Rock 90s — creating a playlist using an algorithm might work when you say ‘Give me a playlist of alt rock from the 90s’ could be good, but having the experts help train the algorithm by helping to signal what happy means or feeling good in this case.”

Since YouTube is first and foremost a video platform, it makes sense that this would make up part of its music experience. Videos such as live performances and alternate cover versions of your favourites are highlighted in the app. It’s not only cool that you can switch between video and audio playback at the press of a button but also that the audio continues playing from the same point. As with the songs, paying subscribers can download whatever videos you like.

Meanwhile, the app’s Hotlist tab shows you trending and popular tracks in your country. Mine currently displays ‘Gum Body’ by Burna Boy on 1.1 million views, followed by Adham Seliman’s ‘Hekayetna’. It’s a nice blend of international and local talent that will probably be enjoyed most by people who enjoy listening to the radio.

If you don’t want to shell out for the subscription, YouTube Music is also available as a free, ad-supported app. However, you lose background and screen-off listening as well as the ability to download songs. If you’d like to bring the paid features of Music into the main YouTube app, a YouTube Premium (from Dh23.99) does this. It includes a YouTube Music subscription as well.

Samsung Galaxy users in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman can enjoy up to four months of free, uninterrupted, ad-free access to YouTube Premium if they’ve purchased a Note 10, S10, Tab S6 or Tab S5e device.