Remembering Google Play Music: A mixtape for my favorite streaming music service

YouTube Music and Google Play Music
YouTube Music and Google Play Music (Image credit: Android Central)

It's here. It finally happened. Just shy of its ninth birthday, Google Play Music is dead. May it rest in peace, with part of its spirit living transferred to its successor and slaughterer, YouTube Music. Many have paid their respects to the service over the last few weeks as the shutdown commenced, but I felt it only right to mourn a great music service with some music tracks itself.

Here are the songs that exemplify and exalt the Google service I loved above all others, over Gmail and Keep and even over YouTube itself. And let's start with where the ending began: with a death declaration.

Time is of the Essence The death of a thousand declarations

"Either way, I give him half an hour,

That's my educated guess.

Well, 20 minutes tops, let's call it ten —

The man's a mess!"

Google Play Music had been declared dead so many times by 2018 rolled around that I started to think the service immortal, even with the re-launch of YouTube Music. Even YouTube executives got in on calling GPM dead during the re-launch, which led to bloggers and streaming music nerds far and wide to start speculating as to the service's death timeline.

YouTube Music took two full years to even approach feature parity with Google Play Music — and considering the dismal state of casting on YTM, it may never reach it — but that didn't stop people from thinking the service would die before the end of 2018. Then by the middle of 2019. Then by 2020.

Google finally announced the actual death timeline in May, and the service went offline for most markets in October.

"Time is of the essence or he's— (musical flourish, Galavant dies) Sorry, if only you'd gotten here sooner."

But if people had hopped on Play Music sooner, could the service have survived? Probably not. Play Music's history is fraught with problems, even though it began with rather humble ambitions.

Best of Both Worlds Purchases, uploads, and subscription songs in one library

"You get the best of both worlds!

Chill it out, take it slow,

Then you rock out the show!

You get the best of both worlds!

Mix it all together,

And you know that it's the best of both worlds."

When Google Music first launched in 2011 — it added the "Google Play" branding in March 2012 — it was two services in one:

  • A free 20,000-song (upped to 50,000 in 2015) music locker that allowed you to store your library safely in the cloud and then stream it on any computer and up to ten Android phone/tablets
  • A digital music store where you could buy songs and albums and then add them to your cloud library or download them through Google Play Music Manager

Integrating both allowed you to create and curate a library of music that had both the depth of a multi-million-song catalog while still having all of the obscure and out-of-print material you ripped from CDs back in the 90s. It was truly the best of both worlds, and when I escaped iTunes for the freedom of my first Android phone, Play Music was the service I dove into headfirst.

By 2018, Google was the last of the music subscription services to have a reliable music locker option — Spotify and Apple Music can integrate local MP3s but it's spotty and trouble-prone — and I'm grateful that the feature eventually made the jump to YouTube Music.

I'm Gonna Make You Love Me Google's vain attempts to market Play Music

"And I'm gonna use every trick in the book,

I'll try my best to get ya hooked!"

Google put Play Music front and center on phones for years after its launch: Play Music was the default music app for just about every Android phone from 2012 through 2018 (after YouTube Music launched), and ads for the service were a mainstay on the Google Play Store homepage. In the beginning, it wasn't hard to lure in free users — a 50,000 music locker service that integrated with subscription music was a unique offering — but as time wore on, it was harder and harder for Google Play Music to lure in listeners.

Spotify had already cemented much of its hold on the streaming music market by the time Google Play Music All Access rolled around in May of 2013. Additionally, while there was a small, devoted following of users who loved Google Play Music's free music locker, the service was hard for regular people to understand and even harder for Google to market.

I subscribed to Google Play Music the month it launched, and that value doubled in 2015 when YouTube Red launched, removing ads from YouTube. YouTube Red also came with this quirky new half-baked app called YouTube Music, which couldn't do much but was an interesting first look at a new kind of music experience.

Bless the Broken Road Play Music was buggy and weird, but worth it

"But I got lost a time or two,

Wiped my brow and kept pushing through.

I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you..."

Another reason Google Play Music often failed to keep users it lured over from Spotify and other services is that while Google Play Music had a lot of features (especially in its later years), Play Music had lots of rough edges and bugs that took forever to get fixed.

One such "bug" (that I actually adored) on Google Play Music was how it shuffled a queue. Say you were on the fifth song of a playlist and hit shuffle: Google Play Music would shuffle the rest of the list, but not shuffle in the previous four songs.

Another problem that took eons to fix came with one of the Android UI updates: the scroll bar would hide automatically, and overlapped with the three-dot menu button for each song in the queue or playlist. This meant that about half the time I'd try to open a menu to "Add song to queue" or "Remove song from playlist", it'd scroll to another part of the list instead. This drove lesser fans away to cleaner-designed music apps, but I stuck it out for the sake of my beloved Disney Parks music collection!

Oh, and don't get me started on the ten device limit.

Locked Out of Heaven New features were few and far between

"'Cause you make me feel like, I've been locked out of Heaven

For too long, for too long

Yeah you make me feel like, I've been locked out of Heaven

For too long, for too long"

Speaking of long waits, the wait for new features was even longer than that of bugfixes. We'd spend years waiting for Google Play Music to get any significant updates, but even when they came around, they'd still be a one step forward, two steps back kind of a deal.

And thankfully I have been well-trained into this perpetual state of waiting for disappointment because YouTube Music is even worse about this! You still can't shuffle or repeat while casting, and we've been waiting on that SINCE 2015. Gapless playback on YouTube Music still isn't perfect, but we finally got it 18 months after the YTM relaunch, and hey, we're slowly, slowly, slowly rolling out Daily Mixes and more personalized genre stations!

This is fine.

Still Into You Play Music still had some gems under its rough surface

"Let 'em wonder how we got this far,

'Cause I don't really need to wonder at all.

Yeah, after all this time,

I'm still into you."

Despite literally everything stacked against Google Play Music, though, this was the only music service that got my money (and my heart) for its entire lifespan. Google Play Music may have been quirky, often annoying, and it was constantly ignored and put-down by just about everyone, but it was still the best damn music player I ever used.

I built hundreds of playlists in Play Music, and did so easier than Spotify or Apple Music because GPM let me build a queue while listening to it and then save the queue when I was happy with it. I'm still holding out hope that eventually YouTube Music will adopt this ability, but I'll always be grateful to the year of it I got on Google Play Music.

Google Play Music also had another wonderful feature that few other music services had: the ability to build an offline library without manually downloading every song in sight. Google Play Music had a setting called "Cache music while streaming"; instead of simply playing the current song and then deleting the temporary cached song file, GPM would download and keep the cached song files.

This meant that if I'd started listening to a new band but hadn't specifically downloaded them, I could still keep listening to them when I went offline. This, too, is a setting that each and every single music app should steal immediately, starting with YouTube Music because smart downloads is a crappy feature and users deserve better!

Giddy on Up Play Music was left to wither under a cloud of uncertainty

"Been acting pretty strange, didn't want to talk,

Mm, there's a pep in your walk.

Smiling a lot when you look at your phone

There's a change in your tone."

Google Play Music's development sort of stalled out around 2016-2017, and while team did the usual maintenance and bug-fixing, we didn't really see any new features during this time, and it was for a good reason: that was when Google wrote Play Music off and decided to turn its attention to a new app instead.

By 2017, Play Music had been around for five years and change, but it hadn't gained much of a foothold in the streaming market, and the music section of the Google Play Store wasn't very popular either. Considering if you bought a song on your phone on Google Play, you couldn't actually download it as a regular MP3 to use with other apps on your phone, it's little wonder that the music store was doomed.

With little momentum for GPM, Google decided to do exactly what Google does whenever any of its services aren't doing as well as they should: make and entirely separate service in a vain attempt for a clean slate that just ends up confusing people. And so they turned to the red-headed stepchild of YouTube Red and decided that was the best way forward for its music revenue.

And while working out all the prerequisite deals and laying the groundwork for its "new" service, Google Play Music was left to stagnate and fade away under a cloud of rumors and the death declarations we mentioned before.

Imagine how many tens of millions of dollars Google spent trying to remarket YouTube Music that it could've used overhauling and upgrading Play Music instead. Imagine if Google could've been faithful to itself for once.

Ready Or Not YouTube Music's launch

"Ready or not, here I come, here I come!

You're like a breath of fresh air in my lungs.

You and me dance from the night to the dawn.

Ready or not, here I come, boy, it's on!"

YouTube Music finally "launched" in May 2018, with a lot of pomp and circumstance, and I was utterly unnerved by how quickly Your Mixtape absolutely nailed my musical tastes — seriously, first day, less than a hundred songs into Your Mixtape, it yanked out a little-known Swedish pop girl group I loved as a tween. It also was something of a dream come true to be able to mix in all the user-uploaded, never-available-for-purchase Disney Parks music and fan remixes into my library of official subscription music.

That said, the service wasn't really ready for primetime and wouldn't be for another 18 months.

You couldn't migrate your Google Play Music library over — that didn't come until 2020 — so you had to rebuild your library from scratch. Casting was broken, and still is today. Downloads would randomly vanish — and these days downloads can still be wonky at times.

And of course, YouTube Music lacked the stability and polish of Play Music, having shiny new colors for the player but having way too many bugs for a re-launch of an app that had been around for three years.

What About Us How the transition felt for Play Music die-hards

"Oh, why are we are waiting? So long, I'm suffocating.

Oh, why are we are waiting? So long, I'm suffocating."

While YouTube Music was still trying to get its shit together, Play Music was left stagnant and uncertain. There was no timeline for Play Music's shutdown until early 2020 — because that's how long it took to get the music locker and migration features made and tested — but because Google had confirmed the eventual migration in 2018, users spent two years with a sword hanging over their music experience and library.

Just getting your music out was a pain.

It didn't help that trying to get your whole uploaded/purchased library out of Play Music was nearly impossible in 2019: your options were either to manually download each and every song individually through the GPM website or you could use Google Play Music Manager, a Windows/Mac-only application from 2011 that wasn't very stable to begin with and just kind of broke completely part way through 2019.

Some users gave up on Play Music and migrated to Spotify since they couldn't migrate to YouTube Music yet. Some users downloaded their libraries and went back to good old-fashioned MP3 player apps on their phone — or hosting their music on Google Drive and streaming through certain music player apps.

And then there were the users that just held on to Google Play Music and ignored the inevitable end looming somewhere on the horizon, begging to just keep on with the service and the features they were already familiar with.

"Let me take the lead! You know what I need! Put my mind at ease... and tell me, what about us?"

Mirrors YouTube Music's maturation

"So now I say goodbye to the old me, it's already gone.

And I can't wait wait wait wait wait to get you home

Just to let you know..."

Progress for YouTube Music was slow, but steady, just as it was with Google Play Music, but features eventually started to show up. Gapless playback arrived! Proper genre browsing and genre mixes replaced that useless Hotlist tab! Some semblance of library sorting was added — though proper library management is still a good ways away.

Then earlier this year, we finally got (what I think is) the most important feature from Google Play Music: the ability to upload personal music. Once again, I could bring my personal edits and purchases back to my subscription playlists!

It took another couple of months to add the library migration feature and let us re-unify our libraries from two apps to one, but with each new batch of features and subtle improvements, YouTube Music slowly started to act and feel more like Google Play Music (in a good way). It felt less like that fixer-upper townhouse you first lease after you leave the nest and more like a comfy but quirky home you're happy to come home to at the end of a long day.

Despite all attempts to make YouTube Music different/better/newer, the service shares many of the same traits, flaws, and feel as the original Google-made music service. It's like Play Music's dark reflection.

Sound the Bugle Google Play Music's final shutdown

"As the seasons change, remember how I used to be...

Now, I can't go on, I can't even start...

I got nothing left, just an empty heart."

We knew Play Music would start its long-prophesied sunset in the fall of 2020 with the service being completely gone by the new year. Things went a little quicker than die-hard users anticipated as the service started pushing users very hard towards the migration tool and to YouTube Music in August.

September rolled in, and the service started shutting down in some markets, the website unwilling to load and showing a banner redirect to YouTube Music instead. Then October's chill crept in and a horror awaited for users in an innocuous server-side update: the Android app stopped working, too.

The death blow had finally come, and long-time users had to make their choice: migrate to YouTube Music, or take their libraries through Google Takeout and go somewhere else. Obituaries and tributes sprung up, and with heavy hearts, we deleted the old app off our phones and moved on to greener pastures.

Never Forget You

"And all along, I knew I had something special with you.

But sometimes you just gotta know that these things fall through...

I can't hide my connection with you!

I'll never forget you!!"

Despite all the ups and downs, the digs and the death knells, Play Music will always hold a special place in my heart. It was a music service that fit my library and my tastes quite well, and I'll miss having one place to keep all my uploaded and catalog music together while still being able to instantly buy and import any music that somehow escaped Google's catalog offerings.

You were weird, you were wonderful, and I'll always regret that I didn't fight harder for you. And I will never, ever forget you.

— Ara

Ara Wagoner

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.