YouTube Music is often lauded for its downright insane selection of music — and considering YouTube is one of the most-used websites in the world for music, that makes a lot of sense — but if you want official, high-quality "legal" music, that selection can dwindle quickly depending on the genre. Make no mistake, YouTube has been making great strides in convincing labels to put not just music videos but official albums and singles on YouTube Music, but for some genres, especially international and niche genres, things get very grey very quickly.
Let's take soundtracks and cast recordings for example. I can't go a week without a track from Dear Evan Hansen popping up in my mixtape — and I can fill my Broadway Belt sing-along mix no sweat — but once you get beyond the most popular albums, your selection is determined by two things: which label produced the OCR you want and how willing are you to dip into unofficial uploads to hear it?
This wasn't a problem back on Google Play Music, because if a label didn't let you stream something through All Access, you still had two legal ways to get the music into your library:
- Buy the album from Google Play and automatically add it to your library.
- Buy it from iTunes/Amazon/your local record store and then import the MP3s through Music Manager.
However, YouTube still hasn't tied in the music store from Google Play — only the movies and TV stores — and despite the music locker service being promised for YouTube Music since launch, its still just a whisper deep in some app coding over 18 months later. So this means that when an album isn't legally hosted on YouTube by the label, you have three options:
- Don't listen to the music you want.
- Go pay a second app to listen to it.
- Listen to a fan upload and try not to feel skeevy about it.
This is the dark side of the "letting most music-related videos into YouTube Music" coin. On the light side, it's the only place to listen to most out-of-print albums and music that's never been available for purchase. On the dark side, just about every song ever has been uploaded as a lyric video or a straight rip off the CD, and when the original album isn't there to get the top search option — and give royalties back to the artist — then the fan option is what most people are going to click.
While this isn't quite the brand of piracy normally associated with YouTube — stream-ripping songs for a personal, offline collection, which YouTube's cracked down on as well — it's still listening to unauthorized music. Paying for YouTube Music does put a sheen of legitimacy over the whole thing, especially when you start mixing these videos in with official albums in shuffles and playlists, but it's still piracy.
And that's not entirely YouTube's fault. YouTube takes down millions of videos a week over DMCA violations, but it's up to someone to report the video first, and American labels don't seem willing to keep up with it all. Japanese record label kaijus are relentlessly thorough, but fan uploads are so prolific for US music that they'll even slip into Your Mixtape without you noticing if you don't have "Don't play music videos" toggled on.
So it's everyone's fault that this happens: it's our fault for listening to these uploads and helping them rise through YouTube's algorithms, it's other fans faults for uploading music illegally in the first place, it's YouTube's fault for allowing unofficial uploads to become more recommended than official songs in YouTube Music at times, and it's record labels' faults for not policing their music and not making their music available on the most-watched music video platform on the planet.
There's no easy fix for this. People are going to upload new albums (and old albums), but if YouTube worked with record labels, it could be easier to sift through the bottomless void of YouTube videos to sort videos between fair use and pirated upload. YouTube and record labels could work together to ensure that when music fans come to YouTube looking for their favorite artist or favorite soundtrack, they get the official content, the concert recordings and fan covers rather than fan rip-offs.
Music fans like you and me can also swap back to Google Play Music when we want to hear these missing albums instead of being lazy and listening to fan uploads. It comes with YouTube Premium — which you should absolutely be buying over YouTube Music Premium — so it's just a few extra annoying taps away.
And of course, YouTube could get the lead out and give us the music locker YouTube Music's needed for two years, but let's not get crazy.
Note: We have reached out to YouTube for comment about how it works with labels on handling both official and fan content.
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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.