A Simple Redesign of Google’s Music Streaming Service and Why You Should Care

Google play music icon with an arrow pointing to Youtube Music’s logo with the Spotify logo being revealed behind it

What a simple UI redesign signifies in the race for streaming services to become the best Spotify impersonator and Spotify’s race to become as Spotify as possible.

Now Youtube Music isn’t a hot button topic in the music industry, especially while artists around the world are protesting outside of Spotify’s offices; however, Google’s relatively recent rebrand and redesign of their music streaming service, previously called Google Play, brings to light something depressing about all these platforms beyond their royalties per stream. I know this may sound very niche, as according to statista.com youtube only holds 6% of music streaming subscribers compared to Spotify’s major share of 35%, but bear with me as all the mainstream music streaming platforms (youtube music is pretty underground you probably haven’t heard of them) will be brought up soon enough. Let’s start with examining a seemingly minor change in the interface that has influenced the way I interact with music in a way that feels manipulative.

It’s important to highlight the differences, as subtle as they may be, between Google Play’s and Youtube Music’s interface which has now taken on the dark theme design of seemingly all major music streaming services. With Google Play, ‘Recent Activity’ was a primary viewport of the web and iPhone/Android app appearing as a tab in the navigation bar and on the home screen, however recent activity in youtube music is nowhere to be found on the home page, nor is it a tab of any sort. It appears much like in Spotify's interface: in the library tab, however, but the changes don’t end there. Where before the layout was full images showing the album art of any song you’ve recently listened to, it is now organized in a list style. This, to me, hurts the interface as instead of feeling like a decided collection of music and albums it feels much like the playlists that they have been brought forward as the primary way to interface with the app.

Notice the subtle difference in the navigation bar and a familiar dark theme? source: youtube official blog

Now, this is a subtle point, but it brings to light the larger idea of the strength of the playlist, be it algorithmic or curated, on these streaming platforms. If you’ve ever seen a musician celebrate landing on a major playlist as much as they would an award or a celebrity endorsement then I hope it is obvious that these playlists have power! Streaming services have now almost taken the position of a music influencer, and as we continue to see this power grow, money has started to poison the water supply. As explained in a recent Pitchfork article titled Could Spotify’s New Discovery Mode Be Considered Payola? Spotify is now asking artists to reduce streaming royalties for better playlist placement.

Spotify’s CEO, Daniel Ek commented on the company’s power in the music industry in a recent interview with Music Ally saying, “I feel, really, that the ones that aren’t doing well in streaming are predominantly people who want to release music the way it used to be released.” As consumers, it is our turn to ask ourselves is this the way we want artists to be treated? Is the future of music the Drake format of an hour and a half-length albums with rarely a song above three minutes may become the only profitable way for an artist to operate. Open Mike Eagle may have stated it best on his excellent album last year, “We makin’ pennies off of songs, don’t get it wrong. Same if it’s small or it’s 9, 10 minutes long.”

There are many other conversations to have here about streaming services and their relationship with labels, but, beyond these complaints, It is disappointing to me to watch a platform, which I have made a point of supporting, even year after year of feeling left out of Spotify Wrapped, see both the success and darker side of the Spotify platform as a thing to be replicated instead of a defining difference of the product of Google music’s service.

In the current age, instead of music streaming services working to define themselves, as Tidal did back in the day with their artist-centric, high-definition streaming service, there is now a race to who can act and look most like Spotify, a service whose cracks are now too obvious to ignore. Artists and listeners deserve better.

A programmer and musician interested in the world of design, art, technology, and everything in between.