Kids these days, with their hula hoops and their disco music and their pet rocks. It’s a foregone conclusion that they’re destroying civilization with their ravenous consumption of avocado toast and refusal to use plastic straws. But the biggest crime against humanity committed by millennials and zoomers is apparently the fact that they use YouTube as a streaming music service.
Nevertheless, according to a March 2021 survey by YouGov, YouTube is by far the most popular streaming music service in the US, used by 44 percent of adults for such purposes. That’s compared with 27 percent who use Spotify, 25 percent who rely on Pandora, and 24 percent who subscribe to Amazon Prime Music, with every other music-streaming platform playing the role of the professor and Mary Ann in this scenario (“and the rest”).
Well, the only way I knew how to answer that question was to rap with the youths, as they say in the parlance of our times. I started by firing off a quick message to my daughter, Fiona, a 26-year-old business analytics and reporting analyst in New York. She was utterly baffled by the question. “We’ll load up YouTube to play music via the TV at parties,” she told me. “And, like, I use YouTube to send songs to people in case they use a different music streaming service than we do.” But when it comes to actively listening to music and discovering new artists or songs, she told me, “I only use Spotify and occasionally Pandora.”
To be fair, she’s a weird child and not at all representative of her generation, so I reached out to Olivia, my former editorial assistant at a previous publication. She now works as a construction defects claims associate for an insurance company in California. I think she’s somewhere around 10 or 15 years old, or something like that. [Editor’s note: We fact-checked this. She’s actually 23.] I asked her if she uses YouTube for music discovery and why. She replied, “Only occasionally, and never intentionally, but the guy I’m dating exclusively uses YouTube Plus, or whatever it’s called, for music.”
Great! Fantastic. Could I interview him? Well, no, not so much. It turns out he’s also a cradle robber. “If I were to call him ‘my old man,’ it wouldn’t be in a cheeky, folksy manner,” she told me. “It would just be a statement of plain fact.”
I’ll spare you the laundry list of other kids I spoke with, but the long and short of it is, I pestered everyone I know between the ages of 18 and 30, and not a single one of them intentionally uses YouTube for music listening, aside from the limited use-case scenarios spelled out by my daughter. More often than not, I received incredulous replies along the lines of, “Why would anyone use YouTube to actually listen to music?”
In fact, the only person I could find who actively uses YouTube to discover new tunes and new artists was a 49-year-old tech journalist named, um, well . . . me. And honestly, I can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t do the same.
Have you seen this kid named Elise Trouw? She plays all of her own instruments and makes incredible, live-looping music videos of mash-up covers and engaging originals. She’s arguably one of the most popular drummers since Bonzo died, but if you haven’t been skulking around on YouTube for new tunes, you’ve probably never heard of her. And that’s a shame.
But that’s kind of cheating, isn’t it? YouTube practically created Trouw’s musical career. She is largely a product of the platform, and as such, she’s not exactly indicative of the music industry as a whole, or at least what’s left of it. Even if you ignore such phenomena, though, there’s a wealth of music to be discovered on YouTube that has nothing to do with catchy videos or viral internet sensations.
Hell, I discovered one of my all-time favorite bands one evening, some four or five years back, while I was watching some dude carve a bowl out of a white oak stump. I was on one of my frequent Grateful Dead kicks around that time, listening to a lot of covers by a group called Grateful Shred, and I guess YouTube picked up on that vibe. As my woodworking video was ending, one of the suggestions that came up was a cover of “Sugaree” by the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
I’ve been obsessed ever since. Granted, when I need my Tedeschi Trucks fix these days, I usually turn to Qobuz. But the fact of the matter is that I would never have discovered them without YouTube because the service’s algorithms simply grok my inscrutable musical tastes better than any other.
But it doesn’t simply come down to algorithms and happenstance. YouTube is also a great source of curated music. If you’re not hip to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk concert series, you’re missing out on some of the most exciting stuff going on in the music world today. Never in a million years would I have clicked a link to a performance by a band called the Comet Is Coming had it not been an NPR Music Tiny Desk recommendation, but thank goodness I did. I sat in my home theater for 19 straight minutes having my brains blown straight out the back of my cranium. And Spotify didn’t turn me on to this incredible trio. Rolling Stone magazine sure as heck didn’t. My friend and mentor Brent Butterworth, on whom I depend to turn me on to anything interesting in the world of jazz or fusion, utterly failed me in this respect. But YouTube had my back.
And look, I don’t intend for any of this to come across as an indictment of the dedicated music streaming services. They have one major advantage over YouTube in that music is all they do. If I’m in a particular mood and I don’t know quite what the soundtrack for my day should sound like, Spotify’s “Made for You” mixes can be an incredibly handy tool. These playlists are often a perfect fit for my exact musical needs of the moment. But here’s the thing: Spotify is, by and large, feeding back to me exactly, or very nearly exactly, what I’ve plugged into it in the past. “Hey, we couldn’t help noticing you’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marley and the Wailers recently. We think you’ll also like Toots and the Maytals.” Gee, thanks, Spotify. I don’t think I ever would have figured that out on my own.
I probably spend a good 75 percent of my music-listening time streaming Qobuz, but that service—as amazing as it is in so many respects—just isn’t good at recommending music I’ve never heard before. The platform’s “My Weekly Q” feature is great at serving up stuff I already know and love, but it’s so random and eclectic as to be useless at any given time. Yes, in fact, I am as likely to listen to N.W.A as I am Andrew Bird, and you just never can tell if I’m going to be in the mood for Stuck Mojo or Wes Montgomery. But never, ever in the same listening session, within the course of a few minutes. I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.
So don’t be so hard on people who use YouTube to find new music. Don’t shake your cane when you hear that the service is the number one music platform. And don’t blame the kids, either. Referring back to that YouGov poll I mentioned above, while only 27 percent of adults are using Spotify for music listening, that percentage goes up to 45 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 34. The kids are all right.
And chances are good that a large chunk of the 44 percent of adults using YouTube for music are using it like I do: a 50/50 split between accidentally stumbling onto new stuff via the algorithm and purposely searching curated collections or specific channels. But they’re not actually sitting down for some dedicated listening.
Of course, there’s probably a hard expiration date on the relevance of all the above. I’m quickly approaching the age where I’m incapable of liking anything new, where any novel musical artist or genre is simply an affront to the natural order of things. But until such time, I’ll probably be finding most of my new jams via YouTube. Now, if you would, kindly get off my lawn.
. . . Dennis Burger