The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How did YouTube become the most popular music streaming site? By sounding like the world itself.

(Angelica Alzona/For The Washington Post)
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Here’s when we’ll know the future came and went: Nostalgic songs about listening to the radio will be long dead, and in their place, romantics will sing about the sublime pleasures of listening to music on YouTube.

If that sounds weird, go ask someone younger than you how they listen to their favorite songs. That’s what I do whenever I’m invited to speak to a group of high school students, and for the past five years, I’ve gotten the same answer: YouTube is the go-to spot and it isn’t even close.

Not Spotify, not Apple Music, not SoundCloud. Definitely not Tidal, Pandora or Amazon. For young listeners, YouTube is their radio (widely accessible), their record store (awesomely vast), their MTV (partly retinal), their Walkman (completely portable), their iTunes (on demand), their online message board (comments abound) — all in one place. And the numbers bear it out. One billion visitors come to YouTube for music each month, according to Google. What a bizarre triumph for a company so eager to obsolesce our televisions. As the streaming wars rage into the future, a site that never really intended to become a music platform accidentally became our most visited, most variegated music platform.

That means we can’t think of YouTube just as a business. We need to think of it as a listening experience.

Many musical encounters on YouTube begin with curiosity. Type some keywords into the search bar, listen to what you came for, then allow the algorithm to whisk you off to wherever it chooses. You pick the starting point, then you float. Get bored, start over. All the while, YouTube’s Google-powered algorithm is trying to figure out your tastes, even when it’s pushing you toward things other than music.

Say your starting point is the new Rosalía single. On other music-streaming services, you’ll find that song lined up neatly next to other Rosalía cuts, and other pop-hits-en-Español like it. But on YouTube, where recommendations can be shaped by your search history, that same song gets to live within a few clicks of a plumbing tutorial, an Ali Wong joke, Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony and handheld video footage of a duck and a kitten that are friends. In that sense, YouTube situates a piece of music, and the listening experience, in the greater context of all media, all experience: maintaining a toilet, maintaining a family, maintaining a democracy, maintaining an optimistic view of interspecies companionship.

It’s easy to get dizzy in that drift. YouTube is vast and messy, full of distractions, and so it asks something of you that the more silo-like music-streaming services do not. Listening to music on YouTube’s main site requires true engagement. To get the most from it, you need focus, endurance, a sense of adventure — the virtues of good listening.

At the 2018 South By Southwest music and technology conference, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said, “We’re really more like a library.” That’s a cute idea, but YouTube doesn’t feel like a library. It’s too chaotic, too unpredictable, too full of trapdoors and secret gardens, stuff you didn’t know you could find and stuff you may wish you hadn’t.

What YouTube really feels like is the world.

One reason it feels like the world is because more of the world is in there. YouTube isn’t just an A.V. jukebox loaded with industry-manufactured studio recordings. It’s a user-generated content platform, which means it’s brimming with bootlegs, outtakes, live performances, interviews and more. The sound quality is all over the place, and so is the music. YouTube has Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem at the NBA Finals, and Joni Mitchell playing the dulcimer on the BBC, and live performance footage of hundreds of hardcore bands blasting through VHS hiss.

The rarest gems to materialize on-screen can’t be excavated in a used record store. I’ll always remember the thrill of landing on a swatch of camcorder footage featuring the California rapper Suga Free making casual magic in an undisclosed dining room circa 1995. It remains one of the most enthralling rap performances I’ve ever heard. Or seen. With glossy rhymes evaporating off his tongue, Suga Free bangs out an intricate beat on a tabletop with nothing other than his palms, a nickel and a ballpoint pen. To truly hear it, you need to see it.

[This video contains explicit content.]

What’s great is that I never searched for this song. I didn’t know it existed. But YouTube, having kept its all-seeing eye on me for so many years, knew that I loved ’90s gangsta rap from Los Angeles, and suspected that I might like Suga Free’s dining-table act. Presto. When YouTube’s algorithmic autoplay function highlighted the video in the “Up Next” sidebar on my computer screen, it felt like some kind of prize. Scouring YouTube for music and floating through it are two very different things, but the harder you search, the better you float.

That doesn’t mean you’ll find treasure at the end of every rainbow. The suggestions made by “Up Next” are responsible for more than 70 percent of the time users spend on the site — a fact that appeared in a recent New York Times story about how white nationalists are being radicalized on YouTube. The company says it’s cracking down on hateful content, but for many years, YouTube had no problem funneling users into its most toxic corners in the name of engagement.

No wonder YouTube is trying to brand itself as a library. Parents don’t worry about their music-obsessed children getting lost in the library; they worry about them getting lost online — the same way they might worry about them getting lost in a musical nightlife populated with shady strangers. And the shadiest stranger on YouTube is the algorithm.

Our listening lives have always been shaped by people we don’t know, many of them presumably benevolent — the DJs, the music journalists, the record store clerks. But as with any streaming service, YouTube’s algorithm seeks to replace those cultural guides.

You watch YouTube while YouTube watches you. It tallies every detail of your Google-owned life, getting to know you better than your music friends do, all in an effort to advertise to your eyes and ears for hours without end. On YouTube, the act of listening itself becomes completely transactional. The algorithm will do anything and everything to make you stay.

Yet, even with all of those alarms going off, I still feel like being able to hear those Suga Free rhymes anytime I want might be worth the annoying pre-roll ads, worth the surveillance, worth the threat of living in a world of automated taste. Recorded music has always existed under the yoke of capitalism, and good listeners have always found ways to elevate their listening above the noise of the sales floor. Mainstream radio and MTV used to be these odious industry forces, but nowadays, we seem to miss the comforting gravitational pull of the monoculture they once embodied. As insidious as YouTube can be, we’ll mourn it someday.

For now, it’s important to remember that when it comes to music, the container usually changes what’s inside. The vinyl platter gave us the idea that pop stars should be auteurs who present their ideas a dozen songs a swoop. Cassettes gave listeners the power to copy, curate and circulate their favorite sounds. Compact discs gave us longer swaths of clear, uninterrupted muchness.

Is it even possible to think of YouTube as a container? It has no discernible limits, so its contours don’t impose any particular pressure on the music that fills it. Instead, the limit is our time. Other music-streaming services are mindful of our time. They want users to feel safe in the paralyzing immensity of what they have on offer, so they provide a deep menu of comfort-zone playlists designed to reinforce our tastes. Not YouTube. It promises horizons.

This has to be why teenage listeners keep pointing their ears toward YouTube’s sonic sprawl. When you’re young, the world feels impossibly big. If you’re not worried about how much time you have left to hear it, searching and floating can feel like the same thing.

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