YouTube background playback on iOS 6.1

Q: I’ve noticed that since I put iOS 6.1 on my iPhone, I can’t seem to play YouTube music in the background any more. I listen to a lot of music through YouTube, and I actually stopped using Google’s YouTube app since it didn’t let me do this, so my YouTube links would still open in Safari. Since iOS 6.1, however, it seems that Safari doesn’t do this any more either. Is this just me, or did Apple actually break this in the update? It’s really upsetting, since it stops playing when you turn the screen off too. I’m betting Android users don’t need to deal with this nonsense.

– Vanessa

A: Actually, it’s traditionally been worse on the Android side, as it’s ultimately Google that is prohibiting background audio playback from YouTube, likely due to music licensing restrictions. The iOS app—particularly the one that was built-in prior to iOS 6—was actually one of the few apps that allowed this.

Unfortunately, you’re correct that this capability appears to have been removed in the iOS 6.1 update. It’s unclear exactly why Apple did this, however, it would appear that Google may be cracking down on the use of the YouTube API where background audio is concerned. In the FAQ for the official YouTube iOS App, Google states that “Some of our partners in the music industry prohibit background playback”, suggesting that this may also be the result of pressure from the music industry, either on Apple directly or via Google and YouTube.

It’s unclear whether this is a deliberate change in iOS 6.1 or simply a bug that may be resolved in a future update, but there are fortunately a few ways around this, for now at least. The simplest solution is to look to third-party apps such as McTube (free, iTunes link), which works fine to keep playing audio in the background, although you will experience a brief audio crossfade as the app switches from video playback to an audio-only mode.

The other downside is that third-party apps cannot open YouTube links directly, so you will be forced to either copy and paste via the iOS clipboard or simply search out your YouTube content directly within the McTube app. A Pro version of McTube is also available for $2 that adds the ability to cache videos for offline viewing, however while YouTube’s Terms of Service are fuzzy regarding background audio, offline caching does appear to be expressly prohibited so it’s unclear whether this feature will continue to be supported in the future.

Alternatively, if you’re using a jailbroken device, there’s actually a Flex tweak available that will enable background playback on the standard Google YouTube app. Since this leverages Google’s official YouTube app, it’s unlikely that the app itself would lose access to the YouTube API, and it’s otherwise considerably more difficult to block this behaviour on a jailbroken device. The downside, of course, is that you have to jailbreak your device, with all of the additional hassle that entails.

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