Do We Still Need SoundCloud?
SoundCloud has been called the "forgotten giant in the streaming wars." It's different from apps like Spotify and Apple Music because it evolved primarily as a platform for creators -- songwriters, DJs, podcasters, etc. -- to share their original work. Thanks in part to its social functions, which allow users to easily share and embed the SoundCloud player, the creators who used the platform were able to feed its growth.
In some ways, SoundCloud is like YouTube, where users can stream music on demand for free. But SoundCloud is one of a kind chiefly because it has always empowered creators to use the platform to share original work and receive feedback – and new listeners – with ease. Their world of creators extends beyond DJs and underground musicians with the potential for mass appeal, too. I've discovered brilliant field recordings and audio documentaries via SoundCloud. When I took my own stab at creating an audio documentary, I hosted on SoundCloud because of the intuitiveness of the platform and the communities that already existed there. Meanwhile, the platform truly has become the invisible mammoth of the streaming world, racking up a listenership of 175 million per month, dwarfing both Apple Music (with an estimated 10 million listeners) and Spotify (with 75 million, at last count).
But SoundCloud's DIY foundations have started to feel a bit wobbly. A platform with a reach of 175 million will, at some point or other, need to make a deal with the major labels that own the rights to the music they are streaming -- the Adeles and Hoziers, who still rack up the major plays even on a grassroots-fueled network. More importantly, the work of these artists is frequently repurposed by DJs and producers into original work that is also posted on SoundCloud.
As SoundCloud has made an effort to hammer out licensing agreements with major labels like Sony, it's concurrently begun to move against some of its most devoted users -- namely, those who create mixes that include Sony artists, for instance. In some cases, it has even removed the accounts of DJs whose mixes include licensed material -- in effect exiling the users who put it on the map.
There’s still no major streaming outlet that facilitates via sheer social power the success of burgeoning artists the way SoundCloud does.
Does the music world, lousy with streaming options, still benefit from having SoundCloud around? Spotify and Apple Music have a much greater catalog of music available to stream on demand. Bandcamp allows musicians to post and even sell their music without any intermediaries. And sites like Mixcloud and Mixcrate are becoming adoptive homes for DJs kicked to the curb by SoundCloud -- on those sites, DJs they don't have to worry that their work will be erased because the sites pay rights organizations for the music DJs upload.
It's nice to think that there are other, better options for the creators turned out or alienated by SoundCloud. But there are still many things the service does better than anyone else. Despite the troubles, there's still no major streaming outlet that facilitates via sheer social power the success of burgeoning artists the way SoundCloud does. Apple Music's launch included Apple Connect, a feature ostensibly about connecting artists to fans, but that is in practice just a page populated by promo blasts from major artists like Tame Impala and Jason Derulo. Bandcamp is a fantastic resource for artists that want to make their music easily available for streaming and purchase online, but it doesn't have a social function capable of propelling obscure tracks toward a larger audience, and it isn't as great an asset for podcasters and DJs as SoundCloud, which has a user interface optimized for that kind of content.
Likewise, sites like Mixcloud are great for DJs. But they're near useless for bands and singer-songwriters, since they don't facilitate the upload of single tracks and don't have much of a network for field recorders and podcasters.
Perhaps most importantly, SoundCloud is deeply engrained in the DJ community that forms the heart of its network. Many DJs are still hosting a career's worth of work on the site and rely on it day after day to reach new listeners. A recent Spin survey of ten DJs and producers drove that point home. "I hope SoundCloud never shuts down," the Norwegian DJ Matoma told Spin. "That would be a tragedy for the streaming service and the spreading of organic music."
So how can SoundCloud continue to be an adventurous, democratic streaming platform without alienating its core user base? That'll take a drastic rethinking of their approach -- and everybody's -- to copyrighted music. DJs and other artists who make use of copyrighted music -- like I did when I made my audio documentary -- need to have the flexibility to repurpose copyrighted music when they need to. It's not be feasible for every content creator to seek approval from the rights holder for every piece of music they use. Instead, we should develop the use of a more malleable set of licenses -- a la Creative Commons -- that allows creators to repurpose music while helping license holders to protect against actual piracy. Songs that have the potential to be remixed millions of times -- the "Rolling in the Deep"s or "Take Me to Church"es -- can be issued with these kinds of licenses, so they can be reconfigured without being stolen.
SoundCloud has long been on the vanguard of supporting artists digitally, and it's still a deeply useful platform for all kinds of subsets of creators. That's why there's no company better than SoundCloud to lead on protecting the work of all artists. If they don't, they might find their biggest asset -- their core usership of devoted creators -- walking away to inferior platforms.