The essential staple of Soundcloud is that it places the keys to the proverbial gates of the industry directly in the hands of new, enterprising content creators. The little orange and white streaming engine-that-could has been the go-to hub for grassroots beginnings of musicians, podcasters, and blogs. And it looks like it’s going to die.
SoundCloud abandoned its core principles and isolated users by moving away from what made it unique to the everyday listener, and because of that it’s on life support.
The buffet of options in the streaming world is vast but highly centralized. People are willing to pay for music, as is evident by Spotify hitting 50 million paid subscribers in May 2017. It’s not the cost that deters people. If it’s a good product that fills a need, niche or not, it can be sold for a price. The updated version of SoundCloud didn’t fill a need anymore. They signed a licensing deal with major labels to compete with Spotify, Tidal, and Apple, instead of trying to bolster what made it distinctive: a content platform that was an open door of audio and social. They turned their flourishing music community into a black box subscriber service—an already bloated market.
Switching from a free to a premium service should entail that its core audience, both musicians, and music listeners, be rewarded accordingly. Introducing a SoundCloud Go option for $5 and $10 tiers didn’t fix the shoddy web player, repair the bugs with uploading tracks, or update an imprecise search bar. All of these things accumulated to its downfall, among other missteps in the business side of things, i.e. laying off 40% of its staff, refusing to implement a way to directly compensate users, and also very significant: spending more money than they made.
Despite its social media platforms saying otherwise, it has been reported by reputable sources that SoundCloud has less than 50 days to live, and not even Chance, the Rapper—one of SoundCloud’s premier representatives—who turned his free mixtape into a Grammy, can save it. But someone with more money might swoop in, or rather, some thing. There have been reports that Google is considering purchasing SoundCloud for around $500 million. Another potential buyer, Spotify was in the midst of “advanced talks” before it backed out after realizing the difficulty of licensing content that appears on SoundCloud. How to exactly go about monetizing thousands of unofficial remixes uploaded by independent artists deemed too complicated for a Spotify whose strength lies not in small up-and-comers, but in large established acts who garner millions of plays daily. Huge artists bring in huge profits.
If a large corporation like Google were to buy out SoundCloud, it’s possible they could implement the changes that users and content creators want, use ad revenue streams that work, and pay the bedroom producers, rappers, singers, and podcasters what they rightfully earned by creating traffic that otherwise wouldn’t be there without them. It’s striking how painstakingly unaware SoundCloud execs were to have never developed a function that imitates a more artist-friendly business models of its true competitor, Bandcamp, which allows fans of musicians to pay artists directly for a digital album or a single. How SoundCloud has bankrupted itself even with millions of struggling artists willing to pay out of pocket for promotion is bonkers.
There’s a chance that no one buys the currently unprofitable SoundCloud and it has a Vine-like ending where virtually everything on its platform is removed from the face of the internet completely.
It cannot be overstated how devastating this would for those who have come to rely on SoundCloud as a primary source of traffic and influence. My concerns aren’t with CEO Alex Linung and his net worth of $50 million; my worries are for the estimated 10 million music creators including small music blogs and independent rappers whose core following is comprised solely on SoundCloud. It would be like if Google’s search engine ceased to exist, but for audio. The online music ecosystem would likely replace the service with a SoundCloud copy, but it would leave those who use it as their only platform, back to the start, at zero followers.
In the long run, it may be best for SoundCloud to die but to keep the existing archive present for content makers to transition smoothly to other platforms or buyers. There are tons of streaming services out there. A better service that gives money directly to artists already exists at Bandcamp, where the homepage boasts that fans have paid artists $5.3 million in just the last 30 days alone. SoundCloud wasn’t paying its artists. Its licensing deal made it a much clumsier version of Spotify and Apple but without the extensive catalog. It wasn’t providing as positive of user experience that it could have had. Not to the fault of the artist, but because of the late decisions made by people at the top.
It doesn’t seem possible that something with as much clout as SoundCloud, especially in the hyper-online music circle, could disappear completely, so swiftly. The faces of “SoundCloud Rap,” Lil Pump and Smokepurpp graced the New York Times arts section just a month ago. Similarly, XXXTentacion was featured in Rolling Stone’s June issue, which highlighted his Billboard Top 40 hit, “Look at Me!” noting that its 76 million plays on SoundCloud has led the low-fi rap scene into a full blown movement in popular music.
The cultural relevancy amidst financial failings lead me to believe it will result in an anticlimactic end. Music discovery will be found in newer, better outlets that are more sustainable for the user and artist, while SoundCloud exists as a shell of itself. Like the demise of MySpace, there will eventually be a buyer when the price gets low enough. By then it will be too late. Artists will have moved on to more creator-friendly platforms and the luster it once had will have faded indefinitely. In a decade’s time, we will talk about SoundCloud and remember the artists we found on it. We’ll also remember how hard it was to upload content without the app crashing. We’ll view SoundCloud only within a nostalgic lens in the same way we view VHS tapes and Sony Walkmans. In the grand scheme, it’s just one of the many tools available online for artists to potentially break through the heavy doors of the music industry.
Like selling cassettes out the trunk of a car, like making it from MySpace to MTV, like turning SoundCloud fame into Billboard Top 40 hits—something new will take SoundCloud’s place as an avenue for music discovery. The mediums may die, but creativity surely won’t.
Keith Evanson is pitching on the block like Nolan Ryan as an Iowa-based freelancer. He's ranting and raving on Twitter.
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