What Would the Death of Soundcloud Mean for Unarchived Music?

On October 4th 2016

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By Jake Witz

The fragility of websites is a reality with which very few internet citizens concern themselves. In fact, most people act on the opposite assumption, deleting old Facebook photos and posts in fear of their potential longevity. But in the last few years, gargantuan sites like Gawker, Myspace and MegaUpload have either shut down or reinvented themselves beyond recognition, proving that the internet and physical world operate on a universal law of decay.

Whether by natural death or human error, it looks as if Soundcloud may be next to perish. Reports have been flowing in with respect to the streaming service’s financial troubles and copyright feuds, with Bloomberg even reporting that the owners are seeking a $1 Billion dollar buyout to no avail. Soundcloud has also enacted a variety of nonsensical and failed offerings since the start of 2016, including a streaming service akin to Spotify which managed to alienate both artists and consumers with its $10 price tag and meager library of copyrighted music. Combine these behaviors with Soundcloud’s ability to remove content without reason or notification (as expressed in their User Agreement) and it appears as if the company is writhing in quicksand.

This brings up a question that many are afraid to ask, with many more not even knowing it needs to be asked: what will happen to the millions of independent artists and songs on Soundcloud if the company shuts down? Some of the damage is already underway: Soundcloud recently removed their Groups functionality, which were essentially forums for sharing and discussing music within a specific community. This last month, users lost their groups and playlists within them, which is both a tragedy in and of itself and an omen of what’s to come.

What’s most at stake in Soundcloud’s inevitable ruin are the communities and histories that it’s hosted for almost a decade; The site’s reposting function flung songs and influence across the globe, creating an environment ripe for collaboration and creation. Producers of track-based genres like Jersey Club and Footwork could use Soundcloud to get their tracks in the hands of followers beyond their cities, sparking fan-bases in Japan, Berlin and beyond. Massive premiering accounts like Detona Funk, now at 127,000 followers with free downloads for all of their posts, have been instrumental in spreading Baile Funk beyond the physical borders of Brazil. Even music parody found a home on Soundcloud, with tracks like JX Cannon’s “POP OFF”, a club rework of an Obama speech, going viral without visual aid or promotion.

But perhaps Soundcloud’s greatest benefit has been granting independent artists the freedom, albeit a conditional one, to post and save their personal songs. Soundcloud hosts a trove of musicians with meager play counts but impressive discographies. These artists, who are both underfunded and underrepresented, are both the backbone of Soundcloud and at the greatest risk in its downfall. While some local genres are touted across the globe by well-known ambassadors, it was only through the support of producers and reporters with meager follow counts that those successes were able to come to fruition. If Soundcloud ceases operation, these still-active communities would entirely dissolve.

So how could the public preserve Soundcloud’s library and functionality after it’s existence? The most challenging obstacles to overcome are, ironically, the very copyright laws made to protect the intellectual property of artists. Archive Team has toyed with the idea of a full archival, but understand that such an operation would be wasted effort. Even if someone had the hard drive space to house millions of gigabytes of music, they certainly wouldn’t have the funds to deflect the countless lawsuits that would result from the operation. The default copyright plan for uploading on Soundcloud is “All Rights Reserved,” meaning that artists do not grant any rights to copy, distribute or use their music. This default is an insurmountable barrier for any official project of this scope.

Even if Archive Team managed to collect Soundcloud’s data unscathed, how long would it be before those servers crashed or lost power? Some solutions revolve around preserving these songs in outdated sturdy media; services like Vinylize.it hope to give artists and fans a chance to press their digital songs on physical records via a voting process for which songs should be pressed next on their relatively small service. This transition from digital to physical not only transforms the context of the music at stake but also locks out less affluent musicians from saving their profiles. And even conceivably, if the public were able to preserve all of Soundcloud in physical form, such a collection would only survive in the way that bunker builders hope to survive nuclear apocalypse: isolated, inaccessible and dying all the while.

Constructing a plan that achieves accessibility, legality and morality seems impossible—which is why the scope of this theoretical project must change. Individual fans should take every step they can to preserve the songs they care about, preserving them but also saving them from death in a museum or bunker. The agency of picking songs to save, while inherently biased, establishes a curation that is meaningful to its curator, and by extension, those around them. Downloading and sharing these potentially doomed songs is the final repost, the last like, which could preserve history.

If a good song has a download button, download it. If it doesn’t, use any mp3 ripping site to download it. Soundcloud offers its users limited downloads; very few artists would take it personally if you ripped their music to share (read as: not sell). While this decentralized archive lacks the gravitas of a single physical storage, the fluidity of this system lets art freely mingle with the greater world.

The logical end of Soundcloud as we know it, whether by reinvention or financial ruin, is death. And if the owners’ profit-driven behavior is any indication, the safety of artists’ songs will be last on CEO Alexander Ljung’s list of things to save. Its producers will keep producing, but their tracks, many of which were built with Soundcloud’s shareability in mind, may join the data void with Myspace blogs, AOL chats and geocity sites before them. But while the mediums that host art always decay, art itself can live on through the preservation efforts of those who care about it most.

 

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