A bummer if it comes to pass …
AUGUST 1, 2017
By JENNA WORTHAM
This summer, an engineer named Matthew Healy moved to Berlin to work at SoundCloud, a popular music-streaming service. He started his job on a Monday. On Thursday, a companywide meeting was called. Healy and his new co-workers assumed it was about the acquisition rumors swirling around the company. Instead, Healy learned that he and 172 other employees — roughly 40 percent of the company’s staff — were being laid off. ‘‘The rest of the day is a blur,’’ he wrote in a post about his experience online. ‘‘I now realize that I was in shock.’’
After the layoffs, the technology blog TechCrunch published a report claiming that SoundCloud had enough money to finance itself for only 80 days. Though the company disputed the report, the possibility that SoundCloud might disappear sent a shock through the web. Data hoarders began trying to download the bulk of the service’s public archive in order to preserve it. Musicians like deadmau5, a Canadian electronic-music producer, tossed out suggestions on Twitter for how the company could save the service. Chance the Rapper tweeted: ‘‘I’m working on the SoundCloud thing.’’
Since its start in 2008, SoundCloud has been a digital space for diverse music cultures to flourish, far beyond the influence of mainstream label trends. For lesser-known artists, it has been a place where you can attract the attention of fans and the record industry without having to work the usual channels. There is now a huge roster of successful artists who first emerged on SoundCloud, including the R.&B. singer Kehlani, the electronic musician Ta-Ha, the pop musician Dylan Brady and the rapper Lil Yachty, to name just a few.
Part of what made the service so vital was the way that established artists stayed plugged into it. When an unknown Atlanta musician named Makonnen self-released an EP online and on SoundCloud, Miley Cyrus shared an image on Instagram flagging one of his singles, while another song, ‘‘Tuesday,’’ caught the attention of the Toronto rapper Drake. Drake recorded a remix of the song and eventually signed Makonnen to his own label, OVO Sound. This, of course, is what most musicians want, but Makonnen later said in an interview that he was frustrated by the glacial label process, which delayed the follow-up to his EP. SoundCloud allowed artists to bypass that process.
Even now, the site houses a large pool of musicians, many of them unsigned, who are part of international music cultures that largely do not exist anywhere else online. In a recent Times article, my colleague Jon Caramanica chronicled the rise of ‘‘SoundCloud rap,’’ a subgenre of rap released primarily on the streaming service that he described as ‘‘the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip-hop thanks to rebellious music, volcanic energy and occasional acts of malevolence.’’ As he noted, it rose as a rebuttal to the hyperproduced sound of artists like Drake. It was music made entirely to be distributed online, yet it created its own culture offline — something unlikely to have emerged from the imagination of your typical record-label executive.
The death of SoundCloud, then, would mean more than the sunsetting of a service: It could mean the erasure of a decade of internet sound culture, says Jace Clayton, a musician and the author of ‘‘Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.’’ He reminded me of an online music service called imeem, which MySpace bought in 2009 in the hope of absorbing its 16 million users into its own platform. But the struggling service shut down, and all the music uploaded and shared to it was lost, including what Clayton recalls to be a very eclectic subset of black Chicago house music. ‘‘What does it mean if someone can delete hundreds and thousands of hours of sound culture overnight?’’ he asked.
SoundCloud always let me get lost in a warren of music that I’d never heard — or even heard of — before. Once, it was Japanese trap songs. Another time it was Ethiopian jazz music. It somehow manages to evoke some of the most appealing features of offline music culture, like browsing through bins in a record store or catching indie acts at an underground club.
SoundCloud took a community-first approach to building its business, prioritizing finding artists to post on its service over making deals with music labels to license their music, the approach taken by Spotify. The music industry was still in the process of adapting to a digital ecosystem when SoundCloud emerged; illegal file-sharing was rampant. But when the industry finally began squelching unauthorized distribution of artists’ tracks, SoundCloud was hit hard. D.J.s were also told to take down mixes of songs they didn’t own the rights to, and many of the remixes the site was known for were removed. SoundCloud ‘‘was very much built in the dot-com-era mentality of building an audience and then finding a way to make money,’’ Mark Mulligan, a music-industry analyst, told me. SoundCloud struggled to monetize the service. Artists who paid to be featured on the site balked at having ads run against their music, and when the company introduced its own version of a subscription service, called Go, the response was tepid. How do you persuade people who have been using your services free to start paying $5 or $10 a month?
Generally speaking, the business of music streaming is treacherous at best: Consumers don’t seem to want to pay big money for access to digital music services, so companies must keep the fees low. But the more those subscribers listen to music, the more these services have to pay the labels for access. Even Spotify, which has the largest user base of all the streaming services, still diverts more than half its revenue back to the labels for licensing fees. And the most popular artists — Rihanna, Future, Drake — are all releasing music exclusively through the streaming service that pays them to do so; or in the case of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, through the streaming service they own, Tidal. A start-up like SoundCloud stands almost no chance of competing.
For the most part, streaming services feel sterile and devoid of community. Spotify, Tidal and even YouTube to a degree are vast and rich troves of music, but they primarily function as search engines organized by algorithms. You typically have to know what you’re looking for in order to find it. They have tried to remedy that drawback with customized playlists, but still they feel devoid of a human touch. Serendipity is rare.
By contrast, the most successful online communities, like SoundCloud, have the feel of public spaces, where everyone can contribute to the culture. They feel as if they belong to the community that sustains them. But of course that’s not how it works. In ‘‘Who Owns Culture?,’’ Susan Scafidi writes: ‘‘Community-generated art forms have tremendous economic and social value — yet most source communities have little control over them.’’
SoundCloud’s fan base may soon learn this lesson the hard way. The service’s founder, Alexander Ljung, declined to be interviewed for this column, but after Chance the Rapper tweeted about his interest in saving SoundCloud, the men talked on the phone, which Chance reported was ‘‘very fruitful.’’ Ljung agreed, tweeting that for now, SoundCloud was ‘‘here to stay.’’ Whether SoundCloud can last another 10 years remains to be seen. But the moral of its struggle is clear: As digital culture becomes more tied to the success of the platforms where it flourishes, there is always a risk of it disappearing forever.
Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for the magazine.