SoundCloud: From Core Content to Creative Innovation

Soon after SoundCloud launched in late 2008, Wired magazine noted its rapid gain on the dominant Myspace platform in winning “the hearts and minds of recording artists eager to interact more nimbly with fans” (2009, Buskirk). SoundCloud’s flexibility — with better distribution across multiple platforms, easy audio file uploads in any size and in an array of formats, the ability to share files publicly or privately, and the relatively low commitment in uploading a work in progress to gauge feedback — contributed to its growing following among musicians. Among fans, multiple platforms, from Twitter to search engines to blogs, led them to the SoundCloud environment where they could stream or download artist interviews and studio or field recordings. At the start, the underlying information architecture served the needs of artists who wanted creative collaboration between other artists, industry folk, and fans, and who needed agile and inexpensive channels of distribution.

We think of information architecture (IA) as a way of connecting people to the content they seek and even to the content they didn’t know they wanted. However, IA begins with creators and curators who want to facilitate the distribution of content to seekers. IA isn’t new; while digital IA relies on conventions of content organization, navigation, and distribution beyond its platform; books rely on the same principles. Books possess organizational conventions—words, sentences, and paragraphs; sequential pages, turning from recto to verso. One may navigate a book with the help of a table of contents or an index. Finally, books may have a life beyond their original platforms—catalogued in libraries, referred and responded to in other books, successive editions, or even audio recordings on digital platforms such as SoundCloud.

Publishing in the west has a long history of technological disruption. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates debates the merits of speech vs. writing — a traditional form of communication vs. a technological innovation by which the words break free of the barriers of time and place. When Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type press made written words more widely available, he disrupted the publishing business by which some monasteries supported themselves through wealthy patrons’ commissions for transcribed books and thereby laid the foundation for nearly universal literacy at an affordable price. Further, the market for printed materials expanded beyond its focus on bibles, psalters and ancient pagan classics, leading to distribution of more diverse genres: scientific treatises, poetry and drama, dictionaries, and eventually journalism and novels.

Similarly, the recording industry facilitated the development and distribution of many musical genres previously confined to specific cultural enclaves. For aspiring musicians, new avenues of self-publishing have moved beyond the gatekeepers at a music label or the costly studio self-releases of yesteryear to digital audio files of music and podcasts. Accessible and inexpensive digital publishing channels, such as SoundCloud, have removed some of the barriers to distribution; moreover, music and podcasts that appeal to limited markets may have more opportunities for publication and may build markets where none existed before. Smith and Telang cite artists who have digitally self-published, building their own markets through online communities of listeners, and who are now courted by the traditional music industry which initially rejected them (2016, p. 74).

Content

SoundCloud’s IA has always had as its core data an audio file, music or not, that can be uploaded in just about any format, which is then transcoded to MP3 at 128 kbit/s for streaming purposes (2013, Bryant). Auxiliary information, added by creators or built into the architecture of the site, allows fans to access the content and to discover appealing content. An efficient and intuitive access and discovery process depends on recognizable patterns.

In addition to the audio file, key information makes content searchable: creator, title, genre, tags, and description. After creators sign in and upload an audio file, they incorporate this searchable content by filling in a form.

SoundCloud basic info form requests key information.
SoundCloud pull-down genre memo offers standard and custom options.

Beyond the audio track, the signed-in creator and the title are the only required pieces of information. Searchability and discovery can be enhanced with other features. The pull-down Genre menu provides a wide range of music and audio varieties. Because SoundCloud provides these specific options, the file can easily be categorized and searched for in a recognizable, standardized genre; SoundCloud will also recommend new tracks to listeners who favor particular genres. However, for those creators who care to risk obscurity or simply prefer to define their own genres, SoundCloud offers an opportunity to customize this category.

For those files that cross genres or other characteristics, additional tags may be listed including genre; tags unique to certain events, memes, or people; or mood. For instance, a search on SoundCloud with the tags #happy #jazz turned up 62 options that a listener can explore. SoundCloud Reviews points out

you must always, always, tag it properly. This helps SoundCloud’s recommendation system suggest you to the right listeners. You also need to tag your tracks right in order to qualify for charts — which can boost your visibility by a mile (2017).

Furthermore, a description written with care can boost search engine optimization, making it more likely that those searching outside of SoundCloud will be led to the platform. Finally, an intriguing image can attract listeners who are browsing.

Pattern

All of this content must be either searchable or discoverable. While traditional books contain a lot of information, searching and discovering methods are not very agile. Even when the book has a table of contents and/or an index, or unless the reader has kept exceptionally detailed notes, retrieving or finding information can be an exercise in frustration. With print books, the means of discovery were somewhat haphazard with uneven results; discovery occurred when one print source mentioned another or as a patron wandered the stacks in the library—pleasureable but not efficient.

Example of the individual track referenced in Basic Info above.

Tagging and markup provide information and structures that indicate what a collection of information is, and it cracks open wide our previous expectations for searchability and discoverability when we approach a source of information. Nonetheless, markup grew out of our traditional ways of organizing information, and conventions such as scale and proportion, where information that helps us perform basic functions or to understand taxonomy is more prominent. The publisher’s logo and navigation bar—a digital table of contents—is consistent from page to page. In the screenshot above, the name of the track—like a title on its page—is the most prominent verbiage, followed by the name of the creator, and the primary genre. As for graphics, the large, square image recalls printed album covers; the waveform—the core content—is prominent and stands in its own ground. The play button uses contrast and size to draw attention to its function. A picture of the creator is also prominent, with commenters’ profile pictures less so. Seamlessly meeting the user’s expectations is the goal of user-centered information architecture; consistent architecture gives users confidence in a site:

Our goal is repeatability, predictability, and consistency in the display to help reassure and contextualize the content into larger themes.—Michael Dain

To ensure repeatability, predictability and consistency, SoundCloud uses markup to format and provide consistent functionality to a page. The page above uses quite a bit of traditional markup:

SoundCloud resources for track page.

However, the page also includes a range of resources, from fonts to extra scripts that influence the design of the page, an increasingly important flexibility as website design evolves. For instance, here you can directions to use particular style sheets:

The second refers to a particular style sheet, just as print publishers use to specify fonts, print sizes, etc.:

Information

Once uploaded, the audio files are represented in waveforms. From the start, SoundCloud supported collaboration and innovation by facilitating the ability of artists to gather and use information. For instance, an early version of their website touted,

For every track you send or receive you can start a conversation at any point in the track by putting in a timed comment anywhere in the waveform. Very simple. Very effective (2008, SoundCloud).

This signature method of encouraging feedback from fans and collaborators remains largely unchanged from 2008 to 2017, as a comparison of these two tracks demonstrate:

2008 version of individual SoundCloud track.
2017 version of individual SoundCloud track.

Every creator has access to basic statistics that track activity over time, even granular information such as the totals for each day; however, subscribers to SoundCloud Pro or Pro Unlimited can see more sophisticated information such as top countries or cities, who played the most—plays, likes, comments, reposts, and downloads, as well as website and app referrals.

As SoundCloud evolved, it organized and provided access to information that accommodates listeners’ ability to search and discover. In 2012, SoundCloud introduced a redesigned website with new features that addressed the needs of listeners. Martin Bryant (2013) of The Next Web characterized the redesigned site:

What we’re seeing today is the maturation of a product that has quickly grown from a handy collaboration and sharing tool for musicians and DJs into the de facto online audio sharing platform.

In 2014, SoundCloud redesigned their mobile apps for iOS and Android; the users of the mobile apps were clearly listeners rather than creators, so the need to access certain types of information shifted. The home page allowed users to find tracks that automatically surfaced based on listener history; the search function allowed users to find tracks to their taste; and easy access to listeners’ likes and playlists took priority over collaboration and an easy-to-upload interface (Evenson).

Over time, SoundCloud standardized genre tags creators use in order to promote a coherent taxonomy for listeners’ ability to search. For instance, the primary tag of the 2008 example above is #Groovy, not a tag that has a universal understanding. A better-defined taxonomy facilitates listener discovery in two ways: 1) it allows alogrithms to suggest tracks that individual listeners may enjoy based on their listening history and subscriptions, and 2) it makes it possible for listeners to browse familiar artists or genres as well as genres with which they may be unfamiliar. For instance, as a listener, I can go to Charts and explore the top 50 tracks or the new and hot in Trip Hop this week. I can also access the Discover tab to find undiscovered tracks similar to my listening history.

Knowledge

While SoundCloud’s core data has remained the same, the focus of patterns that allow and encourage use of that information shifted from meeting the needs of creators for collaboration, feedback and distribution to providing listeners with a better ability to search and discover content. Since the site redesign in 2012 until this year, most SoundCloud development centered on new ways to use the core content to enhance the listener experience of search and discovery.

Originally, SoundCloud creators, DJs and curators used the platform to distribute content and to enter into dialogue with collaborators and listeners. Creators could easily provide enriched content, well beyond album liner notes, and ask for specific kinds of feedback. Such connections build fan loyalty and result in creative innovation—dialogic relationships and input that tend to enrich content rather than dilute it. Additionally, the statistics provided information on who is listening, liking, and sharing a creator’s content. All of this organization of the content contributed by listeners and collaborators potentially leads to knowledge applicable to creativity and, ultimately, artistic wisdom.

Once SoundCloud secured a reliable pool of content providers, their focus shifted to how listeners could access, search, and discover the core content. Despite this refocus, there seems to be quite a thriving industry of those who want to redesign SoundCloud, nearly all of them from the listener perspective.

Nonetheless, in the face of SoundCloud’s slipping popularity, it seems that the pendulum is swinging back to how the data can serve creators. There have been changes in leadership and changes in the vision for the platform. CEO Alex Ljung was removed as CEO and replaced with former Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor. Co-founder and COO Eric Wahlforss was succeeded by Michael Weissman, also formerly of Vimeo. Ljung will stay on with SoundCloud as chairman of the board and Wahlforss as chief product officer. Fast Company notes that CEO Trainor

plans to focus much of his effort, at least initially: on creators, rather than on doubling down on subscriptions (2017, Titlow).

Just this week, SoundCloud added new features for creators such as private sharing and playback on mobile devices using the SoundCloud app. There is wisdom in understanding that without the information that results in high quality content from creators, listeners will seek other platforms no matter how intuitive the interface for listeners.

References

Bryant, M. (2013, March 11). SoundCloud Launches Simplified, Cheaper Pro Plans and Embraces Brands. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from https://thenextweb.com/insider/2013/03/11/soundcloud/

Buskirk, E. V. (2009, July 06). SoundCloud Threatens MySpace as Music Destination for Twitter Era. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from https://www.wired.com/2009/07/soundcloud-threatens-myspace-as-music-destination-for-twitter-era/

Dain, M (2017). Information Architecture. Northwestern University. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from https://canvas.northwestern.edu/courses/64401

Evensen, M. N. (n.d.). Building SoundCloud. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from https://michaelevensen.com/

Smith, M. D., & Telang, R. (2016). Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Soundcloud. (2008, August 01). Sending & receiving music should be easy. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from http://web.archive.org/web/20080801170723/http://soundcloud.com:80/tour/

SoundCloud Reviews. (2017, May 18). 8 Tips to Getting More out of SoundCloud | SoundCloud Reviews. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from http://soundcloudreviews.org/8-tips-getting-soundcloud/

Titlow, J. P. (2017, October 04). SoundCloud gives artists more data while its new CEO shifts focus to creators. Retrieved December 02, 2017, from https://www.fastcompany.com/40475283/soundcloud-gives-artists-more-data-while-its-new-ceo-shifts-focus-to-creators