Check Out My Mixtape, It’s Free

“I didn’t think that we were gonna get this one, so I don’t have cool stuff to say this time… This is for every indie artist, everybody who’s been doing this mixtape stuff for a long-ass time… Shouts out to every independent artist out there! Shouts out to SoundCloud for holding me down. It’s another one baby!”

— Chance the Rapper, after receiving the Best Rap Album award at the Grammys

At the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, Chancellor Bennett took the stage three times and accepted three accolades: Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album. For the Recording Academy, this was a routine exercise in quantitative evaluation of an inherently qualitative medium. But for Bennett and aspiring musicians around the world, this was a moment of validation for their art form. Bennett, better known by his stage name, Chance the Rapper, is now the first artist to win a Grammy without selling physical albums. The 23-year-old from Chicago remains unsigned to any record label, eschewing traditional music distribution strategies for the more flexible options afforded by today’s connected world. Why does this matter? Because it grants legitimacy to music created by amateur and unsigned artists, and encourages a culture of making honest, organic music unfettered by record label interests.

Free online audio distribution platforms such as SoundCloud and DatPiff have been at the forefront of this movement, lowering the barrier to entry for aspiring professional musicians by allowing them to upload and share audio for no cost. Unlike the streaming services offered by Spotify and Apple Music, SoundCloud does not require artists to sign with any label, nor is there any waiting time for original content to go live. In fact, any user can sign up and publish audio in a matter of minutes. Moreover, there is no functional difference between the SoundCloud pages of established artists and those of average users.

All users are able to create playlists of both original and reposted music, and can tag their content in order to situate it with similar uploads. This democratic philosophy allows users to discover music organically rather than by seeing what is already popular. It is this philosophy that levels the playing field for musicians everywhere and exposes mainstream media to a new realm of music — a phenomenon evidenced by Chance the Rapper’s recent success. But before I finish telling Chancellor Bennett’s story, I will touch upon the qualities of this medium that lend themselves to a more robust culture of music creation than we have previously seen.

The first, and most conspicuous advantage is the accessibility of the online music platform. SoundCloud gives users three hours’ worth of free audio publishing before charging them a nominal monthly fee to upload an unlimited amount. SoundCloud’s user-friendliness is evident in its usage statistics and high rate of user growth: SoundCloud’s approximately 10 million users post 12 hours of content every single minute, with 90% of new content played most frequently on the day it was uploaded (Dash). This staggering amount of uploaded audio demonstrates that, when given an approachable platform, people will create relentlessly and without constraint.

The second advantage of online music sharing platforms is the collaborative culture they encourage. On the same page, users can listen to an uploaded track and download it for their own repurposing, allowing musicians to sample and retool music in the pursuit of creating something novel from preexisting parts. Sampling has long been a crucial part of hip-hop and rap culture, but the convenience of online music sharing has obviated the need for bureaucratic red tape when seeking audio tracks. Additionally, SoundCloud’s user interface encourages a “participatory culture” through the integration of social features into music streaming. Users can repost and comment on audio, even attaching comments to specific time marks (e.g. 20 seconds in) in recordings to identify points of interest (Hopkins). But most importantly, SoundCloud encourages produsage, as evidenced by the now mainstream success of electronic artists who started out by posting remixes of other artists’ work. Harley Streten, known by “Flume” to fans, gained prominence by applying his unique sound to songs by older electronic musicians. According to Streten’s manager, “these [remixes] may not generate much money, since a song’s original artist often retains rights. But by piggybacking on other acts, artists like Flume can reach wide new audiences and find other kinds of exposure” (Sisario). Streten, now a Grammy winner, still routinely posts online remixes that become more popular than the original work. In turn, one can now search SoundCloud and find myriad remixes of Streten’s own original music. This new workflow typifies the new music paradigm: music creation is no longer a linear process but rather a complex web of hypertext and connected nodes, allowing users to create freely, but also contextualize their work with musical influences and forbearers.

The ultimate advantage of online distribution platforms is the freedom to create music unrestrained by the corporate agendas and deadlines of traditional record labels. Perhaps Chance the Rapper explains this freedom best in his own words:

“After I made my second mixtape and gave it away online, my plan was to sign with a label and figure out my music from there. But after meeting with the three major labels, I realized my strength was being able to offer my best work to people without any limit on it.
“I make money from touring and selling merchandise, and I honestly believe if you put effort into something and you execute properly, you don’t necessarily have to go through the traditional ways.” — Chance the Rapper

In Bennett’s case, his best work has been unconventional both in its message and in the workflow of its creation. Bennett has recorded music while on suspension from high school or while under the influence of LSD, and favors unusual musical guests like little-known rappers or children’s choirs. Moreover, his lyrics often feature political or religious themes, a habit that may cause headaches for larger record labels. Bennett, a devout Christian, waxes as easily about biblical allegories as he does about failed relationships and drug habits. He depicts life honestly as a black teenager in Chicago, referencing police brutality and other pressing societal issues. But most importantly to this point, he has an exceptionally particular vision of his musical style and image, and sees in online distribution the possibility of realizing that vision without restraint.

“He’s more of a collagist, bringing together a series of images that are indelible for their specificity and intimacy. ‘For young people on the city’s South or West Side, there’s nothing coming from government, from our school system that’s bolstering the kind of pride that comes out in Chance’s work,’ says singer Jamila Woods, who has worked with Chance on his albums as well as on her own newly released Heavn” (Austen).

If Bennett’s aversion to big record labels was not yet obvious, his 2016 performance on The Ellen Show made it quite clear. He performs “No Problem,” an irreverent ode to his success as an unsigned artist. In an unusual turn for a talk show musical guest, Bennett begins the performance on an elaborate set meant to replicate a conference room at the aptly named faux label “Generic Records.” Bennett, along with rap artists 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, burst through the doors as the track begins, dancing on the table and causing general mayhem while the flustered “executives” in the room pick up their papers and unsuccessfully try to restore order. It is interesting to note that despite being signed to major record labels, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne are wholly willing participants in this indictment of the establishment. Though these two followed a more traditional route to rap stardom, their support for Bennett’s message may signify a change in how upcoming artists define mainstream success.

It goes without saying that any innovative technology will inevitably face its roadblocks as it continues to grow. SoundCloud is no different. As online music sharing platforms have grown in profile, questions have arisen about how they will address intellectual property conflicts as well as corporate financial obligations. SoundCloud currently uses an automatic content identification system to target copyright violations, but the technology is not perfect and often mistakenly removes content that qualifies as “original” (Gianetti). Though SoundCloud touts its collaborative nature, it is understandably in the interest of the company to avoid legal troubles. In the Intellectual Property Journal, Rosen elaborates:

[SoundCloud], which hit 10 million users in 2012, is one of the largest online communities where EDM (Electronic Dance Music) creators and users listen to and share recordings. Conversely, SoundCloud discourages appropriative practices. Its copyright page states: “The best way to avoid copyright infringement is to ensure that you don’t use anything created by anyone else. Simple as that.” This has a “chilling” effect on EDM creators who use the platform.

As online music sharing platforms gain mainstream prominence, they will have to enact new policies to protect intellectual property while remaining a space for free creation. This is a complex and evolving legal issue beyond the scope of this article, and I fully expect to see updates to SoundCloud policies in the coming year. In the meantime, the company faces other complications. SoundCloud has yet to become profitable — a fairly common problem among high-growth technology companies. However, at this stage, investors are starting to ask questions about sustainability, citing SoundCloud’s €51 million loss in 2015 and concerns that the company will run out of cash shortly (Brown). Despite its large user base, the majority of SoundCloud accounts are on free subscriptions, as upgrading to “Pro” has little appeal or utility to the average user. SoundCloud must find a way to become sustainable without sacrificing the accessibility and freedom of use that distinguish it from other music platforms.

So what lies ahead for SoundCloud and music sharing? Chance the Rapper seems to have inside information:

Though there has been no official announcement from the Recording Academy, it’s safe to assume that Bennett is a reliable source given his stake in the decision. Without doubt, this policy will further expose mainstream audiences to a wider and more diverse field of music, allowing earnest but unconnected artists to showcase their work on a largely unfiltered platform. Though SoundCloud and similar services will continue to grapple with corporate and legal issues, their existence is crucial to music artistry in the 21st century. Fast, accessible music sharing leads to more diverse and plentiful music, which benefits both artists and audiences. Bennett has known this all along, but it is this author’s hope that the general public will acknowledge the importance of online music sharing and its value to us as listeners.

Works Cited:

Austen, Ben. “The New Pioneers: Chance the Rapper Is One of the Hottest Acts in Music, Has a Top 10 Album and His Own Festival — All Without a Label or Physical Release.” Billboard. N.p., n.d. Web.

Brown, John Murray. “SoundCloud in danger of running out of cash.” Financial Times [London] 5 Jan. 2017: n. pag. www.ft.com. Web.

Dash, Somesh, and Dennis Phelps. “WHY SOUNDCLOUD WILL RULE THE DIGITAL AUDIO WORLD.” IVP. N.p., 24 Jan. 2014. Web.

Giannetti, Francesca. “SoundCloud.” Music Library Association. Notes, vol. 70, no. 3, 2014., pp. 499–503 ProQuest Central; Social Science Premium Collection. Web.

Hopkins, Peta, Jo Hare, Jessie Donaghey, and Wendy Abbott. “Geo, audio, video, photo: how digital convergence in mobile devices facilitates participatory culture in libraries.” The Australian Library Journal 64.1 (2015): 11–22. T & F Online. Web.

Sisario, Ben. “Flume Rises in the E.D.M. World.” The New York Times. N.p., 25 Feb. 2015. Web.

Rosen, Daniel. “Electronic Dance Music, Creativity, and User-Generated Content — A Canadian Perspective.” Intellectual Property Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014., pp. 153–173 ProQuest Central. Web.

Zucker, Rachel. “The Effects of Social Media on Music Sharing.” Thesis. Dominican University of California, 2016. Dominican Scholar. 25 Apr. 2016. Web.

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