The Soundcloud Generation
by Oliver Figgs
Before the internet, in order for a musician to get their recordings heard by the public, they had to be signed with a label and distribution company to create professional product that could be sold to retailers. Recording studios were expensive and usually only available to those signed to a label; the only way for an unsigned artist to be heard by the public was to start performing around town and promote through word of mouth (Gamal 22). Even those signed to independent labels could not move much product because of how the major labels were prioritized in record stores and their domination of radio and mainstream media (Gamal 9). With the creation computers and the internet, the music industry began to evolve into a much more competitive world, as it became much easier for anyone to create professional sounding music and distribute it. With the blossoming of social media came the ability for anyone to promote their music to the world for practically free, and today most promotion and marketing is taking place on social media platforms. Soundcloud came out of this new age of people depending on the social media effect to get their songs distributed and heard by the public in an extremely simple and accessible way, and the website continues to pioneer innovative alternatives to digital distribution and music marketing (Gamal 22).
Created in Stockholm, Sweden in 2008 by Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss, Soundcloud was initially meant to make music sharing and collaborations much easier for the initial creative step of the music-making process. They wanted to make a website where creatives could show each other what they are working on and start a discussion about it before it was actually distributed to the general public (Buskirk). Soon after the site went public, they moved its headquarters to Berlin, Germany, a city known for its huge community of artists and tech-minded people (Weverbergh), many of whom are creating a new start-up every twenty minutes (Verhoog). As Wahlforss describes, “…the DNA of SoundCloud is so compatible with the DNA in Berlin. Berlin, as a city, feels a bit like a startup. It’s a melting pot of art, tech, creators,” and Soundcloud is the perfect place for these creators to collaborate efficiently (Weverbergh).The ability to see the actual waveform of the audio file on the site and to make a comment corresponding to a specific point on the waveform is extremely helpful for those needing feedback on the songwriting process (Henry 500). This particular innovation sparked much interest in the site for musicians, mostly among the DJs and electronic musicians that are predominant in Berlin’s music scene, and then quickly expanded it to many more types of artists and countries (500).
Ljung and Wahlforss’ vision for Soundcloud was originally to fulfill the niche market of the electronic musicians in Berlin looking for a means of taking criticism before the actual act of distributing their work, but soon musicians all around the world would be using the site as a simple way of publishing their music as an alternative to using a distribution company (Weverbergh). Ian Collingwood, a specialist in the field of user design experience, explains “if you solve a niche problem really well, it’s almost inevitable that you will grow, because the chances are that you’ll solve other people’s problems too,” which is exactly how Soundcloud was able to become so successful (Weverbergh). Rather than applying a traditional business concept to a local area or niche group of people, as many start-ups do, Ljung and Wahlforss applied a niche business concept to the whole world. Soundcloud has evolved immensely since 2008, expanding their offices to London and San Fransisco to focus more on globalization and developing more features to make the website more than the niche they were originally fulfilling (Henry 500).
In addition to the unique waveform display and commenting feature of Soundcloud, the social media integration aspect of the site has helped it become the music streaming and sharing service of the new generation (Henry 500). Similar to social sites like Tumblr and Twitter, Soundcloud allows users to like and repost the music that they enjoy so that it is then viewable on their personal page or their follower’s stream page. In addition to creating a place for users to comment on each other’s content, Soundcloud also allows users to directly message one another (Heibner 34). The stream page, similar to Facebook’s news feed, shows all the music the user and those the user follows has posted or reposted (Henry 500). For those using Soundcloud as a way of finding new music, the reposting tool and stream page is helpful because users can be exposed to the tracks that users with similar music tastes are listening to (34). These features can also be useful for gaining artists traction; if a user with a huge following reposts one’s song, it is then exposed to all of the users who follow them in the same way that if a Twitter account with a large amount of followers posts an artist’s song, it could change the artist’s career forever (34).
Soundcloud is also integrated into social media in a way that most other music services are not, in that it is possible to listen to a track on Soundcloud without actually going to the website itself or having a Soundcloud account (Henry 500). This ability makes it possible for big social media influencers to easily share Soundcloud tracks and give them the potential to blow up, as well as making all of the music on the site extremely accessible to anyone (Heibner 34). In fact, this feature has made Soundcloud one of the most used audio streaming site, with an estimated one-hundred-seventy-five million people interacting with it every month (Henry 499). Beginning with twenty-thousand users the date of its launch, Soundcloud now has around seventy-five million monthly registered users, about the same amount as those registered with Spotify (Smith). Many of those Soundcloud users already have a subscription to a streaming service like Spotify, however, and use Soundcloud to listen to any tracks that aren’t available on other sites, most notably remixes or music by DIY artists that aren’t signed with a distributor (Weverbergh). However, since anyone is allowed to post audio, a lot of users end up posting material that breaks copyright laws, causing Soundcloud to have to find ways to monetize the site, signing licensing deals with labels and find a way to pay out rights holders by putting ads on the free version of the site and making people pay for Soundcloud Go or Soundcloud Pro/ Pro Unlimited (Dredge). Lawsuits against the website put Soundcloud in considerable debt and it could not generate enough revenue to support it. Soundcloud now has deals with over twenty-thousand independent record labels and all three major labels, and it was reported in 2015 that they had paid out two million dollars in royalties (Sisario). According to statistics, it takes 766 plays on the freemium model and 96 on the paid version of Soundcloud to earn an artist one dollar (Resnikoff).
Soundcloud Pro, which is seven dollars a month or sixty-three dollars a year, allows artists double the upload time, detailed user statistics, and the ability to pin certain songs to the top of an artist’s profile as “Spotlight” tracks. The Unlimited version, priced at fifteen dollars a month or one hundred thirty five dollars a year, simply gives more in depth data analysis, unlimited upload time as well as a discount on Soundcloud Go+. Soundcloud Go, the website’s version of Spotify or Apple Music, boasts a track catalogue of 125 million in addition to the ability to listen to music without ads and save tracks for offline listening at the price of five dollars a month. The Go+ version gives listeners over thirty million more “premium” tracks, for a total of 150 million tracks, more than any other streaming service, for ten dollars a month, or two dollars a month if a user is also subscribed to Soundcloud Unlimited (“SoundCloud Pro. More Upload Time, More Stats, More Features.”). Since the website has moved past its initial purpose as a way to share or easily release music and evolved into a steaming service that can compete with huge platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, many question what sets Soundcloud apart from its competitors and why they should use it compared to the alternatives (Dredge).
Soundcloud is largely considered the “Youtube of Audio”, as both platforms allow anyone to upload music or videos and to listen to its media (Weverberg). Many artists launch their careers using these platforms due to their easy accessibility and integration with social media: both Youtube and Soundcloud content can be listened to or watched from other websites like Facebook and the community atmosphere of both and their discussion features allow for listeners to feel actively involved with the content. The difference lies mainly in the fact that Youtube is reserved for video, while Soundcloud is purely audio, though many musicians still use Youtube to publish their tracks and albums largely due to the extremely large audience of the website (Weverberg). Over one and a half billion people use Youtube every month, more than eight a half times Soundcloud’s monthly usage, so there is a chance that one’s music could reach the largest amount of people because of this. However, there are 300 hours of video uploaded to Youtube every minute, as opposed to Soundcloud which has a rate of 12 hours per minute, so there is way more competition on Youtube (Smith). In addition to this, the majority Youtube viewers are not searching for new and listening music, instead they are on the site to watch videos (Gonzalves). Many will not care to listen to an artist’s music unless there is a video for it, and its difficult for unsigned artists to create professional looking videos; in many cases it is a better bet for new artists to stick to a platform that doesn’t require a video format (Gonzalves).
The other self-managed retailer that most new artists go to for posting their music without the help of a music distributor is Bandcamp. While Soundcloud is known to be a site that generally more remix artists, electronic producers, and hip hop musicians go to, Bandcamp is known for housing a strong community of alternative, punk, and any DIY bands with unconventional sounds (Ratliff). The main reason people choose Bandcamp over Soundcloud, though, is because Bandcamp allows artist’s to sell their music and gives the consumer the option to pay what they want for it. According to Bandcamp’s website, music fans have paid a total of $247 million to artists on the platform, way more than that of Soundcloud, making it a much better choice for actually getting paid for recorded work. However, Soundcloud’s unique social media integration features make it way better for finding new music and allows for influencers to promote an artist’s music directly through the website. Band camp artists must rely on other forms of promotion to get people to listen to their music, while it is entirely possible for Soundcloud artists to network and gain traction just from the website itself, although it is doubtful that anyone would have a reason to restrict themselves to that (Ratliff).
For finding new music easily, many turn to the non-interactive streaming radio service Pandora. The platform lets users make radio stations based off of their favorite artists or genres and be recommended new tracks based on what they tell Pandora they like. This type of service is better for those who not devote a lot of time to finding music and depend more on others to show them what may fit their taste. Not everyone knows enough about music to be able to find new artists to their liking, and Pandora fills this role. Soundcloud also works well for stumbling upon fresh music that matches their preferred style, but its interface may be confusing for some who are not music enthusiasts. Pandora is similar to Soundcloud in that it has a paid version that is ad-free, but Pandora Premium doesn’t allow on-demand listening as Soundcloud does, so many will end up using another service like Soundcloud or Spotify if they want to have the choice to listen to anything they want (“Information About Pandora Subscriptions”).
With the evolution of Soundcloud leading to the current iteration, which stands as a noteworthy competitor in the world of streaming services, many wonder if Soundcloud Go can compare with Spotify and reach its level of success. Soundcloud currently has more monthly listeners, 175 million compared to Spotify’s 75 million, so from first glance it looks as if Soundcloud is more successful (Moazed). However, the reason Soundcloud has so many more users is because it is a completely free service and its more accessible than Spotify, meaning anyone can listen to a Soundcloud track without even having an account, but Soundcloud has been unable to turn a profit like Spotify has. However, now that both platforms have both free and paid versions, the differences between the two platforms are becoming minute. Spotify may have more users paying for their subscription, but Soundcloud has more music to offer music listeners, almost 100 million more tracks to be exact (Moazed). Soundcloud also still offers way more features, including the discussion and social aspects which helped make it so successful. A lot of people have been using Spotify in conjunction with Soundcloud to fulfill all of their listening needs, but as Soundcloud Go evolves, more people may choose to consolidate.
In order to learn more about people’s listening habits, I interviewed five college students to find out what platforms people are actually using and why. My first question asked whether they preferred listening to music on digital service providers like Spotify or self-managed retailers like Soundcloud, to which four out of five said DSP’s and specifically said they used Spotify. The fifth person said they listen to music on Youtube, or download music from artist’s websites to listen to in their iTunes player. When I asked if anyone listened to music that is not available on services like Spotify and Apple Music, everyone answered yes, claiming to either use Youtube, Bandcamp, or Soundcloud to listen to local or unsigned artists with self-managed retailers. I also asked whether they used more than one streaming service and why, to which everyone replied that they use at least two services. Some said that they have more than one DSP because of certain exclusive content, for example Apple Music for Endless by Frank Ocean or Tidal for Beyonce’s Lemonade, and others simply said they also require Soundcloud and Bandcamp depending on where unsigned artists, most of whom were specified to be the friends of the focus group, published their music. When asked if they have a preference to which self-managed retailer they would prefer to listen to their friend’s music on, four said Bandcamp and one said Soundcloud, all five giving the reason that it is easier to navigate and listen on that specific website.
Next, I asked the group which platform they feel is the best for discovering new music, which four out of five said was Spotify, the last saying Soundcloud. My next question, asking which is the easiest to navigate was split with three claiming it to be Spotify and the other two saying Youtube and Bandcamp respectively. For my final two questions, I asked that the group imagine that they were an artist planning to release their debut album and had to choose how they wanted it distributed. Everyone said that they would make it available on all platforms, spanning from DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music to self-managed retailers like Soundcloud and Youtube so that it would be accessible to the greatest amount of people possible. Finally, I made them choose between one self-managed retailer to release the album on, which two answered Bandcamp because of the payment features, one said Youtube because it has the largest audience, and one said Soundcloud because they imagine they would be a rapper if they made music, and most rappers publish their music on Soundcloud as opposed to other services.
It was a surprise to see how unpopular Soundcloud was with the focus group: I assumed that most people used Soundcloud and preferred it to other sites mainly because it seemed that most of the unsigned artists I listen to are primarily on Soundcloud. However, Soundcloud’s interface seems to be getting in the way of its success. Some feel that there is too much going on that is distracting the user from easily finding what they want, and it simply isn’t as clean as Spotify. Most agree that Spotify has an interface that is very understandable and logical, and its playlist feature is supremely developed compared to the other platforms, making it stand out as the best choice. Most people in the focus group explained that they listen to Spotify mostly because of the never-ending amounts of playlists available that fit an infinite number of moods and occasions. The ability to listen to one’s friend’s playlists and build playlists with one’s friends has made Spotify extremely successful, as it seems many groups of friends share musical taste or at least want to know what their friends listen to. The fact that the majority of people nowadays, specifically college kids, listen to Spotify makes the playlist feature work all the better. However, most people still need to use other streaming services to fulfill all of their listening habits, and Spotify simply cannot cover all bases. Soundcloud’s interface and inability to create much revenue for artists appears to be getting in the way of it being everyone’s go-to service for artists not on Spotify.
Even if Soundcloud did update its interface to make it more appealing to the public, or somehow changed the payment features to be more like Bandcamp’s, it is unsure whether people will stop using other services and use only Soundcloud. Even though Soundcloud now offers the best of both worlds, allowing an easy way for artists to upload material to the internet as well as give listeners the largest music library available, people simply might not want to stop using Spotify, as all of the playlists they listen to as well as most of their friends are on Spotify and it would just be a hassle to change. At this point, it is difficult to see what would actually make people go through the trouble of switching over to the paid version of Spotify. In order to really get people to change services, Soundcloud Go would have to be offering even more than it already does, and it seems that it simply cannot afford to create all that more given that it has yet to turn a profit (Moazed). Soundcloud is the culmination of what a streaming service can be, allowing easy music publication, innovative social media integration, as well as the largest catalogue of any platform, but that may not be enough to keep it afloat and make people want to actual pay for it. If the paid subscription feature ends up being very unsuccessful, as recent events and threats of bankruptcy have led many people to believe will happen, Soundcloud could potentially not last very much longer.