SoundCloud matters because artists and labels depend on discovery

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of resentment, in my social media feed, at least, directed at SoundCloud. That may be because the service as originally launched was aimed mainly at small-scale file sharing, and bears little resemblance to the much larger, more public-facing service that evolved after round upon round of investment.

Or maybe it came from the confusion generated by takedown notices. There, the motivation is easy to understand, if misplaced. It’s the same logic that causes people to yell angrily at an airline desk clerk, even if what’s to blame is a complex logistical structure that’s outside that individual’s control. So, yeah, you can try to tell people that SoundCloud is obligated to a complex structure of rights owners and legal obligations. But they’d rather just turn to Twitter to gripe that their DJ mix was taken down.

And certainly I know that SoundCloud, juggling expanding listening audience with serving a dedicated base of users, hasn’t always treated its loyal customers in such a way that makes them feel good about that relationship.

But leaving that aside, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what SoundCloud, right now, presents to the community of music producers, artists, labels, and DJs.

SoundCloud gives us control, data, and above all, an audience.

Control and data matter – and here’s why I can’t fathom why many people will gripe loudly about SoundCloud but ignore Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and the like. SoundCloud is the only major unlimited streaming service that gives individual artists real-time control over the audio that appears. (The closest equivalent is, indeed, Bandcamp, but it’s a stretch to view Bandcamp as a streaming site, so much as a store that lets you optionally stream your collection.)

On top of that control, SoundCloud is also the least expensive service that allows collecting widespread data on listeners. I can right now look back at my data back to 2008, and see not only who listened, but where – essential if I want to think about promotion and touring. Mere mortals don’t have anything like this data on Spotify or Apple Music.

Now, to either of those points, you could certainly run your own server, and have all the control and data you want. And indeed, in the midst of this conversation, we should absolutely be talking about that course – especially as the readers of CDM tend to be more technically adept at such things than average musicians. (Running servers and making websites is the day job for a whole lot of people here.)

But that brings us to audience.

The very things people criticize about SoundCloud’s growth trajectory – that it invested huge amounts of money to expand – are exactly what makes it so useful to a lot of us.

I can watch this in my own statistics. While a popular embedded player does indeed generate enormous amount of plays, a lot more do come from SoundCloud itself.

That’s fairly easy to understand. What SoundCloud has done since 2008 is to build a set of tools that increase engagement on its site. That engagement turns out to be good for musicians, because unlike on sites like Facebook, more engagement leads people to listen to more music – our music. So whereas engagement on social media would otherwise stocking up on fake news, posting pictures of cats and babies, and getting into endless arguments with trolls (or arguing about the value of SoundCloud), people heavily using SoundCloud are listening to music.

And a lot of that music – an enormous part – comes from independent artists. Even with major artists, it often includes material outside record releases. People listening to those major artists are also exposed to independent artists.

SoundCloud have been making this argument for some time, but of course, they’re biased. The thing is, you can actually see all of these tools when you use the site.

SoundCloud exposes you to new music in the feed you see when you log in – allowing friends’ tastes to propagate. And it has uncommonly clever algorithms for finding and playing related music when you’re listening, now on both mobile and desktop.

I’ve found an extraordinary number of DJs, for instance, who say they find new music they wouldn’t have found otherwise by listening to those related tracks.

Anecdotally, I can say this is what continues to draw so many users to SoundCloud. People upload music there because otherwise it doesn’t get heard.

Now, does this mean all this consolidation is a good thing? No, not necessarily. But if you’re going to talk about alternatives, those alternatives have got to serve some of the same functions.

But there seems to be two fundamentally different questions to ask. One goes something like this:

1. “Artists deserve to get paid. How do we pay them?”

2. “How do I get people to find and listen to my music?”

The problem is, question 1 makes an enormous leap. It assumes that because artists ethically, theoretically, ought to be paid, then the question is simply how to disperse money. That’s absurdly simplistic and, frankly, naive. Poets also might ethically deserve to be paid, but almost no one who sits down and starts writing poetry finds money suddenly flooding in their door. And if they don’t, it isn’t necessarily because some greedy capitalists stole the money before it arrived. If they didn’t have an audience of people paying for their work, there was no money to begin with.

Always-on subscriptions have indeed depleted the value of music, but it’s hard to imagine SoundCloud, with its catalog of mostly independent music, as the source of the problem. The low perceived value of a monthly subscription is clearly the work of services like Spotify, in their ad-supported and cut-rate subscription fees. (Spotify wasn’t first, but most successful – and Apple effectively dismantled their download store in order to compete.)

So people are fond of saying the “blockchain” is a solution. It’s not. Using blockchain technology to decentralize payment collection could be the basis of new solutions for music, but the technology itself only solves the problem of how artists get paid for plays in a decentralized context. The question of how to then make music available around the Web and on mobile, and how people can then share that music, and how listeners can discover music, are all important questions that aren’t answered simply by talking about how to track plays and collect money.

The reality is, a lot more of an artist’s life is spent solving question #2, to the point that invariably it involves investing money, not collecting it. Artists will spend upwards of hundreds of bucks at a fairly low level just to pay for a PR agency, potentially spend thousands of dollars pressing vinyl at a loss, spend money on press photos and, these days, buy ads on Facebook just to get attention.

SoundCloud, meanwhile, gives you some tools to significantly increase audience for free, adding additional features for a few bucks a month. And you retain control of your music and data all the while. SoundCloud even promises that soon you will see some share of their revenue earned on subscriptions and advertising, though we’ve yet to see that in reality.

The loss of SoundCloud could cost a great deal more than that in lost attention. Now, indeed, that itself might be the best possible argument for decentralization. Our dependence on SoundCloud is also its worst liability.

But whatever some trolls online say, let’s be honest with ourselves about what it is we’re dependent on. SoundCloud created an enormous centralized place for people to listen to music. They build a large scale audience for us. And at this point, the one thing independent music can’t lose afford to lose is more audience. Talking about how artists get paid is important. But if no one’s listening to our music, that discussion is purely academic.

And my concern remains: if costs of running a centralized services outpace revenue, we could lose this relatively recent audience – one that has produced a lot of value for artists. That revenue and cost expectation wasn’t set by SoundCloud in the first place: it’s a combination of rates the industry has set and the amount people want to pay for monthly listener subscriptions. Advertising could offset that, but listeners and producers have indicated they don’t like obvious advertising.

For their part, SoundCloud continue to say they can solve all this. In absence of an alternative of significant scale that serves musicians, I continue to hope they’re right.

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