Some of the best ideas are also the simplest. And there are few things more simple than SoundCloud, which in its seven year existence has sneakily become one of the best things online. How'd it get there? Slowly, surely, and with a cadre of artists as diverse as the internet itself.
SoundCloud is to music in 2014 what MySpace was to bands in 2004. Except, you know, without all the blingee bullshit. You can upload all the sounds you want, follow people to listen to the sounds they're posting, and save or repost them. It's music interaction and discovery distilled to its purest form, home to just as many famous artists as ones that will be soon. It's as close to indispensable as you get on the internet today.
That's why it was so troubling when rumours began to circulate that Twitter was thinking about buying SoundCloud. Fortunately those purported talks were suspended, because SoundCloud is by and large one of the rare pure and good things on the internet that the world, in an artistic sense, would be worse off without.
SoundCloud is more than just backyard indie musicians looking to be discovered. Want to find a new track from your favourite underground rapper? More and more often, you'll find it first SoundCloud. Want to hear the latest from Beyonce or Drake? Also SoundCloud. It's where music lands before it lands on Spotify, before it hits iTunes, before anywhere else at all. It's home to multi-platinum recording artists, random kids recording beats in their bedroom, and everyone in between.
What makes SoundCloud so special is that offers a tool for musicians to create and distribute their art on a level playing field. Make a song, post it on SoundCloud — no expensive record deal or distribution plan required. Every minute, 12 hours of new music is uploaded to the service. So, unsurprisingly it's pretty generous with space. Up to two hours of uploaded content is free, four hours is $US55/year, and unlimited space for $US135/year. For most people that means SoundCloud is free to use and free to enjoy, another increasingly rare find.
That accessibility is what makes SoundCloud a no-holds-barred spot for artists to plop all their sounds, without frill or folly. It's a no-brainer. Within that idea is perhaps why SoundCloud has blown up in the past couple of years, now nearing 300 million users, up from 200 million last July. That popularity's not hard to explain; when you build a platform for musicians, who are naturally inclined to promote themselves, your product gets promoted in the process. Everyone wins!
"I've been doing this for a little bit and I've tried a number of sites and this is really the only one that worked," André Allen Anjos of R.A.C. said to Gizmodo."The main thing that first got me into it was actually the amount of tracks you could put up. It seems like a given nowadays but when I was doing this even in 2008, and there were very few sites where you could upload all your music and I had a good bit of it. That's what initially drew me to it, but it ended up being a really great community for my style of music and the sort of weird electronic crossover things."
Build a place for music to live and breath, and music will grow in ways you couldn't imagine. That's exactly what is happening on SoundCloud.
"SoundCloud is where music culture happens on the web. It's where it originates," CTO and co-founder Eric Wahlforss told Gizmodo.
The Ultimate Mix Tape
He's absolutely right. We're in an exciting, genre-busting era of music, thanks to an environment in which artists of all styles can connect through some fibres and tubes. And where they're doing it most is on SoundCloud. Artists you wouldn't traditionally think of as collaborating are coming together.
In 2012, Snoop Dogg discovered Polish artist Iza Lach via SoundCloud. He was so interested in what he heard, he flew out to Poland, recorded what Wahlforss said was "nearly a hundred" songs, and ultimately signed her to his label. If you go to Snoop's SoundCloud page today, you'll see him reposting tracks from all kinds of other artists you've probably never heard of. It's not to say that every artist on SoundCloud is good, but established artists are finding ones that are.
Take the case of Beyonce's surprise album, which dropped back in December. Several tracks on the album were produced by Boots, an artist who was largely unknown until he revealed to the internet that he had been working on Mrs. Carter's album. When the internet was in a rush to identify who Boots was, where did they turn? His SoundCloud page, which was peppered with references to tracks that ultimately ended up on Beyonce. Point being, you might know nothing about an artist, but you can almost definitely check out his or her SoundCloud page to get a quick sense of what they're about. Fast forward to about six months later, and Boots is dropping his own excellent mixtape. It's unclear whether Beyonce found originally him on SoundCloud, but the platform was undoubtedly a part of the equation.
Boots may fall within the lines of electronic, and Beyonce, R&B or pop. Snoop Dogg is rap, sure. And Iza Lach is something else entirely. That these artists are working together is indicative of the new genre lines that are being drawn and demolished, sometimes within the same track.
"There's all these different genres and new things popping up every day. It's kind of hard to keep up with but it's been interesting to see that unfold on SoundCloud," R.A.C. says. "I remember actually 2009 or 2010 when dubstep was kinda becoming a thing, SoundCloud was there and sort of at the center of it. But not just dubstep. Plenty of other genres — the latest resurgence of deep house and that sort of thing I feel like it was in many ways fuelled by that. Nowadays I see it moving not just toward electronic music but everybody."
There's a massive music map that's growing out on SoundCloud. Says Sam Sawyer, marketing head of popular indie label Subpop:
"[Subpop artist] Washed Out is one of the chill-wavest bands ever, which was a subgenre that didn't exist before the internet, before people could share, before fans could find these things. You know there are Witch House bands and all the weird subgenres. EDM has evolved in a way that never would have been possible before the internet. I definitely don't think that would have been possible without using services like SoundCloud. It's definitely changed the landscape of how music is created and kind of opened the door for getting weird or finding people all over the world who share your love for, you know whatever weird subgenre of 70s South American disco and totally extrapolating off that and creating some crazy new amalgamation that no one's really heard of."
Getting the Word Out
Discovery is one of those dumb internet words that gets repeated until it loses all meaning, but on SoundCloud it actually matters. Mad Decent frontman and producer Diplo has the page DiploApproved, where he consistently posts tracks from people you've probably never heard of. But he feels that you should, so he's posting them to share a little piece of the pie. He's not alone in this sentiment. R.A.C. says he does the same.
"Obviously as my career builds I want to bring my friends along and with this repost thing I can give them a piece of my audience. It's not all on me but I have a friend's band called Speak and I've known them for a long time and I just reposted some of their tracks and on their SoundCloud and other social media things are starting to move."
Reposting, commenting on portions of tracks, etc. Great, easy features that make SoundCloud a natural tool to use. But there was another word that consistently popped up in conversations I had about SoundCloud: embeddability. SoundCloud embeds on Twitter, Facebook, this website, any website, and anywhere else really. Click on your favourite music blog, or any blog for that matter. SoundCloud is everywhere. As it should be. But that was always part of the plan, as Wahlforss said:
"The way you can interact, became important that it could be part of the fabric of the web everywhere. Also you have a great degree of control as a creator of what you publish and how you publish it and you can sort of spread it around in a way that enables virality."
SoundCloud's omnipresence has caused a bit of an industry-wide strategy shift.
"Before SoundCloud existed we did the same thing when we're promoting an album essentially, it's just easier now," Sawyer said. "We used to host our own tracks and our own downloads on our website maybe eight years ago, and we would direct people there but in a much more passive way. It was pre-MySpace, people had to be much more proactive in terms of how they discovered music, and they would have to seek it out. And now you know, we kind of push it into people's feeds via Soundcloud."
The only catch? Nothing good stays free — or at least not ad-free — forever. SoundCloud told Gizmodo that figuring out that dirty little word "monetization" is one of its next struggles, but it's an issue they're not taking lightly. And the Twitter overture, even though it seemingly didn't pan out, was a stark reminder that unless SoundCloud figures out how to become profitable, it may suffer the same fate as any number of promising services that get gobbled up by a bigger fish and disappear.
We've heard from some music industry sources that SoundCloud is working with major labels on licensing deals, and from others that it has a pre-roll ad model, similar to YouTube, in the works. Hopefully that will be enough. There is a lot of good happening in music right now; interesting artists popping up, genres being created, rules changed. And the bigger SoundCloud gets, the more possible those evolutions will become, one mixtape at a time.