Overrun by bots, product “enhancements” nobody wanted and maybe the most poisonous customer relations strategy in the tech industry today –
So why would anyone “mourn” SoundCloud? The service is still there, and isn’t going anywhere, but magazines and websites have been filled with early obituaries after the company shitcanned 173 staff (out of 420 – legalize it!) and closed half of their offices. Founder Alex Ljung said in a rather tone deaf blog post that the company had doubled its revenue in the last year but needed to cut staff to chase profitability, which SoundCloud (somewhat surprisingly to outsiders) has never achieved. That’s a huge headcount that’s been lopped off, to say nothing of closing the San Francisco office. A tech firm without a San Francisco office is sort of like an international bank without a New York branch.
The decision to close SoundCloud isn’t Alex’s choice to make, of course, and it never has been and it won’t be in the future. SoundCloud has been funded for all of its unprofitable existence by investors who in some cases placed bets nearly 10 years ago on a company that was originally in the business of providing “audio widgets” for websites. That was an eternity ago, when SoundCloud was described as “a YouTube for music.”
SoundCloud has been staggering, walking a zig-zag path like a zombie with a round of bullets in its head.
These people call the shots, and brands don’t just disappear in our current stage of marketing-driven capitalism. “Motown” has been mothballed and dusted off several times since it ceased being an independent record label and became an “intellectual property” owned, several mergers and buyouts later, by Universal Music Group. Brands are forever, until they’re not. The Spinner gets bought by AOL and then one day its vaporized, it’s just not there anymore, the server unplugged and the link takes you to something weird called “AOL Radio.”
SoundCloud has been staggering, walking a zig-zag path like a zombie with a round of bullets in its head, from business model to business model since it was founded ten years ago. Originally aimed at music creators – its revenue generated mostly from musicians, producers and DJs paying a few bucks a month for storage and bandwidth for their tunes – it has now reshaped itself as yet another “streaming platform” aimed at the hundreds of millions of people who supposedly want to listen to shitty remixes of D’Angelo on their phone. This wasn’t necessarily by choice: One by one all the other arguments for SoundCloud’s continued existence have been made obsolete or done better by competitors, until only music streaming for the masses was left.
Most of the published laments are not about SoundCloud’s reinvention from a great platform for new music creators into a third-rate streaming service, but the legacy that remains – almost unseen by the masses now – of those early days, when interesting music makers dropped random songs (sometimes in demo form) on the service and let the people find it. Central to this legacy is what the industry has dubbed “music discovery.” It’s hard to define, but the problem of music discovery has driven many of the industry changes over the last decade – a problem best outlined by the question: How do you find music you’re not looking for?
SoundCloud was great for that. You could hear about an artist and instantly dive into not just their posted discography but often a bunch of rough tracks, unofficial remixes – and then you could browse and discover the music they liked, shared and listened to.
But the nature of music discovery is always changing. Years ago, notoriously jagoff employees at record stores were the gateway to music for a lot of kids who had no idea what existed outside of the shit on AOR radio stations. The record store as the engine of music discovery seemed irreplaceable – how can you just take that institutional knowledge of clerks and their collective centuries of music digging and replace it? – until it was… replaced. I’m not going to argue that the gorge of Napster was better (I long every day for some record store employee to laugh at my taste and suggest something better), but a whole bunch of people – millions – found it far more efficient.
Blogs replaced music critics at Rolling Stone and your local alternative weekly in breaking new records and new artists. A bunch of music startups dedicated entirely to “music discovery” have come, been hailed by the internet as solving that intractable “problem of music discovery” and then vanished, sometimes without even the dignity of a redirected link.
By now we’re on our fourth or fifth reinvention of “music discovery,” and it’s being driven by the tech industry itself: Spotify playlists, AppleMusic curated lists and so on. Again, nobody’s going to argue that this is better than SoundCloud. But it’s more efficient, and most people have found it solved their problem of finding new music to listen to when doing something else more important than scrolling through Mixmag posts for shitty “premieres.”
Music discovery being taken over by Spotify and Apple is a problem for SoundCloud, which is running out of reasons for being considered a relevant player in the industry. SoundCloud is not a place to store music files, and it’s truly awful as one to distribute them for free. Looking to make a widget to post on Twitter? There are a billion other sites to do that. Host your mixes? Same, and many of them won’t take your money and kick you off the service for posting them. Without music discovery, SoundCloud is increasingly what it looks like on the surface: a third rate version of Spotify (with the shittiest search engine in existence strapped on to boot).
The most frustrating thing about SoundCloud’s demise has been how predictable it was. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out their problems. SoundCloud itself had figured out its problems, and then threw that solution away.
In the early days of video, YouTube managed to capture the majority of the market by allowing anyone with an email address to upload whatever they wanted. One of YouTube’s competitors, Vimeo, recognized they couldn’t possibly compete with a free site owned by advertising giant Google, but they did have a passionate community of filmmakers, artists and users. They’re supported by these creators now, and have established a small, distinctive and some allege profitable niche.
Vimeo also offers Video-on-Demand, often of small documentaries and niche films. If SoundCloud had remained an artist-centered service, it would have been trivial to add an on-site “Buy” link and take 10% of all paid downloads for themselves. But they decided not to. Bandcamp did. One of those two companies is profitable – the one not called “SoundCloud.”
Moreover, SoundCloud already had a paying userbase who loved the service (and their credit cards on file). And then they fucked them. They introduced lax sign-up procedures to allow bots to take over the system to inflate user statistics, denigrating the experience for their creators. They chased after the masses, and they’re still playing catch-up a million miles behind Apple and Spotify. The “Vimeo approach” would have required SoundCloud to clean up their act in regard to copyright – but they did this anyway, and would have had to no matter what fork in the road they chose. Sadly, they chose wrong.
If music discovery is taken over by Spotify & Apple too, there really isn’t any reason for SoundCloud to exist other than as the sum of its constituent parts, which is to say a big database of music and a much smaller database of people’s credit card numbers. Whatever “love” we feel for websites, that’s ultimately what they are. Even if they’re sold to someone like Universal Music Group and re-launch as a site “like Spotify, except more expensive and only with our music” until there’s no longer any point, and someone turns out the lights and it all disappears.