The demise of SoundCloud

gramophone

They listen to the gramophone, Makovsky

The winter of 2005 was not easy. I was a sophomore in college, taking a heavy courseload, with a scholarship contingent on grades, and finals were right around the corner. I was also working two jobs. It was cold and dark in State College, Pennsylvania. My roommate and I didn’t get along - she wrote a public blog post detailing everything that annoyed her about me, including the fact that I was a loud chewer. And, in the dining hall, where I went to chew from that point on, they ran out of my favorite salad dressing. I was in a Very Bad Place. But there was a way out.

I called my parents and asked them for a $150 so I could buy an iPod. This was the 5th generation iPod Classic - the first one to have a colored screen. At the time, they were $299. But, I had a student discount, and I already had a whopping $80 saved up - I didn’t work two jobs for nothing. The unbridled joy and potential I felt holding the bag on the way home from the computer center was superlative.

The excitement of unboxing it, setting it up, and now having all of my music with me instead of having to carry around my Walkman and a case full of CDs, saved me that semester. The iPod had 30 GB of space, and I loaded over 20 CDs and whatever was on my laptop onto it. I used about 10 GB of it initially.

That winter, as I trudged to class in the sleet and freezing rain, the iPod lay weighty and substantial in my pocket. I didn’t even have to take it out - I only had to feel for the click wheel, and I was on to the next song.

I listened to it everywhere on campus, and on the hour-and-a-half drive to and from Penn State to my house. What I loved about the iPod was that not only was it always there for me, but it contained the personalized, randomzied weirdness of my taste in music.

Music has always been an important part of my life. In high school, I once gave out a mix cd of my favorite music as a party favor so people could listen to what I loved and feel the same way I felt. I’d always been a weird kid, on the fringes of pop culture, so this album, in addition to Backstret Boys, also included songs from 1776, “Red and Black” from Les Miserables, and Adriano Celentano. I believe there was also a yodel song, because my family had recently gone to Switzerland and the Alps made a deep impact on my psyche.

The next day after the party, one of my friends came up to me. “My mom turned on the CD in the car on the way home and thought you were crazy,” because what I had compiled was just so random. Back then, being a fan of music that was outside of the mainstream was hard. And, it took a long time to collect all of that music. Being weird was also extremely lonely. When my friend told me that her mom thought my music was weird, I became extremely embarrassed and didn’t share my music with anyone for years and years.

In addition to whatever was on the radio, I listened to Russian rock from the 70s, Persian pop, French superhits, late-90s Russian techno, and Bollywood.

My iPod was always there, eager, game for anything (except Cyrillic characters), and it was all right there at my fingertips, or more accurately, at my scroll wheel.

The ways I’ve hoarded this music have changed considerably over the last 20 years. I’ve gone from making mix tapes to Ace of Base tapes in my parents’ basement, to Backstreet Boys/NSync mixes that I burned on my Pentium PC, to Russian techno on new-fangled MP3 format that I got from Napster, competing with our modem for bandwidth, waiting for the completion bar to make its way from red to green, then to streaming services like Grooveshark.

Every time I made my way to a new way of consuming music, lugging my library behind me, every previous format crumbled. Sometimes, it was because of technological advancements in computer storage. But after the technology got to the point where it was easy to make copies of songs, the music industry started falling behind. Every time a good way of keeping copies of all the world’s music came around, the music industry scrambled for a way to monetize it.

They never could - they were up against a fundamental impedance mismatch between their interests: control and exclusivity on their platform, and what the internet demanded, which was music, and lots of it, available right now, and for free. They couldn’t meet in the middle to find a business model that was a good compromise.

Napster folded. Limewire folded. Just as I was getting excited about Grooveshark, it collapsed, brought to its knees by lawsuits.

Even as all these services collapsed, the music industry bloomed. Suddenly, I was not the only one listening to semi-obscure stuff. Pitchfork really came alive during this time. Weird, independent artists like Amanda Palmer and Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men that never would have succeeded before the virality of the internet gained huge followings. The very European genres of techno and EDM ballooned in popularity.

As much as I loved pop music, it was a welcome break from the monotonous sameness of the American pop charts.

And then, around 2012, I started seeing songs embedded into websites in a slick orange media box. When you played the song, people’s reaction to that immediate second would pop up on the screen. The songs featured on this service were new, different, unique. There were male covers of Whitney Houston songs. There were long, thoughtful mixes of music I could program to. There were indie artists I’d never hear on the radio. There was Kygo, who brought something completely new to music.

This was SoundCloud - a service that made it easy to upload self-made musical content and get it seen by lots of people. There was the usual mishmash of top 40s hits and techno and rap, but SoundCloud’s goal was to offer a platform to independent artists. What SoundCloud was really good at was original content - rap, house, covers. On SoundCloud, you could find popular songs that never get seen on YouTube or heard on the radio - like the immensely danceable-to Drinkee by Sofi Tukker, this creepy-smooth cover of Pumped-Up Kicks, and my toddler’s favorite Snow Waltz.

It generated so much good, worthwhile content that it became a “hugely popular culturally important service” in the course of several years.

Listening to Soundcloud made me feel like I was in on a secret, at a party where I was finally an insider, sunglasses on, listening to Mayer Hawthorne (“What? You’ve never heard of Mayer Hawthorne?”) instead of a lonely mad scientist creating Frankenstein mixes in my basement. And, this time, I wasn’t alone: other people were listening to the same music and love it just as much as me.

Just like the little metallic brick in my pocket, steady and reliable, SoundCloud has been there for me. If the iPod was the companion of my college years and the “Music” folder on my phone was my early 20s, SoundCloud carried me through to 30. It was there through countless hours as I learned to write code, playing quiet, unobtrusive lounge music,, the background to house parties we hosted in the new house we bought, and the soundtrack of countless hours in the car, driving with a brand-new baby in the car seat, praying she would fall asleep to Kygo.

Soundcloud has been the soundtrack of my life for the last five years. How do you make money from something that gives people an essential joy?

Several years ago, recognizing how important it was to me, I made an impassioned plea that SoundCloud needed to start monetizing in a way that made sense, before they lost what they had.

At the time, I wrote,

I’ve been pretty angry with SoundCloud lately.

Ever since I discovered SoundCloud, I’ve really enjoyed listening to it to find music that’s never played on the radio. It’s particularly good for amazing remixes of songs you think you’ve heard a million times, for ambient programming music, and for electronic, pop, and folk songs from artists no one has ever heard of.

SoundCloud is so good that I’m willing to pay $10 a month (much more than I’m willing to pay for Spotify, which has a good popular catalog but not the same depth of original music as SoundCloud) so I don’t have to hear ads. So, I optimistically thought they might go to a subscription model and preserve the good momentum they already had going.

As is par for the course in corporate maneuvering, nothing happened for months and months and I continued listening to SoundCloud at home, in the office, and in my car, without any interruptions. And, I continued to find joy in this random, obscure stuff that people were creating because they were on a platform where they were free to experiment with formats without record labels and ad agencies listening in.

Then, the ads started. I’ve heard an anti-smoking ad about 10 times now. Given that I’m currently not paying anything for SoundCloud, I’m ok with ads. I’m the product. But after a few weeks, they became repetitive, extremely annoying, and disruptive, and again, I wondered why SoundCloud, whose audience is made up mostly of music connoisseurs who would gladly pay for service, didn’t consider how annoying these ads would be.

As soon as Soundcloud started offering a paid service, my husband and I signed up for monthly memberships. I went to artist pages to see if I could buy their tracks on Apple Music. I sent everyone I knew to SoundCloud. But, none of that was enough. Earlier this summer, SoundCloud laid off 40% of its staff, and there is talk that SoundCloud could shutter as early as this week, even though the CEO has sworn up and down that this is not the case.

The problem here, of course, is a combination of the predatory nature of the dying music industry, still unwilling to come to a compromise, and the rising predatory nature of venture capitalism, which expected to see phenomenal growth and solid monetization strategy. But good things don’t scale. Which is why CD Baby, an important part of the eclectic music ecosystem remains tiny.

NYMag notes that,

SoundCloud ‘‘was very much built in the dot-com-era mentality of building an audience and then finding a way to make money,’’ Mark Mulligan, a music-industry analyst, told me. SoundCloud struggled to monetize the service.

The platforms that have often been the most effective at generating lasting digital culture — images, ideas, videos, memes — have often struggled to find a sustainable business model.

Maybe, music can’t find a startup-based business model. It hasn’t yet, so after all. The struggle between control and sharing continues.

But, music is so important. It’s a uniting force in society, and it provides the soundtrack to our memories as we go about our lives. Everyone has a song they remember at a specific point in time. It fuels social gatherings, weddings, funerals, and sometimes just a lazy Sunday. Recognizing and following music is what separates us from other mammals. Music is a key part of the human experience.

But our current online music models are doing nothing to preserve that, meaning that, like digital services in the past, SoundCloud could completely vanish overnight, taking hundreds of thousands of hours of human effort and enjoyment with it, something even the Internet Archive can’t save.

The New York Times recently noted the same thing, wondering what happens when a culture dies:

What happens when we value something dearly as a society but the economics don’t work out?

Even now, the site houses a large pool of musicians, many of them unsigned, who are part of international music cultures that largely do not exist anywhere else online. It could mean the erasure of a decade of internet sound culture, says Jace Clayton, a musician and the author of ‘‘Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.’’

For now, I, and many others, are still listening to SoundCloud every day until it shuts down, looping through favorites, saving tracks, putting out the last piece of music, logging in every day like it’s the last.. But, going to soundcloud.com these days is not unlike visiting someone with a terminal illness.

They look like they’re hanging on, but you know that something vague and dark is looming around the corner. I’m worried that, for internet music culture, what’s coming is the loss of a place that offered innumerable avenues for creativity, for enjoyment, for discovery of music that couldn’t and wouldn’t be created anywhere else. And, like everyone who has ever invested enough emotion in an online space long enough to make it their own, I’m wondering what’s next.

Written on August 11, 2017