A Conversation With CEO Kerry Trainor On SoundCloud's Mission & More

The newly hired chief executive discusses SoundCloud Rap, Chance The Rapper & the Premier Partners program.

(AllHipHop Features) Two years ago I wrote a feature article about how SoundCloud’s open community format was leading many creators to prefer the platform as their go-to streaming service to debut new tunes. Since that time, artists such as Lil Uzi Vert, Post Malone, and Khalid have gone from up-and-coming SoundCloud uploaders to Billboard chart regulars.

Chance The Rapper is perhaps the archetype of an indigenous SoundCloud creator becoming a bona fide superstar. What began as an independent emcee adding a free debut mixtape to SC turned into a Grammy-winning career and a coveted hosting gig on Saturday Night Live.

Following the success of Uzi, Post, Chance, and others, fans have even dubbed a new class of performers as “SoundCloud Rappers.” Acts like Lil Pump, XXXTentacion, Tekashi 6ix9ine, and YBN Nahmir currently monopolize the site as Millennials and Gen Z members repeatedly stream the rhymers' songs on the app millions of times a week.

SoundCloud hosts over 165 million tracks, and more than 10 million creators are heard on the platform monthly. The audio service founded by Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss in 2007 has undoubtedly found favor with music lovers and has cemented its place in the modern entertainment lexicon.

While the creative side of SoundCloud seemed to flourish, the financial side faced a public relations nightmare this summer. Reports began to circulate that the business laid off 40% of its workers and it only had enough funding to survive through the fourth quarter of this year.

Not long after those negative headlines had many users and artists worrying about what would happen to the digital music hangout spot, it was announced The Raine Group and Temasek invested a reported $169.5 million into the company. In addition, former Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor was named SoundCloud’s new Chief Executive, replacing Ljung.

I had the chance to speak with Trainor about the state of SoundCloud and its mission to enable creators to connect with worldwide listeners. He also discussed rap’s preeminence on the platform, the Premier Partner program, and the popularity of podcasts.

AllHipHop: Congratulations on the new position as CEO.

Kerry Trainor: Thanks, Yohance. I appreciate it.

AllHipHop: Have you had time to settle into the position?

Kerry Trainor: We’re getting there. I’m excited to be part of the platform. I’ve been a fan for a long time, since before I had the opportunity to join. We’re getting settled in. I completely believe in the mission. It’s an incredibly exciting time at SoundCloud. Particularly for everything that’s happening in Hip Hop.

AllHipHop: I was looking at the Top 30 tracks on SoundCloud’s music chart, and I noticed all of them are Hip Hop/Rap. Why do you think SoundCloud has become such a popular platform for rappers and rap fans?

Kerry Trainor: I think it’s been an incredible few years for Hip Hop in general. We’re excited to be part. SoundCloud’s mission is we’re here to empower creators and give them the tools to build their fan bases and careers on their own terms and connect with a level of immediacy with their fans that’s really only possible through an open platform. We’re all about being first, and SoundCloud is first for creators in terms of where they bring their art to the world. And it’s first for listeners, in that, if you want to discover what’s really new and coming next in music, you come to SoundCloud. That’s why we're incredibly excited to see the huge blowout on the charts this year from Lil Uzi and Post Malone. The artists that are having so much success now started on the platform years ago. The reason is because SoundCloud is the truly open platform where creators can get their start and connect directly with their audience. It’s unlike any of the other streaming services. I think what we’re seeing today is incredible growth and progression of these artists who started on SoundCloud years ago.

AllHipHop: You mentioned how artists like Lil Uzi and Post Malone first started on SoundCloud. Traditionally in Hip Hop, deejays have been the outlets that broke new artists. Do you feel like SoundCloud has replaced that?

Kerry Trainor: I don’t know if it’s replaced that, but it’s certainly provided a new powerful channel for any creator to have access to a global audience. That’s an incredibly powerful effect of technology and the web. So for these creators to be able to start on SoundCloud, develop access to a global audience, develop their following, have that following help spread the word - I wouldn’t say it’s replaced [the deejay]. The impact of great curators can do that as well. But SoundCloud provided a powerful new channel for these artists, and I think they’re taking advantage of it by having this direct connection with their fans when they’re dropping new material, stuff that’s a work in progress, collaborating with each other, and using SoundCloud to its full potential.

AllHipHop: Over the last year or so, there’s been this new subgenre of Hip Hop that’s referred to as “SoundCloud Rap.” Does the company embrace that name for this new generation of artists?

Kerry Trainor: In terms of this group of artists, to me, they are about their immediacy and connection to their audience. The way that they access their audience through SoundCloud speaks to connecting with that fan base without anybody else in the way. Our mission is to provide the tools, the platform, and the environment for creators to do their best work. Then we want to be out of their way. So for us, ["SoundCloud Rap"] encapsulates that. It’s a mission we believe very deeply about, and that’s what we’re in the world to do - empower artists and be that first place where they access their audience and that first place where listeners can find those creators doing incredible things.

AllHipHop: You’ve been talking about how a lot of artists started on SoundCloud then became stars. I noticed that a lot of the top rappers or the most popular ones on the platform at the moment are associated with major labels. But what advice would you give to an indie artist or an up-and-coming artist looking to gain traction on SoundCloud?

Kerry Trainor: I think in terms of choosing SoundCloud to be that first place, there are lots of different approaches, and that’s what is exciting about it. Whether creators choose to put a work-in-progress out, start with mixtapes or smaller EPs, or collaborate with other artists, there are tons of ways to start to build traction. Whether an artist chooses to go with a major label or a label of any size is totally their option. I think it’s a great path and makes sense for some artists. Then you also have incredible creators like Chance [The Rapper] who chooses to stay independent, continue to use SoundCloud, and demonstrate that’s a viable path as well. I think the key for artists starting out is to get that immediate feedback from your audience. You can post on SoundCloud and get those first few comments, shares, and likes. This isn’t a one-way pipe. This is about a two-way experience between the creator and the audience. It starts by getting that feedback and using SoundCloud to build those first interactions. That’s what it’s all about.

AllHipHop: You mentioned Chance. He’s been a very outspoken supporter of SoundCloud. He even gave you guys a shout out at an Awards show. How involved is he with the company? There were reports that he is helping the development of SoundCloud or helping financially.

Kerry Trainor: Chance is an incredible creator. We love that he chooses SoundCloud to be the place to bring his art to the world. I’ve been in touch with him and his team multiple times since I’ve joined. We’re really excited to support him in any way we can, and he’s been incredibly supportive of SoundCloud as well. So we’re excited to continue to do things together in the future.

AllHipHop: Another artist I thought about is Russ. He uploaded a song to SoundCloud [a week]. He even called himself the “King of SoundCloud." How do you think his rise on the platform impacted other artists in the way they use SoundCloud?

Kerry Trainor: I think it’s another example that there are so many different approaches. That’s another powerful thing about SoundCloud which is you don’t have to release tracks, albums, or anything in prepackaged shapes or sizes. You can do it in whatever way which suits your creative vision and suits your connection with your audience. Whether it’s multiple tracks at once, whether it’s spread out, whether it’s about collaborations, whether it’s about remixes - it’s really whatever the creator chooses to do. I think every example of pushing the boundaries of the formats, shapes, and sizes of tracks that ultimately reaches the audience is incredible. That’s one of the things that makes the platform totally about free expression of the creator.

AllHipHop: Another way Hip Hop fans interact with SoundCloud is by following podcasts like The Brilliant Idiots, The Read, Bodega Boys, and The Joe Budden Podcast. They’ve become an important part of our culture. How valuable has the podcast community been for SoundCloud?

Kerry Trainor: Podcasting is a huge part of SoundCloud. It’s not as large as the music side, but we are one of the largest hosting platforms for podcasts in the world. It’s something that we continue to hear great feedback on. We’ll absolutely be developing something as we move forward, so stay tuned for more to come on the podcast front. We’re doing more for creators there as well as making podcasts easier to find and consume alongside your favorite music.

AllHipHop: Can you give information about the Partners program? What’s the status of that?

Kerry Trainor: SoundCloud Premier is something we’re really excited to expand. This is a program where artists can have a direct revenue sharing relationship with us. If they decide not to go the route of a major label deal or a publishing deal, they can work directly with us to get a share of the revenue associated with their music. So we support hundreds of artists today, and those artists receive millions of dollars in revenue sharing from SoundCloud. We’re excited to expand that in the future.

AllHipHop: So right now it’s limited to certain artists?

Kerry Trainor: We set up the first round and, like I said, we have hundreds of artists in the program. We’re excited to expand that and build out some of the tools so we can open that up to more artists.

AllHipHop: There’s been some concern about the future of SoundCloud. Can you reassure the public that the platform is stable?

Kerry Trainor: We would love to reassure the public that SoundCloud is 100% here to stay. The deal that we did over the summer fully capitalizes the company so we could keep it independent and make sure we have the resources we need to build out this awesome platform for serving creators. So that mission of empowering creators and being the first place that they come to build their careers and the first place the listeners discover them is absolutely here to stay. The company is in great shape from an investment perspective. That’s why I’m incredibly excited to be part of it, and I look forward to the next chapter.

Follow SoundCloud on Twitter @SoundCloud and Instagram @soundcloud.

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