“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” wrote science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in Profiles of the Future. The very idea that man has the capability to record sound would have been seen as magical just two centuries ago.
Since that time, sound recording devices have evolved from the phonautograph to the iPhone, and the method in which we listen to our favorite tunes has advanced rapidly in the span of just two generations.
In the late 1980’s consumers changed their music buying habits from purchasing cassette tapes to compact discs. Then in the 2000’s consumers shifted from picking up CDs at the store to downloading MP3s on their computer. As society arrives in the middle of the Twenty-Tens, it appears consumers are done with downloading and have decided simply streaming music is the way to go.
2014 saw streaming increase by 54% while total album sales dropped 11%. That transition had such a major effect on the music business Billboard incorporated streaming totals into the sales calculations for its album chart for the first time last year.
Of course listeners now have numerous platforms to access streaming, but SoundCloud has become the preferred space for many music lovers. The 8-year-old Berlin-based website now reaches over 300 million people worldwide and topped 175 million monthly unique listeners in 2014. But in reality, SoundCloud is more than just a streaming site - it’s an open community.
“I think that’s the great thing about SoundCloud. It's a platform where anyone can open an account and upload content,” says Megan West, Director of Content Relations at SoundCloud. “It’s this ecosystem where everyone has the ability to create and get their content out there to the masses.”
While SoundCloud is well-known for both major label musicians and up-and-coming performers using the site to deliver music, the platform is also home to other types of audio content such as podcasts, audiobooks, and interviews. The company refers to its content providers as “creators,” signifying the artistic power is in the hands of the individuals that upload the material. SoundCloud just serves as the conduit for the creators to reach the public.
Soul superstar D’Angelo recently returned to the music scene with a new album after a 14 year hiatus. Even though the site was not around when he dropped his last project, the singer-songwriter used SoundCloud to introduce the Black Messiah track “Sugah Daddy.” Fellow R&B crooner Miguel shocked fans as well when he uploaded his surprise 3-track EP to SoundCloud in December.
“D’Angelo is one great example. Miguel also recently uploaded his last EP,” West points out. “In terms of just trying to get in front of an audience, we see a lot of artists - whether big or small - coming to the platform because of the community that’s there and the ability to get their music where their fans are.”
A social media tie-in allows creators and followers to quickly share content across networks like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Google Plus. The new Twitter Audio Card makes it possible to experience SoundCloud directly on the Twitter application. Users can even dock the audio card and listen to the music as they continue to read other tweets.
The Soundcloud embed feature provides the ability to place content on outside websites, and with the smartphone app users can upload files as well as stream music directly from mobile devices. Users can also repost the material from their favorite creators to their own SoundCloud timeline.
It all comes together to establish an online network reminiscent of real life friend interactions. No matter the technology used to distribute the music, word-of-mouth has always been the most effective promotional tactic.
“One of the things I get really excited about with music - and I think we all do - is the idea that when you find something that really speaks to you, you want to tell somebody about it,” adds West. “One of the beauties of Soundcloud is that you can do that. And not only within the Soundcloud community, but you can use the tools to spread it and interact with the platform through social media.”
While SoundCloud was originally favored by EDM acts, Hip Hop has fully embraced the platform. In fact, rap enthusiasts have gone all in on the concept of streaming in lieu of buying albums. Rap and R&B combined to be the most popular music on streaming services. The two genres made up 28.5% of American streaming consumption in 2014.
“In terms of the popularity of the genre and the way that people are engaged with Hip Hop is sort of a precursor to what we’re going to see for genres across the board,” states West. “For us, that’s something that we see to be true too. The popularity of Hip Hop on our platform has definitely grown.”
Hip Hop stars like Drake often turn to SoundCloud to drop new songs. The Young Money representative nearly broke the Internet in ‘14 when he posted the loosie tracks “0 To 100/The Catch Up” and “6 God.” As of press time, the two songs have over 54 million plays combined on SoundCloud.
In August, Big Sean celebrated joining Jay Z’s Roc Nation management company and the launch of the “Big Sean Metro Attitude” Adidas Originals sneakers by releasing four new songs on SoundCloud. One of those cuts was “I Don't F**k With You." The single went on to be a Top 20 hit on the Hot 100 and reach Number 1 on three other charts.
It appears clear the public has made the move toward streaming, but the concern for some industry insiders is the matter of revenue. SoundCloud has announced it is rolling out a subscription service later this year, but setting up licensing agreements with record labels has been an issue for the company in the past.
SoundCloud pursued its first licensing deals with record labels in 2013. The company reportedly reached a deal with Warner Music last fall under its new “Premier Partners” program. The current invite-only option includes unlimited storage, access to premium stats, and dedicated support. Premier Partners will be extending to other SoundCloud creators over time.
“[Premier Partners is] our opportunity - as we continue to evolve the platform - to be able to develop a meaningful advertising business that really creates a benefit for everyone in our ecosystem. At this point, we’re really at the beginning stage with the launch in the fall of last year,” explains West. “It definitely brings benefits to us and our content creators. It’s also making Soundcloud sustainable long-term.”
The financial sector is taking notice of SoundCloud's potential durability. Fast Company has already named the service one of the “Most Innovative Companies of 2015." As the epicenter of more than a quarter billion creative composers and devoted listeners wed with a reported $150 million in new financing, SoundCloud looks to be a dominant force in the audio-sharing business for years to come.
Twelve hours of content is posted to SoundCloud every minute, and emerging artists including Little Simz, JMSN, and Romiti are grabbing the attention of a global audience via the platform. The music world and beyond is undoubtedly falling under the spell of SoundCloud.
West sums up the magic of her community-based company, “We’re providing a platform of tools and services that artists can use. There’s really no limit to what you can do. Other than being limited by your own creativity.”