View From The Side: Soundcloud And Corporate Culture
In the space of 7 years, the online sharing/ streaming platform Soundcloud has become the premiere place to find and host music – from 2010 to 2013, it sky rocketed in growth, booming from 1 million registered users to a staggering 40 million, along with 200 million listeners. The company has offices around the globe, and has been instrumental in kick starting numerous careers – Cyril Hahn’s ascent was single-handedly forged with an upload of his Destiny’s Child remix –now on 6 million+ plays – and it has allowed an awkward fitting artist instrumental hip hop such as Doctor Zygote to pull in 1.5 million followers. Soundcloud has been instrumental in building scenes, with trap, moohmbaton, Jersey club, twerk and all shades of house all benefiting from the ultra-fast interface, rising, merging, splicing and saturating with a speed that would have been bewildering a decade previously. There are now record labels who only have Soundcloud files as their product – the zeitgeist-y art school kids at PC Music spring immediately to mind.
The site has even expanded past its original remit of providing a platform for producers to share sounds – this year Turkey blocked Soundcloud access following the upload of a number of leaked phone calls revealing bribery taking place between the Turkish Prime Minister and various business men. This signalled a watershed for the site – in the age where knowledge and restriction operate in a constant, probing negotiation, Soundcloud had joined Twitter, Facebook and Youtube as a source for the dissemination of information, outside of mainstream media bias and control.
All this means that an enormous amount of emotion has been invested in the site – people have been uploading their creations for years, and lives have been changed as a result. With its decent options for free accounts, there is a general goodwill towards Soundcloud – the kind of good will that Google used to commandeer. Recent copyright infringement take-down notices have generally been seen as record labels flexing their muscle, rather than Soundcloud being bastards.
Yet despite all this goodwill, and the inarguable cultural capital the site has amassed, Soundcloud is losing money hand over fist. Last year they reported losses of $29 million, against an income of $14million. Obviously this is unsustainable, so the inevitable has happened – this week, media giant Warner’s stepped in and worked out a financial deal with Soundcloud. Currently, the details of this deal remain ominously unclear. All that is known is that it has been tied into the ‘On Soundcloud’ creator/partner program that was launched earlier this year. ‘On Soundcloud’ is an advert supported service that allows creators to monetise their plays – its premise is that paying subscribers can skip adverts, whilst free users are stuck with them. Realistically, branding and music have been going together for decades, so whilst I may find the corporate nature of it all distasteful, it is what it is – even The Clash had their first number one on the back of a Levi’s advert.
“We’re thrilled that Warner Music Group will be the first major label to join our new creator partner program,” said Alexander Ljung, SoundCloud’s founder & CEO, in a bland non-statement. “We expect to generate significant revenue for Warner and its artists in the months and years ahead as we roll out an ad-supported offering and subscription service that delivers real value to the industry.”
We assume this means that Warner signed artists will legitimately have their music on Soundcloud – and this may open the door to remixes, bootlegs and more, allowing artists (and, let’s not forget, multinational corporations) to collect some revenue on their creations. It appears the On Soundcloud model will also allow independent creators the opportunity to monetise their work, so far, so positive. Less pleasing is the probability that major labels will try and hijack the algorithm that suggests further tunes for you to listen to, shifting revenue away from the obscure and the unsigned, and into their own bloated coffers, undermining Soundcloud's user-led tendency towards forward looking music along the way. Whether this will be done explicitly or not, it will certainly be done.
However, the intrusion of Warner’s does throw one element in stark relief – Soundcloud has been around long enough now that a generation of kids are taking its existence as a given. In the same way that Facebook and Twitter are often confused with some sort of public, inalienable right (something I’ve written about here), Soundcloud has transcended its brand, to become a part of many people lives. As a result, a huge amount of creativity has been handed over to Soundcloud’s custody, with little thought of the long term consequences. The Warner partnership is a major reminder that Soundcloud are a private company – they owe their free users nothing, and their subscribers little past the month they have paid for. The amount of songs that must only exist on Soundcloud’s servers – and nowhere else – is staggering. I know I’ve uploaded songs that have later been lost on knackered hard drives. The only place that has them is Soundcloud. The problem is, Soundcloud may not be for ever.
Here’s an example to illustrate my concern. I’ve got a 20 year old tape knocking around my house of techno stuff I wrote as a 15 year old. It’s in a box with cassettes of drum n’ bass sets I played in my late teens. The same box has got DVDs of live recordings taken when I was resident at Offmodern. I’ve got a copy of the M.I.A. bootleg 12” I released in 2005, and numerous demos, 7”s and remixes from mates in bands I’ve amassed over the years. But I’ve got nothing – literally nothing- that I uploaded to MySpace. I’m fucked if I can remember the log in details for the various music alias’s I had, Myspace seems to have simply lost some stuff, and the process of uploading, deleting and uploading again has ensured hordes of music has vanished. Fortunately it’s music created by my palsied hand, so the world is probably better in its absence. The point is, I have control over the physical copies of stuff I’ve written over the last 2 decades, and as a result, I’ve still got them. Where I have relinquished control to the cloud– and, to be fair, my own complacency – I’ve been left with nothing.
We place so much faith in cloud based solutions, that I suspect that there is going to be a black hole of missing music spanning the opening decade of the 21st Century. A mythology has been perpetuated that something on the internet is ‘there forever’. As any digital digger knows, this is bullshit. How many rare albums have you downloaded in 2010, only to find them unobtainable in 2014? How many dead links litter blogs like bones? I think we need to start a re-evaluation of our existence with cloud services – yes Soundcloud is amazing for sharing your music, but it is not a reliable source of storing it. A simple change in site policy, driven by the unforgiving truth of a balance sheet, could see millions of tracks erased in an instant, and there’s nothing the users could do. I’m not saying this is going to happen – I’m just saying that it’s madness not to be aware that it could. Look at all the people who lost whole sections of their life when Mega Upload got shut down. Complacency meant that few saw it coming.
With Soundcloud, with Spotify, with iTunes, we are increasingly handing control of our culture, to an essentially unknown external source, a source at the whim of market forces that has no imperative greater than the imperative to make money. It runs concurrent with the reach corporations have into our lives – a reach that grows unchecked by the day. Short of marching on Trafalgar Square with the masked hordes of Anonymous, we have little choice but to accept it as a facet of modern life. But we can disavow ourselves of this fantasy that corporations are benevolent. They are neutral to anything but the clamour to grow. In short: back your shit up! Be aware that no corporation cares about your hard work, your response to existence and the splurges of your spirit as you do! Burn CDs! Sing your melodies to your children! Tattoo tablature on your thighs! Scratch lyrics into drying slabs of cement and bury them like priceless treasure! Live forever!