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How Losing SoundCloud Would Change Music

The streaming giant — which laid off 40 percent of its staff Thursday — has long struggled to stay both stable and independent. But its unique contributions to music consumption can’t be overstated.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On Thursday, SoundCloud laid off 173 of its 420 employees, closing two of its four offices, in San Francisco and London. Cofounder and chief executive Alexander Ljung announced the layoffs in a blog post:

In the most recent of SoundCloud’s nearly 10 years of life, the music streaming business has changed dramatically. SoundCloud has made some disheartening, if necessary choices to stay competitive with companies reportedly interested in engulfing it. As discovery shifted from consumer to producer, Ljung and Co. had to find their place in the new world or make way. They signed deals with all three major labels in order to keep licensed music on the platform, and created a (pretty messy) paid subscription service to measure up with Spotify and Apple Music. The company intruded upon our listening experience with ads in order to pay "premium" artists with ad-based revenue, all for the sake of staying independent. But it’s now burned through all the fat, and has begun to metabolize the muscle.

SoundCloud could possibly be for sale; and the streaming giant’s disappearance would perilously affect independent music. I’ll explain why, but first a story:

When 2016 was just eight days old, Kanye West wrapped his grievances with his extended family — specifically how the limelight had exposed their many warts — around a grayish, sincere Boi-1da beat. Posted to SoundCloud, "Real Friends" was like "Welcome to Heartbreak," but more sober and with less singing. Like any other time Kanye does anything, there were ripples. Before the sprawling Life of Pablo arrived a month later, the openness, and more importantly the rapping on "Real Friends" and the first part of "No More Parties in L.A.," suggested Old Kanye was back. (He wasn’t. Isn’t. Never will be.) The more interesting ripple, though, came in the form of a 19-year-old rapper and producer from Kansas City named Rory Fresco.

SoundCloud’s track recommendation algorithm plucked Fresco’s "Lowkey" from a sea of countless other possibilities to play after "Real Friends." (The feature has since been updated, but basically, it suggests more music that you might like based upon what you were just listening to. Spotify has recently trotted out a similar method of recommending music.) Within 24 hours, "Lowkey" went from 5,000 plays to 150,000. The original version of "Real Friends" was replaced with the album version, which now has 1.13 million plays. "Lowkey" now has 5.5 million. Kanye’s music is available for streaming on other platforms and for sale elsewhere because he is Kanye and in demand, which depresses the actual number of SoundCloud plays "Real Friends" has gotten. But it’s also important to remember that "Real Friends" was touched by 22 people paid to write and produce music — as a primary source of income, I mean — before the song itself was made public. Fresco made "Lowkey" alone, in his bedroom, and I’m willing to bet it was uploaded from the same place. With Wi-Fi, two minutes of buffering, and no help, you can get effectively closer to your audience.

This is one of the many good and pure things about SoundCloud, which is also good and pure, for the most part. Music that was recorded in a makeshift closet booth and music that was likely recorded in some lustrous spaceship of a studio isn’t on par, but it’s at least on the same playing field. Which, accounting for featured tracks, is generally way more even than other streaming services with "exclusives" and less democratized user experiences. Apple Music is filtered through artist curation; Spotify’s playlists are guided by label interests. Compared to the two, SoundCloud is something of a free-for-all — everyone and anyone can hear and be heard. Oftentimes, because of its lack of gatekeepers, music shows up on SoundCloud before it shows up anywhere else, if it does at all. Process, Sampha’s debut album, did not inspire this tweet (although the album is astounding):

It was a remix of "Plastic 100 C" by Awful Records DJ and producer Dexter Dukarus, which I stumbled backward onto while letting SoundCloud’s autoplay do its thing. The remix is no longer there on SoundCloud, nor is it on YouTube, or iTunes, or Spotify, or wherever you normally go to get your music. But I experienced it, it was real, and it changed me. Though discoveries like this are predestined by numbers, a lot of it feels left to chance. And when you win, you have to tell everyone about it.

Beyond happy mistakes, there are still more things to love about the platform. With the format of the comments section, you can see what everyone else is feeling at the height of a song’s peaks and the depth of its valleys, in real-time. You follow the people you want to follow, you listen to the songs that they repost. If you’re feeling froggy, you can upload some of your own in minutes, with basically no barriers to entry. (I did this with an instrumental I made out of a V for Vendetta sound bite in college, and it was pulled down soon after because duh, sample clearance. This was for the best; it was terrible.) Occasionally, the autoplay function drops a pitched down version of D’Angelo’s "Spanish Joint" on your head and suddenly you need to listen to it on repeat, until you hate it.

This "slowed edit" comes courtesy of Joe Kay who, along with cofounder Andre Power, launched an entire brand, Soulection, off of fan engagement from Facebook, Twitter, and SoundCloud. Though their weekly radio show — hosted by Kay and now on its 315th edition — made Beats 1 its official home two years ago, each episode is still uploaded to SoundCloud, where I prefer to listen to them each Sunday. The user interface is less … well, bad.

Entire genres have been born on SoundCloud. Countless DJs have gone from bootlegging records in their basement to touring, all off of the expanded audience they can reach with it. They’ve also gone from getting most of their mixes yanked for copyright infringement to only some of their mixes getting yanked for that reason. There is arguably no Bryson Tiller without SoundCloud. And if that’s OK to you, which it probably is, I’ll add that there is arguably no Chance the Rapper without it either. For that matter, "SoundCloud Rapper" has gone from being synonymous with "struggle rapper" to a full-on aesthetic to an aspersion. I’ll admit it doesn’t do much to describe the genre it half-mocks: artists like Lil Pump and Lil Peep make lo-fi rap. I still have no idea if it’s any good or not. "SoundCloud Rapper" used to just mean person getting their stuff out there without institutional backing; "rapper" could’ve been interchangeable with any other kind of musician. Or with "podcaster."

If the service goes, so too does that ease of access and upward mobility. We would all — creators and consumers — be poorer for it.