New Premium options now mean that for 3 € a month, you get almost anything you could want. 9 € unlimited. Image courtesy SoundCloud.

New Premium options now mean that for 3 € a month, you get almost anything you could want. 9 € unlimited. Image courtesy SoundCloud.

We hear some pretty clear messages from CDM readers about SoundCloud. One, almost all of you seem to have some criticisms of it.

Two, almost all of you appear to use it, complaints or none. Even as other services remain valuable, SoundCloud is practically its own category. (In fact, the level of detail about those complaints suggests to me that they come from ongoing, intensive usage.)

Ubiquity is an understatement. “Do you have a SoundCloud?” is a question I hear about as much as I once heard “do you have a MySpace?” a few years ago. People ask it in bars; people who aren’t musicians. (That MySpace connection should be both encouraging, and ominous. But it shouldn’t only be ominous: Facebook for music discovery has always seemed limiting, too full of distractions and too scattered for artists to provide clear links to their work.)

Furthermore, even artists who do use something like Bandcamp tend to use SoundCloud, too, if my inbox is any indication; Bandcamp is ideal for formal releases, but SoundCloud has unique, embeddable players and the ability to release live performances and podcasts and things that aren’t EPs or LPs. Since Bandcamp is for most of us more about discrete album release, that puts the two in very different niches.

SoundCloud made a number of announcements this month, timed neatly with South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. (While SoundCloud is based in Berlin, I expect, like most Web services, the USA still accounts for a lion’s share of its users.)

Being “Pro” Got a Lot Cheaper

The big news for creators here: it’s now easy to recommend premium service, as they’re much cheaper and simpler. It’s cheap enough, in fact, that having been comped by the nice folks at SoundCloud, I wound up just pulling out my credit card and buying it for myself. The Unlimited service, which had gone for a whopping 59 € a month, now costs just 9 € a month, with extended uploads and stats. If you just want uploads, the 3 € a month plan is sufficient, with most of what the 9 € a month plan offered before.

Before: Multiple options, different levels provided different statistics. 12 hours of uploads for 9 €, though not with all the stats. (See the image, since the old plan info is gone.)

Now: 3 € a month gets you unlimited downloads, all the extras, 4 hours of uploads. 9 € a month gets you unlimited uploads.

At 3 € a month, in fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend SoundCloud to any musician, producer, or podcaster. Is it a perfect service? No. Do I still like using it? Yeah, actually. But let’s get to some of those complaints. To me, they illustrate both the challenges the service faces, and the extent to which artists and labels are using the service.

Vintage SoundCloud plans - confusing, expensive. Now, even the top tier features seen here cost only 9 € a month. The full functionality, with 4 hours of uploads instead of unlimited, is 3 € monthly.

Vintage SoundCloud plans – confusing, expensive. Now, even the top tier features seen here cost only 9 € a month. The full functionality, with 4 hours of uploads instead of unlimited, is 3 € monthly.

Complaints About Redesign, Anti-Piracy Measures

Even at reduced prices, I do expect gripes about SoundCloud to continue. Two changes in the service appear to have triggered user frustration from the creator community. First, the redesign, while unquestionably more attractive, changed the location of some features and made fine-grained management of feeds and sets more difficult for some users, depending on how they use the service. (It is worth reading SoundCloud’s help article on where features went, but I know that doesn’t address all the complaints.) For the casual user, this may not be apparent, but CDM readers who manage labels and surf a greater stream of audio content have seemed more annoyed. The redesign also attracted complaints about features designed to increase “discovery,” by placing other users’ tracks alongside your own. These should increase plays overall, but don’t appeal to some users who value control.

Secondly, some users have become victims of automatic algorithms designed to ferret out illegal music uploads. SoundCloud, like any company operating on the Web, is liable for infringement in any country in which it operates. Web startups have taken various approaches to that – and some have flirted more with the law than others. But SoundCloud, now the largest service of its kind, has opted to employ machine listening systems designed to fingerprint audio files and match them with protected works. Some (not all) mixes have therefore been disabled. More surprisingly, I’ve recently started getting angry reports from readers who had music they themselves owned blocked.

SoundCloud isn’t alone – Google Hangouts, for instance, recently took down a colleague’s space with a similar algorithm. At least in the cases of reader issues I tracked, SoundCloud responded within a few days when the user complained that they couldn’t upload their own music. (Generally speaking, I’d rather deal with SoundCloud than Google – a nasty stalemate between performing rights organization GEMA and Google has caused most music videos uploaded by their artist and label creators to be voluntarily blocked by YouTube in Germany, thus rendering them invisible to one of the world’s biggest countries.)

The lesson for SoundCloud should be clear: if you can’t stop false positives, you’d better make it very, very easy for users to appeal the process. Seeing your own music blocked from upload is not a happy experience.

Balancing Acts, and Creators

Not revolutionary, by any means, but partners can now show off slide shows with sounds for a visual element. SoundCloud may be taking steps toward pricier sponsors, but this feature might be one other users see in the future, too.

Not revolutionary, by any means, but partners can now show off slide shows with sounds for a visual element. SoundCloud may be taking steps toward pricier sponsors, but this feature might be one other users see in the future, too.

What these tensions illustrate to me, though, is that SoundCloud has to walk some very thin lines. They want to encourage active uploads, but stay within the law. They want to stay in legal compliance, but not anger legitimate users. They want to appeal to a growing user base (becoming a YouTube of sound), but maintain core, advanced users (labels and creators built SoundCloud, and remain a big part of the service’s draw).

Then there’s another problem: they need to make money. Another component of the March announcement is a set of features for a beta “Pro Partner” program. That program is closed, for now, open to only those SoundCloud chooses – right now, a somewhat oddball combination that includes a fancy coffee shop, the Grammies, and Red Bull, among others. (The variety, presumably, is intended to show some range for would-be future advertisers.) As with Twitter, that appears to suggest sponsored promotion of specific “Who to Follow” choices. An animated image slide show also more prominently features brands, though SoundCloud tells CDM that some of those features could be offered to us everyday, non-partner users in the future.

GigaOm, while taking a jab at the mixed success of European startups in general, wrote that the changes could suggest real profit potential.

You Could Still Be the Key to SoundCloud’s Future

For the creator community, I think the main issue is that SoundCloud continue to demonstrate value. If it can attract a passionate user community paying a few euros a month, it could be better for all of us – that’ll mean that we, the creators, remain its main revenue source. Flickr Pro’s success in the photography community, before a few years of absent management from parent Yahoo, is instructive. When I first wrote about SoundCloud at its release, I suggested it could be a “Flickr of sound” rather than a “YouTube of sound.” That, uh, does reveal just how long SoundCloud has been around – but building a successful Web business around pros still seems viable to me.

Some of the challenge seems to be not that SoundCloud is willfully ignoring pro requests, so much as like many Web services, changes are hard to accomplish. In addition to making the service cheaper, though, SoundCloud continues to make improvements. As The Verge reported last week, an mobile update adds set management features, as well as refreshing the look of the iOS app.

That app looks a lot better to me; it might at last mean I use the mobile app and not only the browser version.

And there are the tools others build atop SoundCloud. Just today, a developer sent a cool Android app that lets you hear new SoundCloud music tracks in place of a ring tone. (Hmmm… finally, a reason to feel good when people aren’t answering your calls?)

I am, of course, heavily biased, as a creator using the service myself on a site called “Create Digital Music.” But I do think that SoundCloud’s future will depend on its ability to continue to please its core audience of producers and labels. They are more passionate about sound than anyone else. Their needs can therefore inform the needs of those using the service more casually and for spoken word, they can help attract those brand partners, and they’re more likely to generate subscription revenue. My own analysis, having watched the service evolve from the beginning, is that they’re the foundation of the company’s more recent, explosive growth.

For now, I’m sticking with the service, though. Of course, I also keep local copies of those sounds, and share through my own site first, SoundCloud URL second. Even if someone asks me for a SoundCloud in a bar.

Let us know specifically what features you feel are working or need improvement, and whether you’re sticking with SoundCloud or have found other ways of sharing your sounds that you prefer.

  • Bo

    Thanks for the article, Peter. I was one of the guys writing to you about the development of Soundcloud. Even though I still have complaints about the platform, I will keep using it. Mainly because there is no real alternative. Bandcamp is great but as you said, both sites work best together.

    What I’m missing on Soundcloud are the reduced community features. They seem small but are actually a big deal. For example you still don’t see likes in your dashboard. This was the best way of one artist supporting another. If 10 of the people you follow like a track, you will probably check it out yourself. More or less how it would be on facebook. Now a like is kinda worthless. And reposts are no substitude. Artists won’t clutter their page with tracks of others. It is mainly useful for say music blogs and such. And regular listeners who repost, mostly have just a few followers, so it doesn’t really help either.

    I know stuff like this sounds picky but it changes the feel of soundcloud. I’m sure, anyone who is part of a “scene” will know what I’m talking about. It’s way harder to push your buddies. And way less communicative.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Absolutely! Yep, it’s not so much that I’m in the know as my readers are. ;)

      I’m also no fan of Reposts; I just can’t work out how it would be functional without adding clutter. So I hear the criticism on likes. And that seems the sort of subtle change that could be addressed in an update, if they get enough of that criticism.

      I would expect with any change as substantial as Next, there would be some tuning. We certainly saw some of that during the beta; now the question is, can they continue to improve the Pro experience at the same time as they try to broaden the appeal of the service to new people?

    • Bo

      Yeah, I hope they will. I’m willing to wait for a while. Most people I know are using the old layout anyway.

    • papernoise

      I think the whole likes, reposts and comment notifications are now where they belong: in the activity center or how it’s called. In the old soundcloud everything was mixed, which was not that great imho. i don’t see how likes are not relevant anymore, I still see them and I still value them as before, or even more now that they don’t get lost in the stream of incoming tracks.

    • Bo

      I get what you’re saying and of course I value every like I receive. But there is a huge difference in how it works now:

      In the current version a like simply says that I enjoy a tune. Nothing bad about that.

      But in the old version a like said that I enjoy a tune and informed all of my followers that they should check it out, too. It was way more “viral” and supporting.

      BTW
      Hi from another Mutable Instruments user.

    • papernoise

      oh now I get what you mean! you’re right, the old way likes worked was more like facebook likes, true. I had forgotten about that because I had turned that feature off since it was cluttering my stream (or how it was called back then). i’ve always liked to use SC as a radio station of some kind.
      Ps: great to meet more Mutabholics here! :)

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Right, and then you can see the logic there – they’re thinking the Repost is how you’d share that you liked something. Actually, maybe Instagram is the better model, as they have the ability to look just at photos receiving likes from people you follow, a valuable filter. (Facebook is more complex.)

      Balancing signal to noise is tough, though, that’s the bottom line.

      To me, the biggest usability problem I found was trying to use the Dropbox, as I can turn off certain kinds of notifications but not specifically look only at Dropbox submissions / do notifications for that. With so many people dumping tracks on you via other means, it’s tough to know what is specifically in a dropbox. (Then again… yes, I can make a case for why they’re doing things this way, too!)

    • bloodynails

      Just found an entirely free version of soundcloud: Hulkshare.com. Not sure how it’s legal though as it appears to be a direct clone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lokeymassive Leif Olson

    the community is, or was, -THE- selling point of the whole soundcloud experience.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I think it still is. Next represented a pretty substantial change. I don’t disagree with some of the criticisms, but I can say this – designing this stuff isn’t easy. That is, I don’t think SoundCloud decided the community wasn’t important. I think they made some changes that felt like backward steps because of specific ways some of us were using the features. They may not have fully appreciated the impact those changes would have on the community – hence this feedback.

      At the same time, there are other things about Next I definitely like more. I remain interested to see if they’re able to act on any of this feedback, to refine Next.

      And let’s be specific – I’m curious what, specifically, you find lacking (as the Like feature below Bo mentions)

  • papernoise

    Sometimes I fell like the only person liking the new soundcloud. For me it solved many issues I had with the old one. The stream now is a proper stream, that I can use to listen to musicians I find interesting, I have one place with all the notifications, Which also shows new followers. in the old SC new followers notifications were totally weird. I can navigate around the site without stopping the music, this means that if I want to check a musicians profile while listening to a track I don’t have to open a new tab. Also interestingly I get spammed a lot less since they updated SC. Before I would be followed by lots of people who were just hunting for plays and followers, with no interest in my music, and I would get a lot of spam comments, this has decreased lately, though I can’t say what caused it.
    Of course there is little things here and there that still don’t work as they should and features I’m not interested in, but my final verdict is quite positive… And if I can get that unlimited plan for that low price I’m even more sold than before.

  • itchy

    i wasn’t a total fan of the “new soundcloud” at first but didn’t hate it either. Im glad they consolidated the paid options there were way to many. Now its seems reasonable. But I think they should work on being able to sell tracks and include that in the “pro unlimited” i think they would be even a more major part of the way we listen and consume music. great stuff so far hope it keeps getting better.

  • itchy

    soundcloud is my favorite way to find new music to listen to

  • sense

    soundcloud sold out those like myself who helped build it from the very first beta’s up .. now they expect those who brought people to it , from the beginning to pay and restrict the amount of song hours there .. this is a good reason to leave soundcloud .. simply because it has become FACEBOOK .. in ethos and mentality .. facebook for sound..

    it no longer has anything to do with promoting or assisting independent artists share their music .. it simply now became another STARTUP that got BIG and sold out..

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Huh? The premium model was introduced years ago. It just got cheaper. And they specifically identified promoting independent creators as part of what they wanted to do with Next.

  • gLOW-x

    TINA : There Is No Alternative :D
    I detest to say this, but it is true for now.

    MySpace is dead.
    Facebook is so full of ads and useless “features” you can only use it as promotion, not music support itself.
    Blogs are nice, but there is no music community interaction.

    SoundCloud is the only way to go, like MySpace was years before.
    BandCamp and SoundCloud are like Facebook and Twitter : different and complementary ;)

    My only fear (like some ppl here) SoundCloud being a Facebook addendum or clone.

    Indaba became one, you know…
    Now you need to log on Facebook to vote for contests, so ppl getting more “friends” on FB just get more votes because they opened a fake Indaba account and voted.
    But in fact, all is already happening on Facebook. And Indaba is left empty, as Facebook audio player and remix contests provider…

    This “social” attitude is probably the way of the future. There are already virtual artists in Japan…

    • bloodynails

      It seems like there is a copy cat alternative called Hulkshare. It has
      the identical commenting on a waveform thing, only in green instead of
      orange. Seems to be entirely free too.

  • http://twitter.com/terrygrant terry grant

    I’d love to see some sort of clarification of the way they police promo mixes/podcasts. Being a service that was, at least initially, geared toward the electronic music community, it seems odd that the “rules” regarding copyrighted material are so haphazardly enforced. (All due respect to the fine folks at SC in Berlin) Some users can’t post promo mixes without having them taken down, while others have been using SC as the landing page for their podcasts for years. There seems to be quite the disparity between what you can do with a free account and what you can do when you spend big $$$.

  • STME

    I am a user of soundcloud and have just re-signed up to the 3 euros a month deal.
    It’s a pretty good deal, you get a lot of storage on a very well known platform, however you are just another fish in the sea, another person with a soundcloud account.

    It’s definitely not a perfect website or service and it’s very interesting that you say at the start of your article people are asking “do you have a soundcloud?” instead of “do you have a myspace” as people did years ago. Like MySpace, Soundcloud is just as vulnerable to something coming along offering (seemingly) a better simpler service or a better deal and literally stealing ALL of their users within the space of a year or two just as Facebook did to MySpace. The statistical graph for that loss/growth is staggering and could easily happen.

    Once a few fishes start jumping to the fresher pond, the rest will follow.

  • HBO

    May I ask, what is the absolute best service to use if you don’t need the comments,repost,followers, or any extraneous features, outside of linking to your music, quality sound, and as many uploads and downloads as you need?

    • Matt Leaf

      archive.org?

    • HBO

      What do you mean by archive.org?

    • papernoise

      just try clicking on the link…

    • badboyburtyb

      Got to agree archive.org was what I started sharing my music on some years ago now and I haven’t found anything better for free unlimited storage and streaming. There’s nothing fancy about it and there’s no elaborate system of ‘likes’ but if you’re simply into sharing your music it’s all you need. But this was what the web was like before everyone jumped on the monetising bandwagon so I suppose I’m stuck in the past with my preference for it.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Fair enough – but archive.org it seems lacks useful embedded players. Maybe it’s a good idea to recommend a JavaScript solution? WordPress plugin?

    • http://twitter.com/liet Can Özmen

      But archive.org does have embedded players ( http://archive.org/help/audio.php ). Do you find them lacking? It also gives you a regular RSS feed through its search that can be used with any old podcast application.

      As a listener I definitely prefer something on archive.org rather than Soundcloud.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Okay, you’ve sold me. I’ll do both for my next one. ;)

      I’m not in love with Archive’s embedded player; just a bit minimal for me. But I wonder if it isn’t worth then coding a little open source one – and I know there are some open source player things out there, which could be used as a starting point.

    • http://twitter.com/liet Can Özmen

      Well I’ve been using http://mediaelementjs.com/ , which is a liberally licensed (MIT) web media player, at work. And they’ve got plugins for WordPress etc. too.

      There’d be some work to fork their plugins (and make sure it works with Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress.com, etc.) that works with files on archive.org, then find somewhere free/cheap to host it till archive.org takes it up.

      I think tis is quite doable :-)

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Hit me up through the contact form; I’d like to talk more about this. ;)

      I mean, in the end, it’s not so much a SoundCloud alternative to me — it’s something else, something that fits some jobs better than SC does.

    • HBO

      I understand now, thank you very much!

  • Matt Leaf

    they dont have to use a repost model in order to use likes – you could just have two types of feeds. one is the way it is now – a stream of stuff you’re into – the other could be more like a local ‘charts’, which could be based on likes and reposts that keep things floating at the top or going down as new sounds come in.

  • MCJ

    In general I like Soundcloud. I’ve never understood the bad quality of the compression algorithms though. Especially high frequencies seem to suffer badly. And since it’s ‘under the hood’ I can’t choose a better quality for certain songs. I mean certainly SoundCloud lets me upload uncompressed formats, and those uploads would come out uncompressed again when downloaded, yet the Soundcloud player itself never seems to play uncompressed.

    Thanks for your awesome site / work Peter.

    • Sean Costello

      I think that SoundCloud uses 128 kbps MP3 compression. This level of compression throws out all the high frequency phase information, and creates a “joint stereo” file where the high frequencies are reproduced by a mono signal with amplitude differences in the left and right channel.

      I use SoundCloud to demo my plugins, and the sonic difference between the original signal and the SoundCloud version can be striking. A lot of the stereo width and depth is missing in the streaming SoundCloud player.

      If SoundCloud updated their player to 192 kpbs, this would be a non-issue, as 192 kbps maintains the phase information for high frequencies.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      So, does anyone have such a streaming player? (or, given the typical number of plays and cheap bandwidth, should people consider rolling their own?)

    • MCJ

      That explains it indeed. In the Myspace-era I used to store music on my own server and stream via one of the several free software mp3 players out there. It was a hassle to set up, but the quality was pretty okay, and definitely good enough for net-purposes. Now with Soundcloud’s integration with BandPage and all the functionality BandPage offers, I’m reluctant to switch back to this construction.

  • http://www.marcotuliothrash.blogspot.com/ Cosme Lozano

    Let’s just hope it doesn’t go the way of flickr after the yahoo acquisition.

  • Aaron

    I used to pay for premium, but at a certain point I realized I was really only paying to for the ability to sort by tracks in the order that I wanted to (proper stuff up top for new visitors, random stuff and field recordings down bottom). That combined with the new site redesign and the removal of other features that used to be included (some page options, like displaying followers instead of who you are following by default) convinced me not to renew my subscription.
    So unless you are in need of the extra space, don’t pay just so you can sort your tracks – that’s absurd and should free. Even in SC’s own interest it should be free.. it affects the perceived quality of the site when a vistor comes to a random artist’s profile and hears a throw away recording or joke or whatever, instead of the best the artist has to offer.

  • pj

    For me the main issue with Soundcloud isn’t one of where to find a particular function .. although the new version is a great example of form over function (whereas previously it was function over form) … but the big issue with it is it’s change of purpose. This isn’t an upgrade, it’s an entirely different site and many people seem to be oblivious to that. It used to be a site for musicians to interact, collaborate etc and for people to listen to the results of that interaction. There was a great sense of community and creativity about it. Now it’s been changed into a free music streaming site and one which allows Google to advertise Apps to get around the Soundcloud ‘download protection’ button. While musicians complain about the tiny percentage Spotify pays them … they happily put their music on Soundcloud without realising it’s exactly the same service as Spotify except it pays them absolutely nothing. Zero royalties. In fact if you have a pro or paid account … it actually charges you for the privilege of receiving no royalties! … it’s changed from a site designed to help the musician into one designed to exploit them. It may look like a prettier version of the old Soundcloud … but it’s a whole different kind of site now. Look deeper than the surface and you’ll see it.

    • Jobb Steve

      Kim megaupload albeit with a slicker swedish constructed vaneer to hide the end goal, money…

    • Gisselle Avila

      I´ve found a very interesting platform on the internet for the musician’s interaction and collaboration, also its free. Maybe you’ll like it. It is: http://wavestack.com/

  • http://ccombe.tumblr.com/ Chris Combe

    one of my biggest gripes is solved with the cheaper premium and unlimited upload options.

    my remaining issue is the overly strict DRM stuff they have when you upload a DJ mix which of course will have other people’s music by it’s very nature.

    I don’t understand why soundcloud take this to their advantage and actually make deals with content providers (e.g. itunes / beatport / juno etc…) and allow me to track list all of the music in the mix so people can buy it directly or add it to their carts, you could even have a paid referral system e.g. $0.01 per track purchased from a persons mix, this not only help people to continue to use the service but the money could be used towards free / discounted soundcloud accounts or towards buying more music etc.. and still supports the community.

    Even Youtube allows you to do this to some extend although buying a movie us unrealistic compared to a single track from a clip / mix.

    Now is the time to show your innovation Soundcloud, don’t rest on your laurels.

    oh and final final request: for a DJ mix I want to be able to link to the producers soundcloud page / homepage as well kind of like how I can @reference someone on FB, this way the artist / producer can see how often their tunes are being used in mixes and they can see what other people are doing with them, helping to add to the whole remix generation!

  • Nihilist

    we’ve been a subscriber since they started. a great way to put out your music and sounds. they need to let tracks be sold too, at this point bandcamp does this better, but i would prefer to sell thru paypal right on the soundcloud page…. sharing tracks when working with other musicians in other locales is also a huge plus for us… and we can send aif 24bit files too, instead of a mp3.

    • aaron

      lol…aif….

  • soundcloudpromotion
  • patrik

    there is a sort of open source, mainly python based, partial alternative, although it still has some rough edges and may – at the moment – look more like a work in progress: http://telemeta.org/

  • Shannon O’Neill

    I was a SC user since its beta days, and also had an overpriced pro account. SC recently accused me of violating Radiohead’s copyright with an ambient synth track I made in 1995! I don’t see why I should have to waste my time as well as money arguing with them, so I deleted my account.

    I also run a site, Alias Frequencies, which publishes podcasts and is a netlabel for mostly sample-based music. Neither of these legitimate activities can be published on SC anymore. Thanks to these developments, SC is now dead to me, regardless of their belatedly improved pricing.

    I intend to go back to using archive.org, which served me well in the past and has always struck me as being an ethical organisation. SC’s widgets are overrated anyway. I too was impressed by their bling at first, but soon realised that waveform displays are just spoilers.

    The hype around ‘social networks’ is tiresome, frankly. Twitter (@wellfutile, @aliasfreq) is more than enough for my needs.