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.
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
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.