When SoundCloud was founded in 2007, it was not necessarily the first streaming service of its kind. Before, there was YouTube and Napster, but what made SoundCloud different was its devotion to creativity. In its initial form, not only was streaming completely free, but also entirely user-friendly. Laissez-faire copyright laws made it easy for unsigned artists (specifically DJs) to post original remixes of popular tracks, which allowed listeners to fall for the romantic notion that maybe music can be free. Now, after a decade, the Berlin-based streaming service has taken quite a few blows—a few of which have steered it away from this original idea of free creativity. However, a closer look at its original values shows why we still need SoundCloud.
At its best, Soundcloud was an avenue for musical discovery. Made up of mostly lesser-known artists, the service allowed users to scratch beneath the surface of popular music. Artists were allowed to make music without the burden of conventionality weighing on their shoulders while they recorded tracks.
SoundCloud was not about making money or recording instant hits. It was about self-expression within a community of like-minded individuals—a huge deal in the music world, considering major labels and record producers were busy cultivating a harsh climate of cutthroat deals, limited contracts, and perfectionism. This is what made SoundCloud as a platform so liberating: It freed artists from this pressure cooker of artificiality.
This isn’t to say, however, that SoundCloud artists were fated for a life outside the realm of the mainstream. Take SoundCloud’s poster child Chance the Rapper. In 2011, after having his musical aspirations mocked by peers and teachers, he spent a 10-day school suspension recording his first ever mixtape, 10 Day.
In his own words, he chose SoundCloud because it was the only platform that allowed him to upload his work without asking for a subscription payment. As a result, free, accessible music became his purpose (he doesn’t make songs for free, he makes them for freedom). Later came Acid Rap and Coloring Book, two mixtapes that have received wide commercial success despite the fact that he remains unsigned. At the young age of 24, Chance remains one of the most conventionally successful rappers of his time, regardless of the fact all his albums are available for free download.
Chance isn’t the only rapper to find fame through free streaming. More recent overnight sensations include Ugly God, who just dropped his debut album following the instant success of SoundCloud hit “Water,” Post Malone, Lil Pump, and Smokepurpp, among others. It would be nearly impossible to list all the rappers who have benefitted from this free platform because, when it comes to SoundCloud, fame isn’t the only indicator of success. There’s something to be said about a song you recorded in your bedroom being labeled art, even if it’s just by one person.
The community aspect of the service fosters a positivity that is missing from the critical “real” world. In this way, SoundCloud operates as a sort of escape from the unforgiving industry. It is a microcosm of the larger industry—one without all the “X out of 10” album reviews, Hot 100 charts, or sale numbers.
Rap isn’t the only genre to flourish under SoundCloud’s guiding hand, either. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the SoundCloud platform was its freedom from copyright infringement laws, which allowed DJs to elevate electronic music to new heights. Unlike YouTube (a competitor with SoundCloud for best free streaming service), SoundCloud allowed DJs to post remixes of pre-existing tracks without fear of their content being removed.
For instance, look at Kygo, whose remix of Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” received over 50 million plays on SoundCloud. This was his jumping-off point, and it resulted in his release of “Firestone” on the streaming service, which led to critical and commercial acclaim. His personal success snowballed after this, as did the legitimization of house and electronic music as an artform. In 2016, he became the first house music producer to perform at an Olympics closing ceremony.
It is no secret that this is a very idyllic look at a corporation that has strayed very far from its roots. Since its creation, SoundCloud’s intentions have become much foggier. The corporation has negotiated deals with major labels and artists, allowing at least a portion of contributors to make money on advertisements (a move that betrays the idea of “all music is created equal” in its entirety).
In 2016, they introduced SoundCloud Go, a paid subscription service. Ironically, all of this failed them financially. They had almost gone under this year, but their saving grace was emergency funding. But just because the company is safe financially does not mean that everything that made it great is. It’s quite the opposite; SoundCloud does not only need a bailout, they need to return to the values that made them great. Otherwise, free music is doomed, and they’re going down with it.
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Why We Still Need SoundCloud: Featured image courtesy of SoundCloud