SoundCloud Continues to Blur the lines between Audio-Sharing Website and Streaming Service.
SoundCloud: the platform that promises artists simple sharing and self-made fame is rolling out new developments for its exclusive Premier users. It’s also alienating a majority of its subscribers in the process. Users with a SoundCloud Premier or Pro Unlimited subscription can now schedule their newest tracks to go live at a set time. This is a nominal feature to offer their highest ranking and highest paying users and comes at a time when the company’s role in the molting music scene is unclear.
So what is SoundCloud Premier?
In its infancy, SoundCloud was strictly a platform for user generated content. It offered DJ’s a space to collaborate, sample, and infringe on as much copyright as they wanted; all at no risk to the SoundCloud brand, provided they had a way to report and remove illegal content. The downside to this relationship: it lacked equity stake and a way for SoundCloud to make revenue.
Reposts really ruined what a label is and means.
Launching in 2014, SoundCloud Premier and its subscription counterparts were a solution to this money issue. Premier offered its users ways to monetize their content, while subscriptions offered SoundCloud consistent cash flow. For the first time, creators in SoundCloud’s highest tier could turn their tunes to profit through brand partnerships and featured advertising.
The invite-only service has gained hype through its success stories, most notably SoundCloud-natives like Chance the Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, and Cathedrals with 10 Grammy nods and three wins between all its users. But the added perks also brought scandal. Independent artists began reposting their own music constantly, buying reposts, and manipulating their actual popularity on the platform. In an interview with the Verge, musician RAC said, “Reposts really ruined what a label is and means. You could repost infinitely and it would always be at the top of the feed.”
What does Premier get you?
Here are some of the current perks. Premier members are eligible for a feature in SoundCloud’s “Fresh Pressed” Playlist featured on the website’s homepage. Members may also get featured across SoundCloud’s social media, blogs, and marketing spots in the weekly spotlight promotions. When SoundCloud hosts live events like SXSW, it’s the Premier members that get the gigs. The most lucrative features though are the brand partnership opportunities. Trending creators gain maximum exposure through Premier’s sponsors and advertising.
Who is Benefiting from this?
There are some clear success stories here. But as SoundCloud’s services become more stratified, who it’s aiming to benefit must be called into question. In an article on the topic published by Complex, it was pointed out, “…these (Premier accounts) have been slowly and systematically handed out on an incredibly limited basis, and the only users that we have seen with these accounts have been successful labels, artists that have savvy management, and artists that exhibit qualities of future stardom.”
With SoundCloud only rewarding its users after they have achieved recognition elsewhere, Premier looks less like a resource for launching undiscovered talent and more like a retainer program to keep its biggest artists from leaving the nest. Like the new “First on SoundCloud” hype, Premier’s goals appear to be entirely self-serving.
The Focus Problem
SoundCloud pays Premier members to wedge ads in between their tracks. In this way, the platform appears to be artist-focused. And yet, listeners can purchase a SoundCloud Go subscription to block all advertisements from their stream. You can either pay to get ads on your songs, or you can pay to keep them off. Obviously, SoundCloud is torn between catering to its consumers and to its artists, leaving many users to pay for two subscriptions with two different intents. One to upload content and another to enjoy ad-free music.
It tried to be all things to all people, yet the end results were alienating on all sides.
What this means for SoundCloud and its users.
At the same time, Premier works as a carrot-on-a-stick for artists still without the invite. In an interview with SoundCloud creator and CEO Alexander Ljung in 2014, Ljung stated, “Unlike straight music streaming sites like Spotify or Pandora, SoundCloud offers musicians a place to collaborate and share work with one another. As it’s grown in popularity, it’s become a place to listen to mainstream artists and to discover untapped talent, allowing any musician to publish music to a wide audience.” I truly believe Ljung started SoundCloud with this vision in mind. For a long time, the website was just that: an oasis for free and global collaboration. But free sharing of independently-owned media doesn’t pay the bills; subscription based accounts saturated with paid advertising do.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with sponsored content or a little bit of wholesome capitalism. But when reposts, likes, and a hefty following have replaced the currency of artist sampling and collaboration, it’s time for the mission statement to shift. Alexander Ljung has since stepped down as CEO with Kerry Trainor now filling the role. As SoundCloud continues to rechart revenue and sponsorship as the horizon, it must step down from its earlier role. It can no longer be the unassuming web-host that turned its cheek from illegal remixes if it’s also a “pay-to-play” subscription service that doles out dreams of being discovered.
Premier has framed itself to be the apex of artist success. But if users come to this platform seeking fame and profit, than notoriety beyond SoundCloud should be their end goal, not notoriety on SoundCloud. Other platforms like UM Music have made their mission just that. Premier’s invite-only exclusivity and stacked perks make it near impossible for blooming artists to reap any of SoundCloud’s benefits while those who have found commercial success need little of what the site has to offer.
The problem with SoundCloud is it has always been ambivalent with who it’s serving. The company vacillates between an open media-hosting platform, a subscription-based streaming platform, and some sort of absentee record label. Current CEO Kerry Trainor has stated plans to refocus the company to better serve creators with talk of opening Premier to “hundreds of thousands” of artists in the near future. Hopefully, this is not jut talk. SoundCloud is no longer the playground for free-sharing and collabs it once was. But it’s also not quite its competitors. If SoundCloud intends to keep its 175 million users in the coming years, it will have to rediscover its niche and lean into it. Hard.