For the last few months, as he’s been working on, tinkering with, and constantly updating his new album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West has been dropping tracks and snippets onto the music-sharing service SoundCloud. He does this much like he tweets: randomly and loudly. On Easter Sunday, he uploaded “Ultralight Prayer,” a gospel-infused take on “Ultralight Beam,” the album’s first song. The one-minute, 54-second track racked up more than 300,000 listens in less than 24 hours.
West’s antics are obviously good news for SoundCloud, but Eric Wahlforss, the company’s CTO and co-founder, is mostly excited about what they meant for a relatively unknown rapper named Rory Fresco. Back in January, when West uploaded a song called “Real Friends/No More Parties in LA,” SoundCloud’s autoplay algorithms picked Fresco’s “Lowkey” to play next. Just like that, Fresco went from nobody to the guy who follows Kanye and Kendrick Lamar. “He was in our offices,” Wahlforss says, “so excited.” Not long after, Fresco signed with Sony Music.
This is the kind of story SoundCloud hopes to tell more often, and soon. After years of negotiating with the music industry, signing labels big and small, SoundCloud is finally launching its paid subscription service. SoundCloud Go will cost $10 a month to access a huge new library of music.
This is a big moment for SoundCloud. The company has 175 million users, and has been growing like mad over the last few years. It’s now the third most popular music app on iOS (and fourth on Android), and one of the most popular platforms not run by Facebook or Google. It’s incredibly friendly to creators, the DJs and remixers and curators who use it, but hasn’t always gotten along with the music industry. And as they’ve had their tracks and accounts pulled for rights violations, more than a few users have fled SoundCloud entirely. Not to mention, there’s the small issue of Soundcloud’s massive and well-documented financial problems, which are bad enough that some have concluded the company is done for.
If Go is successful, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will be, it is designed to be an all-in-one remedy for Spotify’s woes. It could make money for the service, give users and creators more access to more music, and help it continue to gain ground on its larger rivals. Mark Mulligan, an industry analyst, told Billboard he expects SoundCloud to convert a “low single digits” percentage of its users to Go, and notes even that would make the service a factor in the market. But even that is hard to do: just ask Tidal, which has plenty of exclusive content and big-name supporters and yet is flailing wildly trying to find something that works.
It’s also an audacious move to launch a new kind of streaming platform in a crowded market dominated by huge names. “It’s going to include all the music you’ll find on Apple Music, Spotify, things like that,” Wahlforss says. But he’s careful to add that that doesn’t mean SoundCloud is turning into those services. What he means is, his service now has everything Spotify does. That and an entirely different experience.
A Flowing Stream
SoundCloud’s never really been optimized for making huge libraries of songs, or for meticulously organizing your huge music collection. Even now, with so much more music, really all you can do is make playlists or like a song to add it to your collection. (SoundCloud Go subscribers will be able to download everything now, which is nice.) Most artists’ music is organized track by track, so when you search for Adele, it’s easy to find “Hello” but tough to work your way through the whole 25 album. Listening to music on SoundCloud Go is like listening on YouTube; unless you know what you’re looking for, the best you can hope for is to fall down an autoplay rabbit hole of music you actually like.
SoundCloud Go differs from other services in one crucial way: it gives artists and labels track-by-track control over who can access what.
Wahlforss isn’t worried about competing with Spotify, at least for now. He’s more focused on the 170 million people who already use SoundCloud every month, and the 12 million so-called “creators”—the musicians and DJs and remixers and cover artists that people listen to every month. Wahlforss loves the idea that those creators can live next to the Beyonces and Biebers of the world. “Not only do we get all of this content from the major labels,” he says, “but on top of that, everything that’s been going on on the platform—the DJing activity, the remixing and mash-uping, cover music, and all that—all of that stuff can live now on the platform side by side with premium content.”
It all sounds so logical, really. Which begs the question: What took so long? SoundCloud’s been working on deals with labels for more than three years, Wahlforss says. The company has spent all that time trying to sell labels on the idea that they should embrace the endless derivative content that comes from their music, that what users really want is to have both the original and the spin-offs in one place. “Your biggest superfans might be mashing up your content,” Wahlforss told the labels, “and that might be really additive to your reach, to your engagement.”
Find Your Audience
SoundCloud Go differs from other services in one crucial way: it gives artists and labels track-by-track control over who can access what. Let’s say you’re Drake (Love your taste in shoes, can we go to a Raptors game later?): You can put some songs behind the Go paywall, and make others available to everyone on the free, ad-supported SoundCloud service that will operate just as it always has. Got a fire new mixtape? Put it out free for a day or two, then bring it back behind the paywall. Creators can change everything on the fly to suit whatever goals they have.
“Some will optimize for more reach,” Wahlforss says. “Some will optimize for monetization.” Eventually, everyone from DJs to podcasters will be able to monetize the same way, though the system is invite-only for now.
Really, Go is SoundCloud’s attempt to actually become the YouTube for music. It has some big advantages. There’s that huge audience, for one thing. And SoundCloud has always has the social element that other services crave. Apple Music Connect can’t touch the conversation, the remixes, the community that happens on SoundCloud. People are sharing SoundCloud links all over social media. But Apple Music has all the music you hear on the radio. By bringing the tracklist up to something much closer to parity, SoundCloud’s hoping to become the only place you need to go for all the music you want to listen to—at least the stuff that’s not exclusive to Tidal. And they’re hoping they can do it without losing the edgy, underground, find-new-stuff vibe that’s crucial to SoundCloud’s appeal. “A lot of people might think,” Wahlforss says, “‘Oh, they’re getting further away from their path.’ But actually this gets us very much closer to our vision. And it’s very positive for DJs.”