What exactly is up with Soundcloud and its new subscription service?
The good, the bad, and the geoblocking - what the hell were Soundcloud thinking?
The progression in music listening over the past few decades is incredibly interesting and the fact that it constantly evolves, now at a quicker pace than ever, is really quite startling. From the golden days of phonographs and concert hall recordings in the late 1800s to the rise and fall (and rise again) of vinyl, the explosion of the cassettes, the CD age, then, of course, the launch of the Apple iPod and iTunes in the early 2000s, the way we listen to music has changed in so many ways, and continue to do so. Most would agree that despite the resurgence of the vinyl, we are well into the age of digital streaming - billions of songs at our fingertips at any time, across a variety of websites, apps and programs including Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and the fallen kings that were Napster and Grooveshark, for a range of prices. Each of these came with their respective problems, of course. Spotify with it's "not paying the artists enough", Apple Music with it's "not paying the artist at all to start off with" and of course, Tidal and it's millions of bugs and problems since it's disastrous, Jay-Z-led rebranding and relaunch in May 2015 (all of which, have been more or less fixed - bar Tidal). Then, the other day, in came Soundcloud with their new weapon - Soundcloud Go.
Soundcloud has really fallen into a lot of shit recently. It all began a year or so ago, around the time of the first 'Soundcloud Slaughter', where we saw thousands on thousands of bootlegs, remixes, flips, mashups, mixtapes even fully-legal originals removed from the site as per new copyright laws and site changes to protect the property of artists. It was a shitstorm. Since then, most people have moved on and accepted that despite always constantly being a place for emerging artists and creativity, mixes and remixes of high-profile releases don't have a home on Soundcloud, but that it's still a constantly improving, nice, secure place for artists to share their music with their fans (providing they don't completely rip off other artists anyway, which usually leads to a pitchfork-armed URL mob shooting down the artist's every move for the rest of their career). But with Soundcloud Go (Soundcloud's venture into the paid streaming market), I can't help but think that Soundcloud has finally signed their death certificate.
What exactly did Soundcloud promise to deliver with Go?
With the initial announcement of Soundcloud Go and it's accompanying features, we were interested - it looked inviting on paper. More tracks from established and emerging musicians, offline streaming and of course, no ads - all for US$9.99 (however, very confusingly, US$12.99 for iOS), which in comparison to Spotify and Apple Music, is pretty similar. More specifically, Soundcloud Go guaranteed "tons of additional tracks alongside your favorite new artists and indies", promising "a slew of new tracks and albums from the biggest names in music".
At the end of the day, what is Soundcloud really used for? Although it's lacking in big name commercial artists (say your Swifts, your Adeles, and your Biebers), where Soundcloud really delivers above Spotify and Apple Music (both with whom I am currently or formerly holding a paid subscription with) is in music discovery. Just look at the parallel rise of EDM and Soundcloud - with artists like Baauer, RL Grime and Flosstradamus being found on Soundcloud, more people have turned to Soundcloud looking for the next big thing, which has been successful - I can pretty confidently say that 95% of current dance music artists wouldn't exist (or have grown to their current size) without Soundcloud being a prominent streaming platform. That's not all, think of your creative outlets - Moving Castle, Daruma, Alaya even us with our Rat Pack compilations - all operated solely through Soundcloud. So what happens when Soundcloud decides to move into the world of corporate music streaming and away from the world of music discovery? A messy, badly-coordinated, global disaster.
So, what were we delivered with on Soundcloud Go?
In reality, lots of stuff - but probably more than what we bargained for. Although Soundcloud Go is yet to launch in Australia (something I'll touch on in a second), we managed to get our hands on a US account to test it all out. First up - additional music by bigger, and better artists. Upon searching for Lady Gaga (someone I think we would agree is a large, commercial artist), Soundcloud Go delivers nothing bar a minute preview of Applause posted by Interscope. Nothing else. Meanwhile, both Spotify and Apple Music have everything. Radiohead's Soundcloud boasts a single song (Spectre, their James Bond theme), meanwhile, Jack White's artist page is a clean slate. On the other side of things, Spotify and Apple Music have everything. Promising 125 million songs in its library, Soundcloud Go sports approximately 110 million songs or remixes that are user-uploaded and accessible previously - meaning that Soundcloud Go's library size is a tad closer to 15 million, which is around half the size of its competitors (data reported by The Verge).
Then, comes in the dreaded geo-blocking. Geo-blocking (aka errors along the lines of "sorry, this cannot be viewed in your country") is a matter we've had to deal with in Australia for a long time now, however never on Soundcloud. Despite yet to officially launch in Australia, the US launch of Soundcloud Go has seen a shit-tonne of Soundcloud's original tracks geo-blocked. Not just in Australia, but in the UK, Europe, USA and literally everywhere else. Take What So Not's Gemini EP - an Australian artist, released through an Australian record label FOR FREE, with over half of its tracks blocked in Australia. Essentially, with the launch of Soundcloud Go, every single song available through a record label (including our own - nothing we've been in control of) that can be purchased (and in some cases such as the Gemini EP, free downloads), has been geo-blocked. Which to me, is fucking ridiculous. That being said, there are a couple of sneaky, probably illegal workarounds - a good one I recommend is ByeBlock by internet tool developer Jari.IO, just to save you searching (however, it does not work in the US as of yet - a restriction currently being explored).
Then, out of the tracks left available (mainly remixes), many are locked into 'preview mode' - meaning without a Soundcloud Go subscription, only 30 seconds of the track is playable. Fair enough, I guess, as it encourages people to subscribe to the paid model, however, in Australia, WHERE SOUNDCLOUD GO ISN'T EVEN AVAILABLE TO PURCHASE YET, we're still getting locked out of songs. Then comes the ads too, whilst writing this, I was listening to a 30-track Soundcloud playlist on my personal profile. Across those 30 songs, I was greeted by 6, unavoidable adverts. They were short (ranging in 8 seconds to 41 seconds in length), sort of similar to Spotify's advertisements, but unavoidable as you need a Soundcloud Go account to remove ads - once again, unavailable in Australia.
At the end of the day, it was always gonna happen. Upon launching a music streaming site you end up in one of two positions - you sell out, or you shut up shop. With labels such as Sony taking over Soundcloud and calling for the launch of a paid streaming service, the art of discovery that led Soundcloud to become what it is today has been effectively gone. Gone are the days of searching for new artists, trawling through dozens of remixes to find the right one, even gone are the days of slyly sliding in Soundcloud links to inboxes with the attached "peep my Soundcloud bruh". Instead, now we are met with adverts and restrictions. When it comes down to it, the reason why labels and management groups became so involved with Soundcloud and developing a paid subscription is due to arguments that artists don't get paid from Soundcloud streams (something now fixed with Soundcloud Go), but how are you going to pay artists from non-existent subscribers? When compared to the smooth streaming experience, cheaper cost, higher music quality and larger library from the competitors, Soundcloud Go is no match.
So what do we do? Honestly, at the moment it's worth just sitting out and watching how it goes. Good ol' YouTube is pretty chilled when it comes to geo-blocking (unless you're talking copyrighted content) and there's no such thing as shortened previews yet, so it would make a good alternative to listen to everything blocked on Soundcloud. As does websites such as Bandcamp, Beatport, Clyp.It and god forbid, the Yung Lean-rip-off-filled YungCloud. In the long run, new sites will pop up - replacements for these sort of things move fast (remember Limewire?), but they'll all eventually be faced with the same fate as Soundcloud - either sell out to the labels and turn into something it's not, or to shut down and move on, remembering the good days - something I think everybody wishes Soundcloud now did.