Wednesday, 21 October 2015

SoundCloud: an Elegy

In 2014, a SoundCloud survey asked: how likely are you to recommend SoundCloud to other people?

I clicked '5' out of a possible '10', and then I began to write in the 'why?' box, but the reply grew too long. Here are some thoughts developed between then and now.

I'm not just a SoundCloud listener. I'm a music maker, a visual artist, and I was the moderator of a SoundCloud group. My motivations tend to be non-mainstream. For instance, I used to recommend SoundCloud to people because it offered access to unusual, non-mainstream music, and audio works which are not even classified as music.

I liked the old menu-bar greeting ('hej, hej', in Dutch). It hinted at resistance to US/UK pop culture, with its glossy, performance-driven karaoke, where musicians are meant to be flattered if their tracks are used as throwaway emotional backstops in movies, sit-coms, and ads. But I probably read too much into that 'hej, hej'.

Recent changes at SoundCloud seem to align it more emphatically with mainstream commercial culture, to the detriment of its individual charm and breadth. That's predictable, but not very interesting to me, artistically-speaking.

In its earlier form, SoundCloud uniquely integrated social networking with the shared activity of listening to sound and music. I enjoyed having micro-conversations with artists via the time-line comments, but after the 2013 redesign, clicking on a timeline comment no longer brought up the whole of a related conversation (the chain of replies and replies-to-replies). It didn't even bring up the whole comment, if it was longer than a few words.

To even try to engage in a conversation via SoundCloud track comments after 2013 you had to navigate to a separate page dedicated to a given track, where it could be difficult to  read comments and replies sequentially, and so to have a conversation. The effect of this was to bring listening into conflict with social interaction on SoundCloud, and so to undermine one of the truly unique qualities of the platform. Overwhelmingly, comments have become the textual equivalent of yelps from a crowd.

SoundCloud groups were passed over in the 2013 design changes. Technically, the group moderator interface remained in an old "classic" form, there was no added functionality in terms of rearranging tracks in groups, making the page more attractive, or anything else. Behind the scenes at SoundCloud, groups seemed to be of little interest. In 2015 the process of listening to group submissions became incredibly fiddly and time-consuming, apparently because the old "classic" format made it easy for users to rip (copy) tracks against the wishes of the owners. Interestingly, SoundCloud chose to address this security issue at a time when it was negotiating licensing deals with corporate rights holders: perhaps not out of concern for the rights of individual (independent) users, then?

Keeping a SoundCloud group going takes time, and in 2015 it feels as though it might be wasted time, as though an individual content creator is by their very existence swimming against the tide of corporate priorities. I asked if this was the case on a SoundCloud forum, and received a reply from SoundCloud that I would be wise not to spend too much time moderating my group, as there were no plans to support groups in future. A straightforward answer, at least. [1]

I also suggested that the data-and-metrics driven model of online commerce to which SoundCloud seemed drawn was bound to be less engaged with the quality of any online interaction with music. That idea was resisted, with a response implying that all my clicks "counted". Well, exactly: "clicks" are, precisely, "counted", and aggregated as quantitative evidence of basic interaction; but that doesn't provide qualitative insight.

All this means that as a user I am more ambivalent about SoundCloud than I would have been a few years ago. It seems that the push is on to align the platform with the buzzy idea of "music discovery", and to monetise it, over and above the level achieved via user subscriptions. I note that the shift to commercial orthodoxy doesn't usually favour small, independent players (see: YouTube contract changes around monetisation, miserable payouts to independent artists on streaming platforms, etc.).

Having said all this, as a single user of a free account I share none of the risks taken by those who created SoundCloud. I must acknowledge that its owners can do what they want with it,  and that my particular disappointments will probably not be of concern in the drive to leverage company value prior to sale or flotation.

I am, after all: dyspeptic, anti-blandout, economically-disenfranchised-and-not-very-interested-in-money.