soundcloud-pro-partnerAudio platform SoundCloud is shaking up its premium subscription plans, including introducing a new Pro Partner scheme to attract more brands and media companies.

Announced today at SXSW in Austin, two new premium tiers – Pro and Pro Unlimited – will replace SoundCloud’s current four-tier system of Lite, Solo, Pro and Pro Plus accounts, which are offered in addition to its free basic service.

Until now, SoundCloud’s most popular tier has been Lite, which costs €29 a year and offered four upload hours and light analytics.

€79 a year or €9 a month got the Solo tier with 12 hours; €250 a year or €29 a month got Pro with 36 hours and better support and analytics; and €500 a year or €59 a month got Pro Plus with unlimited upload hours and all the extras.

From today, these four premium tiers are being replaced by Pro – which costs €29 a year or €3 a month for four upload hours – and Pro Unlimited, which costs €99 a year or €9 a month for unlimited upload hours.

Pro Partner sits on top of these tiers, in beta for invited partners, with prices negotiated individually. Those on board for launch include artists (Snoop Lion, The Dream), brands (Red Bull Sound Select, Blue Bottle Coffee) and media (The Guardian, Warner Bros Pictures, Nerdist).

SoundCloud’s head of brand communications Mark Dewings tells Music Ally that the changes are designed to “introduce a way for brands and music or audio partners to amplify themselves better on this platform”, particularly at Pro Partner level.

These partners will get some brand new features for their money, including more-visual profiles with ‘Moving Sounds’ – images that change as a particular sound or track is played, turning SoundCloud into a musical slideshow.

Pro Partners will also be able to pay SoundCloud to have their profiles appear in its new Promoted Profiles feature, although Dewings says the company is working with its beta partners to figure out exactly how much this will cost.

“We’re working with this small number of brands and creators to understand how we can help them get visibility on the platform, and at the same time do that in a way that’s organic to SoundCloud,” he says.

SoundCloud_Premium screenshot“We do often get questions about how we’re introducing brands to the platform, and in fact there have been a number of them already using it off their own backs. So we’re finding ways of working with them to find an offering that really works for them.”

Dewings is keen to stress that anything SoundCloud does with brands – including these new features, which he says will soon filter down to creators on the Pro and Pro Unlimited tiers as well – is intended to be beneficial for SoundCloud’s community of creators and listeners.

“The brands have to be sound creators. It’s not just a billboard or banner in that sense,” says Dewings. “It’s authentic use of sound for what’s essentially branded content. But the Moving Sounds also work very well for music and audio, as we’re seeing already with Snoop Lion and The Guardian.”

The changes come at an important time for SoundCloud, which raised a reported $50m of funding in January 2012 to continue developing its platform as something bigger than just music.

SoundCloud currently attracts 180m monthly unique visitors to listen to creators’ sounds, with a number of music artists racking up hundreds of thousands of followers on the platform.

For now, though, some of SoundCloud’s new features – including the Moving Sounds – will only be available on its website, rather than in its own mobile apps, or in its SoundCloud widgets which artists can embed elsewhere on the web.

“Right now it’s only available on the site, but I think we will see potential in doing other things,” says Dewings.

“The widget is an obvious place, and we see huge potential in mobile, where a lot of really interesting listening behaviour is happening. So it’s in the nature of SoundCloud to ensure we’re looking across the platform [to launch new features].”

How will artists react? There’s an interesting and important debate going on about SoundCloud’s role for musicians, most recently summed up in this blog post by digital marketer Darren Hemmings.

He pointed to the fact that SoundCloud doesn’t pay artists for streams of tracks that they upload to its service, claimed that the company needs to do more to demonstrate how it provides value in other ways, and suggested that it may be having an “identity crisis of sorts”, caught between being a music service, a marketing platform and a social network.

Per-stream payments for creators aren’t part of today’s announcements, and there’s no indication that they’re coming any time soon. Instead, the news does seem to emphasise SoundCloud’s role as a destination for listening, rather than the thing many musicians and music marketers are using it for: that portable widget to embed their tracks anywhere on the web.

“Adding header images and additions to the main profile page on SoundCloud is nice, but is not the reason people like me use that service,” Hemmings tells Music Ally today.

“I’d be a lot more excited if SoundCloud announced multiple buy buttons, geo-aware link support, even more player types, or rolled out some of the cooler apps people like Lee Martin had created before now to provide artists with a more engaging means to present their music.”

This, he admits, may simply show the disconnect between how some music marketers think of SoundCloud, and how the company thinks of itself going forward. But it’s fair to say today’s changes don’t address that thorny debate on artist payments.

Dewings prefers to focus on other benefits. “Pro accounts are essentially becoming more accessible to people at €3 a month for a Pro account and €9 for Pro Unlimited, but we’re also making efforts to find ways for SoundCloud to be an even more useful platform, including musicians,” he says.

“SoundCloud’s starting point was a tool for creators, but as we extend and encompass the idea of building audiences, we’re looking at additional tools and features that other partners need. This is a first step along the way.”