“There was witch-hop, of course, and then mermaid. And I’ve created a brand new genre called churchstep…”
SoundCloud co-founder and CTO Eric Wahlforss – aka Forss in his musician guise – is whizzing Music Ally through his feed of tracks from friends and fellow artists on his company’s revamped iPhone app, which launches today. I’ve never heard of witch-hop, mermaid or churchstep, but Wahlforss, thankfully, is far too polite to comment on my panicked out-of-my-musical-depth facial expression.
Anyway, he’s got an app to show off. SoundCloud has gone back to the drawing board for its iPhone app, with a slick design and functionality boiled down to three core features: listening to a feed of music (whether your personal stream or what’s generally trending); searching SoundCloud’s now-massive catalogue of music and other audio content; and accessing your saved tracks and playlists.
Yes, that does mean the ability to record from your iPhone has been ditched. With partner apps from other developers taking up the slack, SoundCloud’s new app is all about the listening experience.
“For us, it’s a snapshot of how our vision of the listener experience has been evolving. Can we make it more visual and simpler, so it’s easier to discover and hear more stuff, to collect things and listen to them again,” says Wahlforss, speaking to Music Ally a couple of weeks before the update goes live on Apple’s App Store.
“The old app has been around for a while now, and it’s really time to change. It’s been completely rewritten from scratch, so it’s way more stable, and we can roll new features out much more quickly. And boiling the app down to a much simpler essence is going to influence what we do back on the desktop in the future. This really puts a flag in the ground of where we are now.”
The most interesting thing about the new app is how much it feels like a personal radio service: start playing a song in your feed of tracks from friends and artists you follow, and you can leave it playing in the background, moving from song to song while you do other stuff.
In the coming weeks and months, more new features – playlist creation and audio caching in particular – will emphasise that even more. SoundCloud says that two thirds of its total listening now happens on mobile devices – up from half six months ago – with the service now reaching 250m people a month.
All of these things, of course, are likely to increase the pressure on SoundCloud to start paying royalties to musicians (or, to be specific, to labels, publishers and collecting societies) for streams of their music on its platform. Historically, SoundCloud’s value for artists – who willingly upload their songs – has been its promotional value, plus the analytics it provides them on who’s listening.
That value exchange appears to have been well understood: you haven’t seen artists complaining about SoundCloud publicly in the same way some have about, say, Spotify. But in the background, the rightsholders that represent them have been keen for SoundCloud to lay out its strategy to a.) start making money and b.) start sharing that money with music rightsholders. A $60m funding round in January came amid rumours of licensing negotiations, too.
“We’re extremely proud of our relationship with the whole music business: we’ve been working very closely with major labels, small labels and distributors since forever really, and we’re progressing those relationships over time,” says Wahlforss.
“Right now in the US we’re experimenting with different monetisation approaches. We’re testing out different things: throwing a couple of things out there and testing the waters a bit. We’re super-excited about where this stuff can go. When you have millions of followers and millions of listeners, you’ve got some point expecting there to be some sort of monetisation there. We hear that loud and clear.”
SoundCloud isn’t saying too much about those US experiments – Wahlforss mentions “native-type advertising things” and partnerships with brands, but warns that it’s still early days. SoundCloud hired former Muve Music boss Jeff Toig in September 2013 as its chief business officer to oversee these efforts, and earlier this month opened its first proper office in New York to house its growing commercial team.
What else is happening on SoundCloud? More curation, according to Wahlforss. He picks out producer Diplo as a prime example – he has launched a separate account called Diplo Approved to promote the music he’s been sent by emerging artists – but notes that many artists on SoundCloud are doing more reposting of tracks from friends, or simply from new artists that they’ve spotted bubbling up.
“We have big artists interacting with up and coming artists, finding new talent and breaking them through their own profiles, reposting their songs,” he says. “I think more and more artists are realising the power of that network effect: maybe they’re not creating all the content themselves. There’s also curation in there.”
SoundCloud is unsurprisingly shouting about its role as a platform for new artists to be discovered: the fact that it had an embeddable widget right from its early days made it a favourite for influential music bloggers, for example. And for all the talk about Sean Parker making Lorde’s Royals a global hit through his Spotify playlist, the track originally broke on SoundCloud.
“In the beginning, we were fantasising about someone breaking through on SoundCloud and becoming a number one artist. Then Lorde did exactly that,” says Wahlforss. “She posted Royals 15 months ago or so, and then a few months later she was top of the charts globally.”
He points to a blog post by Lorde earlier this year: “this time last year i was making a soundcloud, and a twitter, and a tumblr, all in the name lorde. i had no clue what was going to happen with the music. i hoped it’d be alright,” she wrote.
“The differentiation here is really the community and the bonds between the people interacting. It starts with the creators and makes bigger and bigger circles,” says Wahforss. “It’s about embracing the core of what the web is, and what the web can be. It’s real-time, read/write, open, and things can go really viral.
Mobile is a very big deal for SoundCloud already – just to recap: two thirds of its listening happens on mobile devices now – with Wahlforss saying this is the key influence on the company’s product development.
“We’re growing extremely fast, and the growth is driven by mobile, so that’s why we’re focusing almost all of our attention in terms of the listening experience on mobile,” he says.
SoundCloud is also working hard on its back-end, including analytics, with a recently-relaunched stats system to show more granular data to its creators. “We’re getting a lot better at deeper: the things we threw out a couple of years ago, we’ve now been able to iterate on them,” he says.
“The stats alone took literally years to perfect, and they’re extremely valuable: we have a goldmine of data. It’s real-time, relevant data: basically the latest trends in everything, including genres that emerge from nowhere and then get built on SoundCloud.” Which is the point Music Ally finds itself boggling at the thought of mermaid and churchstep.
With these new genres, and artists like early-days Lorde who’ve yet to build a following, can SoundCloud do more to improve its own curation and discovery features? The Trending Music stream in its new app is one way to listen to a feed of new stuff, but SoundCloud can play an even stronger role in helping people navigate its vast catalogue.
“That’s a super-interesting question: we’re doing more and more in terms of understanding the unique content we have. We have automatic classification systems now, where when content comes in we know if it’s speech or music or just noise, we know what type of music it is, if it contains piano, if it contains a vocal, what BPM it is… A lot of these things we can figure out automatically,” he says.
“We’re getting better at all this over time: we have recommender algorithms that are getting continuously improved as well: you can give it one piece of content and it will show you similar things in the same universe, and create an extended listening session based on that. And this, plus the catalogue and the recency of everything, is what creates this unique listening experience. Pandora could never create the same kind of radio experience. Spotify could never do that.”
SoundCloud is also continuing to work on the ecosystem of apps around its service, most obviously on the recording side: essentially it wants to be an upload option in any significant music creation app.
Playback? That’s more complicated. SoundCloud has always been open in terms of tracks being embeddable on other sites: “It’s super-important that any artist, label, newspaper, magazine, podcaster, comedian – whoever – should be able to have an integrated experience on wherever their property is,” says Wahlforss.
Third-party apps letting people stream SoundCloud, and/or rip songs for offline listening? Not so much. “We battle, together with Google and Apple, and they take them down as well,” he says. “We’re focusing much more on content protection and security more generally: that’s one of our competencies: dealing with copyright and being very mindful of that stuff. We are super-responsive in taking stuff down if anyone has a problem.”
That can be controversial in itself, for example a recent spat with dance artist Kaskade over some of his mash-ups being taken down from SoundCloud, which led to him criticising the service online – although his real beef was with what he saw as “out of touch and irrelevant” copyright legislation:
“Soundcloud is beholden to labels to keep copyright protected music (read: all music put out by a label, any label) off their site unless authorized by the label. Am I authorized to post my music? Yep. Does their soulless robot program know that? Not so much. So some stuff they pulled was mistakenly deleted, but some tracks were absolutely rule breakers. The mash ups.”
Wahlforss is philosophical about the row: “In his case, it’s more about the relationship with his label,” he says, before talking more generally about how artists are using SoundCloud, and working within its rules – not to mention the copyright rules that it has to work within.
“Some artists really get this idea of a real-time expression platform where anyone can participate and super-quickly get to listen to the latest stuff. That’s what we want to get to, and we think the artists and labels that embrace that paradigm are the ones who’ll win on our platform,” he says.
“With copyright, one of our core things is learning how to navigate that, and helping labels and artists to navigate through it. The alternative to what we do is whatever it was before, which was a complete jungle with no control. What rightsholders appreciate with us is they have a level of control: they can see what’s going on with their content, and understand that better. But it can definitely improve, and we are working on that.”
The conversation turns back to Lorde posting her debut EP on SoundCloud in 2012, and now a global star.
“She showed it’s actually so simple: you don’t need to go through a digital distribution chain, you don’t need to be signed to a label, you don’t need to master your record. You can just run it through a limiter in the latest digital audio workstation software. It works well enough to get the first thing out, although sure, you can go to a mastering studio later if you want,” says Wahlforss.
“But you can mix stuff on a laptop and it will sound pretty good if you know what you are doing. It’s all there: it can get completely disintermediated and democratised. We’re seeing more and more people taking advantage of this, but it’s still relatively early: I think we underestimated how long it will actually take to have that [digital] literacy: people understanding what it is. But if this can help the balance shift ever so slightly in favour of the artist, it’s a fantastic development.”