A lot of people know UK-based Mixcloud for its collection of DJ mixes, but the company has always had wider horizons. Two years ago, it described itself as an “on-demand radio platform”, while in 2014 it styles itself as “the world’s leading platform for long form audio”.
Launched in 2009, Mixcloud now has 10m listeners accessing it through its site, apps and mobile website. It has more than 500,000 “content partners” and a catalogue of more than 3m “shows” with an average length of 40 minutes.
Last year, the company redesigned its iOS and Android apps and launched the mobile site, but now it’s time for the main website. It’s relaunching today, dubbed ‘Mixcloud X’ and based on some of the lessons learned from the mobile app revamps. It’s faster, looks nicer, and has new features for listeners and content partners alike.
“Mixcloud X is the accumulation of everything coming together,” chief technology officer Mat Clayton told Music Ally, in an interview ahead of the relaunch. “You’ll see a unifying design across everything. A lot of the things we’ve done on mobile are translating across to the desktop. Going into mobile focuses your mind on some of the key features: the order of importance.”
When Mixcloud relaunched its iOS app in May 2013, it was pitched as a shift to a “mobile-first” strategy for the company, in line with a growing number of digital music services. According to CEO Nikhil Shah, mobile usage of Mixcloud is growing, but it’s still just over 25% of overall usage – meaning the website remains hugely important for the company.
Changes like making it easier for people to cue up a series of shows via the ‘Play Queue’ feature re-emphasises the radio-like aspects of Mixcloud: the ability to fire it up, choose a few shows and have a morning or day’s listening all set up.
“Radio is always something that we actively decided to position ourselves around. Radio is big: so many people still listen to the radio, which can be easy to forget if you’re in the digital music world,” said Shah. “There’s something very fuzzy, warm and familiar about radio: that experience is amazing, so we’re just rethinking it for a social media and on-demand world.”
A big part of Mixcloud’s appeal is its creators: DJs (in the radio and/or clubbing sense of the word), journalists and other tastemakers. Diplo, Carl Cox and Moby are just three of the bigger names using it, but there is also a host of less well-known but just-as-interesting curators uploading shows to the service.
That plays into the ongoing debate around music recommendations and humans versus algorithms, with pretty much every streaming service trying to find a good balance of the two. “We’re firm believers that humans can do it better than algorithms can. Humans can out-curate machines. That’s our belief and our long-term bet,” said Clayton. “Ultimately, we believe there are professional DJs for a reason!”
How about brands? They’re getting new “Branded Profiles” on Mixcloud X: pages without ads, which they can customise around their current campaign(s) and content – which on Mixcloud means branded shows and mixes from the likes of Adidas, Malibu, Red Bull and other brands.
“We did some things on the original site with brands, but they were crowbarred in to the old version. This version has been built with that in mind from the ground up,” said Clayton. “The new profile is similar to what a normal user would get, but enhanced for brands massively, rather than what we were doing before, which was trying to make the original profile design fit brands.”
Mixcloud’s business model revolves around working with brands rather than charging creators (the SoundCloud approach) or upselling listeners to a premium subscription. It’s a strategy not a million miles away from what BuzzFeed is doing in the publishing world, with its “native advertising” – articles that look like the site’s trademark listicles, but provided by advertisers rather than contributors.
BuzzFeed’s pitch to advertisers is not just that it will bring eyeballs to their content, but that it will help them understand how to make that content shareable. Mixcloud is working along similar lines.
“We provide the platform for hosting and distributing music and audio content, we can help them with content production by connecting them to our community of creators and DJs, but third, we understand what can drive engagement for these brands,” said Shah. “It’s about producing the right content for the right people in the right way, and we can then seed it to that community.”
He cites a campaign with Adidas in late 2013 as an example, where a 57-minute Adidas Originals “mixtape” created by fellow London startup WhoSampled was listened to more than 40,000 times in its first two weeks – 2.5m minutes of brand engagement, in marketing parlance.
SoundCloud is the obvious company to compare Mixcloud to: both are based on people uploading audio, and both are targeting brands – you can read our interview on SoundCloud’s branding plans here. They’re quite different beasts, though: Shah stressed that the two companies know and like one another, before outlining their differences.
“Our vision was always to build a media company built on discovery for listeners, whereas SoundCloud’s was to be more of a distribution platform for creators. That’s reflected in the product and aesthetics, and in the business model: they charge uploaders, and we make money from brands,” he said.
“We’re like a radio business: a customised next-generation radio platform geared towards listeners. They’re more of a social network around audio, a bit like a next-generation MySpace.” That’s not meant as an insult: Shah added that the two companies are different already, and that this will become even more obvious as both evolve.
Another difference is in licensing, with Mixcloud having struck deals with collecting societies SoundExchange, PRS for Music and PPL, since the radio-like aspect of its service means it doesn’t require direct deals with labels. That’s also the reason you can’t download shows from Mixcloud or jump straight to specific tracks within mixes from a tracklisting: both would change the licensing structure.
“Those are features that would add massively to the site, but for licensing restrictions we’re not going to build them,” said Clayton, matter-of-factly. That’s not something Mixcloud is complaining loudly about, although the fact that entirely unlicensed competitors can build such features – “technically, it’s not hard,” he says – is more of a sore point.
“We put a lot of time, effort and money into acquiring licences for launch, because we wanted to build a serious, legal and legitimate business for consumption of this content, and that was the only way we could do it,” added Shah.
“We’re asked to comment a lot on our views on licensing and the challenges within it, but our view is fairly moderate. It is tough, but not insurmountable. We’ve certainly seen some really good relationships with the collecting societies.”
One final question: with the mobile apps and website relaunched and the mobile website up and running, is Mixcloud thinking about any other platforms for its service? Connected cars were one of the big talking points of this month’s CES trade show, for example, while connected home-audio kit also has potential.
Clayton noted that there is a “big battle over who has the controls” in the automotive market: should apps be written to run on the carmakers’ own platforms for in-dash use, or should the carmakers simply play nice with iOS and Android, so drivers can simply use their usual mobile apps?
“Right now we’re betting on the mobile phone,” said Clayton. “I would bet right now that’s where the future of the automobile industry is, but there’s a lot of toing and froing with the manufacturers rolling out their own platforms. I think apps running on mobile devices will win that.”
He was more positive about the potential of home audio networks for Mixcloud, citing Apple TV and AirPlay, Google’s Chromecast and other emerging technologies for playing streaming audio through hi-fis and speakers around the home.
“There’s a whole load of them popping up, but to me the question is what APIs become available, and whether that gets consolidated. AirPlay is fantastic, but you can only stream from Apple devices to Apple TV or AirPlay-connected speakers. You can’t stream from an Android device,” he said.
Shah chipped in. “If you think about it from an app developer’s point of view, it’s just insane to think you should build an entire platform so you can listen to your app on a speaker,” he said.
“iOS and Android are massive platforms, so nothing’s going to engage that well unless it’s rolled out as part of a global API adopted by both iOS and Android, speaker manufacturers, car manufacturers and everybody else. If they all make their own platforms, it’s going to be a nightmare!”