The recent pressure on streaming platform SoundCloud has not gone unnoticed by industry commentators who besmirch the phasing out and monetization of this music sharing community. One voice yet to be heard in full is that of the musician. Here Alex Treharne, also know as artist Lex Low and popular HumanHuman user Purple Melon Music, offers up his opinion on the launch of subscription service SoundCloud Go.
I, like many other new music lovers, logged onto SoundCloud one day to discover previously free tracks hidden behind a ‘preview’ wall. Having used SoundCloud as both an artist and a blogger for the last four years I was slightly dismayed. I will be the first to attest that the platform has had multiple issues; an awful mobile app and a service plagued by fake plays are good examples. However, I have always appreciated the gap that SoundCloud bridges between a more traditional streaming service like Spotify and a social hub like Twitter. As a promotional tool, it is invaluable to young independent artists. For example, the ability to engage with fans directly, as they listen to your newest offering is extremely useful.
When I released my first track almost four years ago there was a buzz around SoundCloud. It had become the preferred medium by which respected bloggers ingested new music, embedded widgets were popping up all over the internet and that familiar shade of orange became bonded to the very idea of audio exploration. That widespread visibility was complemented by the fact that it was free and easily accessible. It felt friendly; now the listener could reach you directly rather than through Twitter via iTunes via a blog via Facebook. It was refreshingly meritocratic and seemingly beyond the reach of major label interference.
About three years on from that first release I received an email from PRS, the UK based royalty distribution network, concerning SoundCloud. To cut a long story short, PRS explained that on ‘behalf of songwriters’ the major labels were suing the platform for various copyright breaches, such as: bootleg remixes, covers that hadn’t been given the green light and samples that were never cleared. The scale of the suit had, in my opinion, pushed Soundcloud into a corner. Sure enough, a few months later Soundcloud Go was officially launched. It made me question my own position within the industry. Do I side with the majors, in their pursuit of monetising platforms on my behalf?
I put this very question to Amanda Lundstedt, who performs under her stage name Ayelle. Amanda summed it up perfectly, in her own words:
“Building up a hyped fan base as an independent artist is one thing, but building a financially sustainable fan base is another, which takes time and trust to cultivate without commercial industry shortcuts. The industry isn't making that any easier. In turn we are losing out on sustainable independent artists who value their craft, because they lack a supportive environment. Soundcloud is a prime example of the type of environment we need more of, but it is being threatened instead.”
I appreciate that when an artist enters the industry they tacitly endorse the idea that there’s a monetary value to music. However, the last few years have reinforced my own feeling that there’s a growing chasm between fans and the industry they prop up. It is a feeling that Amanda clearly shares. It started with Napster, and the major labels treating young fans like criminals; not understanding that they were shooting themselves in the foot by doing so. Rather than consulting sites like Napster, on how the Internet was changing the face of the industry, they cast them aside. Apple set up iTunes and the majors had missed a trick. Rather than consulting young entrepreneurs, who knew that purchasing individual tracks was a thing of the past, they dismissed them. Spotify emerged and they had, once again, missed a trick. In order to salvage the situation, deals were hashed out behind the scenes to properly monetise platforms like Spotify, Soundcloud and YouTube.
I grew up in this climate; one where my mates and I, were downloading music in legally dubious ways. As a result, we were being lectured by our parents, who would tell us that our behaviour was morally reprehensible. I didn’t see it that way. When I transitioned from being a listener to a musician I still didn’t see it that way… I still don’t. If someone, for whatever reason, decides that they don’t want to pay for my song then I’d rather they download it illegally than not at all. Not to mention, we’re fighting over pennies here. This quarter, I received 120,000 plays on Spotify. That resulted in a payment of $250. Bearing in mind, I own 100% of the songwriting, that’s a pretty meagre fee. It would be even smaller if you have an advance to pay back, if there’s a co-write or if you’re using a big distributor.
I asked Josh Christopher, of IYES, whether the monetisation of platforms like Soundcloud bothered him. He had this to say:
“Not at all man. I think given it’s 2016, we need to expect monetising platforms to be in place… I feel that it’s a fine balance but I’m quite happy to accept them as the industry is revolved around monetisation like any fucking industry.”
That’s the crux of it. When we enter the industry, we know it’s just that - an industry. It doesn’t make it any less sad when a platform like Soundcloud loses it’s charm, having become another victim of vociferous monetisation. Whilst we are aware that the industry needs revenue, maybe the current model isn’t the best method of monetising creative output. That is to say, maybe charging someone a fee at the point of listening is no longer the way forward. Maybe the music itself is now a promotional tool for building a personal brand rather than the other way round.
Unfortunately, this brand-led music industry severely shortchanges songwriters and producers. Whilst Taylor Swift has earned a reported $170 million this financial year, the songwriters who helped lay the foundation for that success will be paid a relative pittance. A good chunk of Swift’s revenue will be from sponsorships, live shows and merchandise. Perhaps songwriters need to be promised a portion of merchandising revenue directly linked to those tracks that they helped write.
The creative arm of the industry is the heart that provides blood flow to the rest of the beast. Without the music there is no music industry. It seems some people have forgotten that, and it’s the musicians and the fans who pay the price. I asked Gia Koka, songwriter and artist, whether she thought the industry compensated writers fairly. Her response was fairly clear, “NO! Haha but life ain't always fair.” True, it isn’t and it certainly isn’t for musicians and songwriters in the current industry climate. However, we should do our best to make sure that this industry is a little more fair and I personally do not think monetising platforms like Soundcloud will get us there. It hurts the platform itself, it hurts independent artists and most importantly - it hurts the listener’s experience. For what? A tiny share of a few dollars.