SoundCloud: A Platform for Artistic Expression

Hanan Abdellatif

INTRODUCTION

SoundCloud is a digital music sharing and streaming service. It is available as a mobile app or an online site that can be accessed using a desktop device. The streaming service was founded in 2007 by Alexander Ljung and Swedish electronic musical artist Eric Wahlforss in Stockholm, Sweden. It is designed to be very accessible, offering both free and paid membership for its users, making it one of the most easily available music streaming services online.

Since 2007, the company has become a worldwide phenomenon, and has more than 175 million monthly users today. In the last ten years, SoundCloud has made its mark on the music industry. It has transformed the sphere of talent  and has opened up brand new opportunities for aspiring artists. Many successful artists, including Chance The Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, Post Malone, Khalid, and Lil Yachty, began their careers on SoundCloud, which became an instrumental platform in their rise to musical fame. 

This study will examine the Circuit of Culture that characterizes SoundCloud as a function of the music industry, and specifically, the interrelated aspects of the Circuit: Production, Consumption, Identity, Regulation, and Representation.

Creators of SoundCloud Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss

PRODUCTION/CONSUMPTION

Circuit of Culture

This section will analyze how SoundCloud functions as a production of culture. Studying production is not only studying how the subject is produced technically as an artifact. Production examines how the artifact produces cultural meaning, and how the inherent structure, features, or character of the artifact produces culture. What about the process of production has cultural meaning?

This section will also delve into the nature of consumption on SoundCloud and the implications it has had for the consumption of music. Studying consumption involves studying how consumers actively create meaning in an artifact in the ways they use it in their daily lives. 

How does SoundCloud facilitate the production and consumption of music?

SoundCloud is a unique audio sharing service because it has provided a platform to aspiring artists who would have otherwise not had one. Its unique structure and accessibility make it a hotbed of young talent. 

SoundCloud has certain features that make it a breeding ground for successful musicians. Special aspects make SoundCloud unique. These features include:

  1. Listening is unlimited—even for users with free membership.
  2. Tracks are displayed as sound waves in real time, which allows listeners to comment on a particular part of the track as the song is played. These are called “timed comments” and are visible to all users listening to the audio.
  3. Users can like, comment on, and share tracks. Users can create their own playlists, which enables music discovery and makes SoundCloud a very social space. They also have the ability to follow other users and artists they like most. They have unlimited access to these users’ music and playlists they have created.
  4. The design of SoundCloud is geared toward creators of music. Creators can view statistics on their audio or music, including listens, shares, comments, likes, and reposts, which adds to SoundCloud as a very social space. Creators can use commenting features to reply to other users and their listeners. They can also manage uploads and receive and respond to feedback from listeners.
These aspects of SoundCloud allow new artists, who would otherwise be unfamiliar to the production of music, to adapt and grow into their identities as artists. Furthermore, SoundCloud makes it easy for new, inexperienced, young artists to upload their music and receive feedback organically.
 

“Democratization of Music”

The “Democratization of Music” is the phenomenon characterized by the expansion of the music industry. It involves the creation of opportunities for artists who do not come from elite musical backgrounds, and artists who do not have access to expensive resources or recording studios. SoundCloud is part of the “democratization of music” because it provides a platform and a creative outlet for artists attempting to launch their careers without requiring a hefty cost. Creators have liberal access to an audience for their music. It has transformed the culture of musical production and consumption because it has opened up millions of listeners to artists they would have never discovered otherwise.

“Culture of Connectivity”

The “Culture of Connectivity” refers to the nature of SoundCloud as a social space. SoundCloud’s uniqueness is inextricable from this phenomenon. The service cannot work without the interaction between creators and listeners. Inherent to what makes SoundCloud a platform form for musical production and consumption is the way it connects its users. Features like commenting and sharing make it a a social space that transforms and facilitates the consumption of music.

Below is a track released by Lil Uzi Vert on SoundCloud in 2017 called “XO TOUR Llif3.” This was the first version of the track that Lil Uzi Vert released, but the song is now one of his biggest hits and one of the most popular songs in the Rap/Hip-Hop genre in recent years. If you play the track, you will be able to see the “timed comments” as you listen to it.

“XO TOUR Llif3” has become one of Lil Uzi Vert’s most popular songs, and was first released on SoundCloud on February 26th, 2017
SoundCloud’s statistical display of listens, shares, likes, comments, and reposts visible to the creator of the audio

IDENTITY

Circuit of Culture

This section will examine the identity of SoundCloud in the public sphere. Studying identity involves the analysis of how SoundCloud’s identity is constantly being reinvented and reimagined and how it possesses cultural meaning. SoundCloud’s cultural identity functions as a form of social media.  

SoundCloud’s Identity as Social Media

SoundCloud functions uniquely because it is not only a music streaming and sharing service. Since its conception in 2007, it has evolved to function as a quasi-social media service as well. On SoundCloud, creators are able to build and develop their very own network of users, similar to how social media influencers build a following and fan base. Following, liking, and commenting on SoundCloud have made it a conducive environment for community building and socialization. Creators and listeners are able to connect with others in ways that are not necessarily possible on other music streaming and sharing services like Apple Music and Spotify. Individual users on SoundCloud can produce and consume the content of their choice while also feeling part of a crowd of listeners. The service also uses a suggestion algorithm that can be used to connect users to new music and new artists. 

This aspect of the service has also allowed artists to launch their careers. Most commenting on the app is positive commentary on the track or artist, but is also used by creators to interact with their listeners.

SoundCloud’s visual presence on a mobile app. This image also features the suggestions algorithm, which includes suggestions like “More of what you like,” and “Artists you should know”

REGULATION

Circuit of Culture

This section will focus on both the regulation of SoundCloud and SoundCloud’s impact upon the regulation of culture. Studying regulation is studying how the artifact transformed or challenged what was once culturally “traditional” or “standard.”

Regulation and Financial Strain 

SoundCloud is very much publicly regulated by its users. Its users hold it to a high standard that involves protecting creators and continuing to promote and facilitate creativity. However, one setback the service confronts and must continue to grapple with is its dependency on the “culture of connectivity.” This phenomenon has become problematically integral to the service. Its dependency on this factor has placed financial strain on the company. Users have expressed concern about financial strain and the fact that it has opened up the possibility of corporate control and/or buyout. What makes SoundCloud a liberal, creative outlet is the fact that users have autonomy. Corporate control could potentially threaten this aspect of the service.
 
SoundCloud has also struggled with intellectual property conflicts. It has the obligation to protect its grassroots artists, but has not lived up to this obligation in recent years. Because of financial strain and pressure from competing interests, executives at SoundCloud have been forced to appeal to others. A few incidents stand out:
1. In 2014, SoundCloud granted unlimited removal power to certain copyright holders, which has endangered content and creators’ intellectual property. It would also allow these copyright holders to remove content without due recourse. 
2. In 2016, SoundCloud announced that it would phase out certain groups of artists and certain content that were not promoting the circulation of new and popular music in the ways SoundCloud desired. This announcement was met by outrage from both users and artists because it would render the production of music (which makes SoundCloud unique) limited in certain ways. 
 
Nonetheless, SoundCloud’s largest and most pressing obstacle is financial strain. Despite the fact that the service has made stars out of so many artists, it lacks financial stability. To address this problem, some artists have rallied and pledged to support SoundCloud. Below is a tweet published by Chance The Rapper shortly after questions of SoundCloud’s survival were circulating.  
Chance The Rapper, who began his career on SoundCloud, remains committed to the survival of SoundCloud

REPRESENTATION

Circuit of Culture

This section will analyze the ways in which SoundCloud is represented. Studying representation involves asking questions like: how is SoundCloud represented and who represents it? It also involves studying how it is represented in different environments, and what its representations mean for broader culture. 

Representation: Who Represents SoundCloud?

SoundCloud is overwhelmingly represented as a platform for independent artists and musicians. It has become an outlet for creative expression and platform for success in the music industry. Many successful artists credit some of their success to SoundCloud, and have shared that it was an instrumental aspect of launching their careers as artists. Among successful artists who began their careers on SoundCloud include Lil Uzi Vert (mentioned above), Khalid, Chance The Rapper, and Post Malone. Between these artists are twenty-three Grammy nominations, three Grammy wins, and several platinum albums. Lil Uzi Vert first released “XO TOUR Llif3” as a single on SoundCloud in 2017. The song peaked at number seven on the Billboard music charts two months after its release and is arguably Lil Uzi Vert’s most popular song, among his own fans and fans of the Rap/Hip-Hop genre. Additionally, the song has accumulated over one billion streams on Spotify. SoundCloud facilitated the explosion of “XO TOUR Llife3” and the explosion of Lil Uzi Vert as an artist. He is now highly regarded as a staple of his genre and one of the newest, most interesting artists in the music industry. 

These artists represent SoundCloud and function as a symbol of SoundCloud as a creative platform and social space capable of launching musical careers. Below is a Tweet published by Khalid expressing gratitude for SoundCloud, as well as a video tracking Khalid’s rise to popularity as an artist. 

Tweet published by Khalid owing his rise to musical fame to SoundCloud

THE FUTURE OF SOUNDCLOUD

Though grappling with financial struggles, SoundCloud continues to act as a platform for young, aspiring artists. Furthermore, with its impressive alumni network, SoundCloud is positively represented in popular culture, and can rely its reputation as an artist factory in the future.

SoundCloud has also changed the nature of certain kinds of music. A new generation of artists, termed “SoundCloud rappers,” have taken the Rap/Hip-Hop genre by storm. They have brought streaming on SoundCloud into the cultural mainstream. These young rappers are transforming the Rap/Hip-Hop genre and changing the cultural identity of Rap/Hip-Hop more broadly. 

Successful artists have promised support for the streaming service, and owe the beginnings of their careers to the site. If SoundCloud can manage to survive, it will continue to contribute to the production of  the music industry’s newest, most popular breakout artists in a way that other streaming services cannot compete with. SoundCloud has promoted new artists to the forefront of the music industry and has made successful careers possible for those who may not have ever dreamed of them. 

Artists who have launched their careers on SoundCloud, featuring Chance The Rapper, Russ, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, XXXTentacion, and others