As we remember Alan R. Pearlman and the impact his instruments had on music, here’s a survey of the many places ARP sounds appeared in music culture. It’s a reminder of just how profound electronic music tools can be in their influence – and of the unique age in which we live.
Perhaps now is the perfect time for an ARP revival. With modular synthesis reaching ever-wider audiences, the ARP creations – the 2500, 2600, and Odyssey featured here – represent something special. Listen across these tracks, and you’re struck by the unique colors of those ARP creations across a range of genres. It’s also significant that each of these designs in their own way struck a balance between modularity and accessibility, sound design and playability. That includes making instruments that had modular patching capability but also produced useful sounds at each patch point by default – that is, you don’t have to wire things up just to make something happen. That in turn also reduces cable spaghetti, because the patch connections you make represent the particular decisions you made deviating from the defaults. On the 2500, this involves a matrix (think Battleship games, kids), which is also a compelling design in the age of digital instruments and software.
And lest we get lost in sound design, it’s also worth noting how much these things get played. In the era of Eurorack, it’s easy to think music is just about tweaking … but sometimes it’s just as useful to have a simple, fresh sound and then just wail on it. (Hello, Herbie Hancock.)
It’s easy to forget just how fast musical sound has moved in a couple of generations. An instrument like the piano or violin evolved over centuries. Alan R. Pearlman literally worked on some of the first amplifiers to head into space – the Mercury and Gemini programs that first sent Americans into space and orbit, prior to Apollo’s journey to the moon. And then he joined the unique club of engineers who have remade music – a group that now includes a lot of you. (All of you, in fact, once you pick up these instruments.)
So I say go for it. Play a preset in a software emulation. Try KORG’s remake of the Odyssey. Turn a knob or re-patch something. Make your own sound design – and don’t worry about whether it’s ingenious or ground-breaking, but see what happens when you play it. (Many of my, uh, friends and colleagues are in the business of creating paid presets, but I have the luxury of making some for my own nefarious music production purposes that no one else has to use, so I’m with you!)
David Abravanel puts together this playlist for CDM:
Some notes on this music:
You know, we keep talking about Close Encounters, but the actual sound of the ARP 2500 is very limited. The clip I embedded Monday left out the ARP sound, as did the soundtrack release of John Williams’ score. The appearance is maybe more notable for the appearance of ARP co-founder David Friend at the instrument – about as much Hollywood screen time as any synth manufacturer has ever gotten. Oh, and … don’t we all want that console in our studio? But yes, following this bit, Williams takes over with some instrumental orchestration – gorgeous, but sans-ARP.
So maybe a better example of a major Hollywood composer is Jerry Goldsmith. The irony here is, I think you could probably get away with releasing this now. Freaky. Family Guy reused it (at the end). We’ll never defeat The Corporation; it’s true.
It’s also about time to acknowledge that Stevie Wonder combined Moog and ARP instruments, not just Moog. As our industry looks at greater accessibility, it’s also worth noting that Wonder was able to do so without sight.
What about U2? Well, that’s The Edge’s guitar routed through the ARP 2600 for filter distortion and spring reverb. That’s a trick you can steal, of course – especially easily now that Arturia has an emulation of the 2600.
Expect our collective reader knowledge exceeds anything we can contribute so – let us know what other artists using ARP inspired you, and if you have any notes on these selections.
Spotify has begun opening uploading not just to labels and distributors, but individual artists. And the implications of that could be massive, if the service is expanded – or if rivals follow suit.
On reflection, it’s surprising this didn’t happen sooner.
Among major streaming players, currently only SoundCloud lets individual artists upload music directly. Everyone else requires intermediaries, whether that’s labels or distributors. The absurdity of this system is that services like TuneCore have profited off streaming growth. In theory, that might have meant that music selections were more “curated” and less junk showed up online. In reality, though, massive amounts of music get dumped on all the streaming services, funneling money from artists and labels into the coffers of third-party services. That arrangement surely makes no sense for the likes of Spotify, Apple, Google, and others as they look to maximize revenue.
You’ll upload via a new Web-based upload tool. Check the tool and FAQ.
It’s invite-only for now. A “small group of artists” has access for testing and feedback, Spotify says.
It won’t cost anything, and access to releases will be streamlined. No fees, the full commission – the deal is better financially. And you’ll be able to edit releases and delete music, which can be a draconian process now through distributors.
Regions are a big question. The tax section currently refers to the W9 – a tax form in use in the USA. So clearly the initial test is US-only; we’ll see what the plans are for other regions.
You have to look into the future before this really starts to matter, because it is so limited. But it could be a sign of things to come. And bottom line, Spotify can give you a better experience of what your music will be like on Spotify than anyone else can:
You’ll be able to deliver music straight to Spotify and plan for the perfect release day. You’ll see a preview of exactly how things will appear to listeners before you hit submit. And even after your music goes live, you’ll be in full control of your metadata with simple and quick edits.
Just like releasing through any other partner, you’ll get paid when fans stream your music on Spotify. Your recording royalties will hit your bank account automatically each month, and you’ll see a clear report of how much your streams are earning right next to the other insights you already get from Spotify for Artists. Uploading is free to all artists, and Spotify doesn’t charge you any fees or commissions no matter how frequently you release music.
The question really is how far they’ll expand, and how quickly. If they use all of Spotify for Artists, as their blog news item would seem to imply, then some 200,000 or so verified artist accounts will get the feature. (I’m one of those accounts.) 200,000 artists with direct access to Spotify could change the game for everyone.
The potential losers here are clear. First, there are the distributors. So-called “digital distribution” at this point really amounts to nothing of the sort. While these third parties will get your music out to countless streaming services, for most artists and labels, only the big ones like iTunes and Spotify count to most of their customers. At the entry level, these services often carry hefty ongoing subscription fees while providing little service other than submitting your music. More personalized distributors, meanwhile, often require locking in multi-year contracts. (I, uh, speak from experience on both those counts. It’s awful.)
Even the word “distributor” barely makes sense in the current digital context. Unlike a big stack of vinyl, nothing is actually really getting distributed. More complete management and monetization platforms actually do make sense – plus tools to deal with the morass of social media. Paying a toll to a complicated website to upload music for you? That defies reason.
The second potential loser that comes to mind is obviously SoundCloud. Once beloved by independent producers and labels, that service hasn’t delivered much on its promise of new features for its creators. (Most recently, they unveiled a weekly playlist that seems cloned from Spotify’s feature.) And SoundCloud’s ongoing popularity with users was dependent of having music that couldn’t be found elsewhere. If artists can upload directly to Spotify, well … uh, game over, SoundCloud. (Yeah, you still might want to upload embeddable players and previews but other services could do that better.)
Just keep in mind: Spotify for Artists was 200,000 users at the beginning of summer. At least as of 2014, SoundCloud was creating 10 million creators. So it’s not so much SoundCloud losing as it is another sign that SoundCloud won’t really take on Spotify – just as Spotify (even with this functionality) really doesn’t even attempt to take on SoundCloud. They’re different animals, and it’s frustrating that SoundCloud hasn’t done more to focus on that difference.
But all this still remains to be seen in action – it’s just a beta.
Just remember how this played out the first time. Spotify reached a critical mass of streaming, and Apple followed. If Spotify really are doing uploads, it’d make sense for Apple to do the same. After all, Apple makes the hardware (MacBook Pro, iPad) and software (GarageBand, Logic Pro X) a lot of musicians are using. And they tempted to capitalize on their strong relationships with artists once, with the poorly designed Connect features (touted by Trent Reznor, no less). They just lag Spotify in this area – with the beta Apple Music for Artists and Apple Music Toolbox.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t write off labels or genre-specific stores just yet. If you’re making music in a genre for a more specific audience, dumping your music on Spotify where it’s lost in the long tail is probably exactly what you don’t want to do. Streaming money from the big consumer services just isn’t reaching lesser known artists the way it is the majors and big acts. So I suspect that perversely, the upload feature could lead to an even closer relationship between, say, electronic label producers and labels and services tailored to their needs, like Beatport. (We’re waiting on Beatport’s own subscription offerings soon.)
But does this make sense? It sure does for the streaming service. Giving the actual content makers the tools to upload and control tags and other data should actually reduce labor costs for streaming services, entice more of the people making music, and build catalogs.
And what about you as a music maker? Uh, well… strap in, and we find out.
Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.
If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.
The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)
The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.
Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now
IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.
It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.
Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)
What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.
Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.
Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.
But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.
Automation and Power
“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.
That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.
There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.
At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.
What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.
In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.
We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.
Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)
There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.
Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.
AI, back in user hands
Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.
We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.
When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.
Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.
The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.
Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.
We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.
We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.
PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.
NUGEN Audio has released version 1.5 of its MasterCheck Pro loudness, dynamics, and codec toolset. The update comes with enhancements embracing support for the Apple AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) iTunes Plus native OS X codec and also the PSR (Peak to Short-Term Loudness Ratio) measurement update to AES Engineering Brief 373. “I have to deliver […]
The biggest break from how we’ve normally thought about DJ software comes in the form of automatic mixing and selection tools. One is powered by machine learning working with DJ sets, and one from data collected from listening (Spotify).
Automix AI is a new mixing technology. And hold on to your hats, folks, if the “sync” button was unnerving to you, this goes further.
When we say “A.I.,” we’re really talking machine learning – that is, “training” algorithms on large sets of data. In this case, that data comes from existing DJ sets. (Algoriddim tells CDM that was drawn from a variety of DJs, mostly in hip-hop and electronic genres.) Those sets were analyzed according to various sonic features, and the automixing applies those to your music. So this isn’t just about mixing two different techno tracks with mechanical efficiency – it’s meant to go further across different tempos and genres.
It’s also more than matching tempo. Automix AI will identify where the transition occurs, decide how long the fade should be, and apply filters and EQ. So, if you’ve ever listened to existing Automix features and how clumsy they are with starting and stopping tracks, this takes a different approach. Algoriddim explains to CDM:
The core of this tech is finding good start and end regions for transition between two songs, while also respecting the corresponding sound energies and choosing an appropriate transition accordingly (e.g. most likely EQ or short filter transition if you have two high energy parts of the song for the transition)
Then there’s “Morph” – which Algoriddim argue opens up new ways of mixing:
This actually goes beyond what a regular DJ can do with two hands. Morph not only syncs the songs but seamlessly ramps the changed tempo of the inactive deck to its regular speed as the transition progresses. E.g. in the past if you had a hip-hop song at say 95 BPM and an electronic track at 130 BPM, syncing the two and making a transition would leave the new track in an awkwardly rate changed state (even with time-stretching enabled). So as the transition starts, both songs (in this example) would be playing at 130 BPM but as we are doing a simultaneous tempo “crossfade”, the hip-hop track ends up being back at 95 BPM at the end of the transition. This ensures the tracks always play at their regular tempo and these types of mixes sound very natural, allowing for seamless cross-genre transitions.”
Also impressive: while you might think this sort of technology would be licensed externally, the whiz kids over at Algoriddim did all of this on their own, in-house.
On the Spotify integration side, and also related to automating DJing tasks, “Match” technology recommends music based on BPM, key, and music style. Existing Spotify users will be familiar with some of this recommendation engine already. Where it could be good for producers is, this means there’s an avenue by which your music gets exposed by algorithms. And that in turn is potentially good news, if you’re a producer whose music isn’t always charting the top of a genre on Beatport.
These “autopilot” features are all under your control, too: you can choose which parameters are used, choose your own tracks, switch it off at will – as you like. Or you can sit back and let djay Pro run in the background while you’re doing something else, if you want to let the machine do the DJing while you cook dinner, for instance.
Pro features, for humans
Okay, so at this point, djay Pro 2 may sound a bit like this:
But one of the disruptive things about Algoriddim’s approach to DJ software is, it has simultaneously challenged rivals both among entry level and casual users and more advanced users at the same time.
So, here’s the more “Pro” sounding side of this. Some of these are features that are either missing or not implemented quite the way we’d like in industry leaders like Serato and Traktor.
A new audio engine with master AU plug-ins. A rewrite of the engine now allows high-res waveforms, post-fader effects, higher-quality filters, plus the ability to add Audio Unit plug-ins as master output effects.
Integrated libraries. iTunes, Spotify, and music in the file system / Finder are now all integrated and can be viewed side-by-side.
Integrated library views bring together everything on your local machine as well as Spotify.
Smart filters. Set up dynamic playlists sorted by BPM, key, date, genre, and other metadata. (Those columns are available in other tools, but here you get them dynamically, a bit like the ones in iTunes.)
Keyboard Shortcuts Editor. There’s a full editor for assigning individual features to custom shortcuts – which in turn can also map to custom hardware or the MacBook Pro Touch Bar.
CDJ and third-party hardware support. Whereas some other players make their own hardware or limit compatibility (or even require specific hardware just to launch, ahem), Algoriddim’s approach is more open. So they’re fully certified by Pioneer for CDJ compatibility, and they include 60 MIDI controllers in the box, and they have an extensive MIDI learn function.
More cueing and looping. Version 2 now has up to eight cue points and loops, with naming, per song. (I recently lauded Soda for adding this.) You can also now assign loop triggers to cue points.
Single deck mode for preparation. Okay, some (cough, again Serato) lock you into this view if you don’t have authorized hardware plugged in. But here, it’s designed specifically for the purpose of making set prep easier.
Accessibility. VoiceOver support makes djay Pro 2 work for vision-impaired users. We really need more commitment to this in the industry; it’s also been great to see this technology from Algoriddim showcased at Apple’s developer conference. If you’re using this (and hopefully CDM is working well with screen readers), do let us know.
New photo / still image support.
And it does photos
Back to less club/pro features, the other breakthrough for casual users, weddings, and commercial gigs is photo integration. Drag and drop photos or albums onto the visual decks, and the software will make beat-matched slide shows.
The photo decks also work with existing, fairly powerful VJ features, which includes external output, effects, and the like. You can also adjust beat sync.
Still image support builds on an existing video/VJ facility.
Plus a no-brainer price
The other thing that’s disruptive about djay Pro 2: price. It’s US$49.99, with an intro price of US$39.99, on the App Store.
You’ll need Spotify Premium for those features, of course, and macOS 10.11 or later is required.
NUGEN Audio has launched version 1.4 of its MasterCheck Pro plugin for optimizing your mixes for today’s music delivery services. The update adds FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and Opus encoding to the indispensable, award-winning loudness, dynamics, and codec toolset. The term codec is an acronym for coder/decoder. Music streaming services such as Apple Music® […]
SoundCloud’s CEO published a post saying SoundCloud is here to stay and uploads are safe. But it isn’t just SoundCloud’s business that’s troubled.
Okay, first – the one thing you shouldn’t worry about is music you’ve uploaded to SoundCloud. As I wrote at the end of last week, you should worry if you have media that’s important to you that’s located in any one place without backups, SoundCloud or otherwise. But while there have been plenty of signs SoundCloud’s business is seriously troubled, that doesn’t necessarily translate to any indication you’ll lose access to the service.
SoundCloud co-founder and CEO Alex Ljung was left scrambling in the wake of deep layoffs to assuage user fears. He took to the phones with at least one celebrity user, Chance the Rapper, who reported a “fruitful” call with the exec on Twitter Friday.
Also on Friday, Ljung posted a plea on the company’s blog:
The music you love on SoundCloud isn’t going away, the music you shared or uploaded isn’t going away, because SoundCloud is not going away. Not in 50 days, not in 80 days or anytime in the foreseeable future. Your music is safe.
Alex also refers dismissively to “an insane amount of noise” about the company.
But let’s back up. SoundCloud’s CEO can’t just shrug off fear and uncertainty when the company’s own messaging, actions, and even financial filings are largely responsible. Whatever’s going on with SoundCloud’s business, the company has lost control of its image. It’s hard not to view this “noise” as partly SoundCloud’s fault.
Co-founders Alex and Eric are each articulate and passionate advocates of music sharing. But the company has for years failed to articulate its business model. It’s talked about subscription services like SoundCloud Go, without being clear about how it can compete with entrenched competitors, and talked about advertising without being clear about how it will attract advertisers or how those ads will be effectively delivered. It’s been evasive about details of revenue and profit. It’s allowed bad press to accumulate, like allowing lavish office photos to spread just as financial filings were adding to concerns about its future. It has often failed to go on the record with press outlets (not mine, major press), while small rumor blogs flooded the narrative with leaked (and often inaccurate) information.
To see how badly SoundCloud’s media relations are going, look to recent reports by the likes of Forbes or even TechCrunch. That’s TechCrunch, who just last year were so bullish on SoundCloud that they said the company should be worth more than Spotify
The best SoundCloud could do by way of correction or response in this place was to say that the fourth quarter begins in 80 days, not 50, and that they meant they had money through the end of that quarter (that is, the end of the year) – but that means we’re not any further along than when Ljung initially made that same statement in a financial statement in January. You can watch the messy back and forth here: SoundCloud Responds to ‘Extensive Inaccuracies’ in Article Claiming It’s Almost Out of Money
[Indeed, TechCrunch has reason to complain here – SoundCloud doesn’t specify what it means by “extensive inaccuracies,” and actually appears to confirm some of the main gist of the article.]
Presumably these layoffs were planned for some time, so why did SoundCloud appear to be improvising its message to the press and its own staff?
And this problem isn’t a new one in summer. Way back in January, the apparent failure of revenue plans to keep pace with growing costs were fueling acquisition predictions. Now we have vague platitudes from the CEO that the company intends to remain independent, without any material on how they will do that. (That is, even after 40% staffing cuts, they’re still not talking about having money after the fourth quarter, unless by “foreseeable future” Ljung only means he can forsee 2017!) Here’s Fortune back at the end of the year; we actually know very little new information since then: Here’s Why SoundCloud Will Likely Look to Be Acquired Soon [Fortune]
I know SoundCloud can do better, having covered the company since its 2008 founding. I know its founders can do a better job of messaging than this, too, having known them almost as long. Rather than simply imploring its users to help, they need to provide a better picture as soon as possible as to how revenue growth will work versus costs – particularly now, having cut some of the staff who were responsible for making that revenue growth happen.
That said, I think SoundCloud are unfairly bearing the brunt of bad press and angry musicians.
Let’s not mince words: right now, the whole model of streaming appears economically broken, and surely all the major players deserve some share of the blame.
Talk about a rock and a hard place – maybe “buried under a pile of rubble” is more apt.
Content creators and owners believe they should get paid for music being streamed. So you’ve got the industry that represents them asking for higher royalty rates.
The problem is where the revenue to pay those royalties is coming from. Listeners don’t appear to want to pay much for subscription fees. That’s at least partly why Spotify and SoundCloud and others aren’t showing profitable results. Even if you don’t buy their arguments (lavish offices and huge headcount being evidence), there’s still a fundamental problem here. If users pay a flat fee for a subscription, then the company loses money the more they listen to the service – because royalty costs accrue. SoundCloud here actually has an edge, in that not all of the music uploaded requires a license – think spoken word and unreleased music. But SoundCloud hasn’t yet proven that they can make this work, either. (We’ll see if those staff cuts or other budget trimming helps.)
Advertising is the one thing that will grow with increased listening, at least in theory – more listening means more revenue for ads. But listeners and even content creators have been resistant to advertising. And selling ads in sufficient volume and with significant value means you need to have a talented staff able to liaise with big agencies and advertisers. Google is the one tech company who seem to have built a significant competency in the ad business, but they claim they’re not making money on ads, either.
And it gets worse. Largely missed in all the coverage of SoundCloud last week (but observed by some CDM readers), it’s really YouTube that dominates streaming. The Washington Post has just painted a bleak picture of the value of those YouTube plays to music.
In a pot-calls-kettle-black argument, YouTube weirdly warns of the dangers of consolidation in big players:
“The industry should be really, really careful because they could close their eyes and wake up with their revenue really concentrated in two, three sources,” said Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, referring to Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Prime Music.
Right, so it’s better if it’s concentrated in four, and the fourth is Google? Huh?
The real danger here seems to be a race to the bottom. Apple, Amazon, and Google can all afford to lose money on streaming, turning it into loss-leader business for other revenue streams. SoundCloud, Spotify, and other tech companies can afford to lose money by repeatedly turning to outside investment. (It’s absurd that we’re still calling this “runway” with those companies, as the business is now around a decade old at least. The runway metaphor only works if you take off at some point. A “hole in the ground into which you throw money” metaphor is what we seem to have here.)
I wouldn’t normally compliment the record industry, but to the credit of groups like the RIAA, at least they’re exerting some pressure up. The problem is, even a $7 royalty per 1000 streams may prove negligible to smaller artists and labels – and if the business that pays that royalty can’t survive, it’s a moot point anyway.
So, uh, how’s everyone feeling? Super… happy? No?
Of course, the buzzword that everyone seems to be running to at the moment is the blockchain – offering decentralized content and paying creators more directly. But describing one part of a larger solution isn’t the same as describing the whole solution. Will listeners embrace micropayments for music, or will they find it a hassle? What will make them migrate from services they’re already accustomed to using – and in which they’ve already assembled playlists and preferences? What about the fact that services like Apple’s are already integrated with the listening devices they own? How do you convince listeners to change their mind about what music should cost, when they’ve already grown accustomed to $10 monthly fees – or, very often, no fee whatsoever?
It isn’t all bad news. People are listening to more music. Streaming isn’t a nonexistent business – it’s US$7.7 billion in the United States alone. Someone, somewhere is actually earning money.
Also, because of the cost of PR and building fanbases, and the potential revenue earned from paying live (or selling physical goods), a lot of musicians I’ve talked to really do appreciate the promotional value of online streams. There are plenty of cases where giving away streaming music is viable – because you might then sell people vinyl, for instance.
And, look, while all of this shakes out, musicians and labels continue to pursue a strategy that caters to building relations on all these services. Some of them have great success stories with YouTube, with SoundCloud, with Spotify.
But maybe that’s the point. It seems to be the businesses in between that are non-functioning – or (in the case of futuristic blockchain propositions) just not ready for primetime.
Musicians and labels keep doing the hard work of making the music and fighting to get it heard. Yet investment and attention pours into the middleware between us and listeners – and that middleware really isn’t working terribly well.
At the very least, it seems totally valid to me that people who make music have reason to be frustrated. I think we should continue talking about our own solutions. And I’d like to see the captains of industry – music industry and tech industry alike – take some greater responsibility for what’s gone wrong and how it might go better. Well… one can dream, anyway.
There’s a famous line in business by Tom Peters, in his book The Circle of Innovation: “you can’t shrink your way to greatness.”
But shrinking is exactly what SoundCloud now has to do, with its survival – let alone any ongoing greatness – at stake. As founder Alex Ljung puts it in a blog post for the company today, massive headcount reduction and the closure of two offices is necessary to put the company “on our path to profitability and in control of SoundCloud’s independent future.” The implication is, without a buyer, the company may not last without cutting staff.
Asked for comment, SoundCloud pointed CDM to that post:
SoundCloud will lose a lot of the people who made the service valuable. 173 out of 420 employees – 41% of staff – are being made redundant. San Francisco and London offices are closing, leaving New York and the headquarters here in Berlin. (That may have implications for Berlin’s reputation as a European Internet capital, as well, as SoundCloud has been its best known poster child.)
I know some of these people personally. I’ve seen what they bring to the service and our music community in general. I’ve also seen how significant SoundCloud has been in helping musicians share music and people to discover that music, its impact on record labels, on artists getting bookings … on daily life.
I think artists and ex-employees alike could feel legitimately betrayed by the course music streaming has taken. SoundCloud at least is increasing revenue. Ljung says the company has “more than doubled” revenue in the past 12 months, without citing specific breakdown of producer subscriptions, listener subscriptions, and advertising. But the issue is how revenue compares to costs.
Now, ironically, the writing has been on the wall for a decade. Ten years ago – and one year before SoundCloud was founded – Pandora co-founder and ex-CEO told CDM he thought streaming rates would shutter companies. The weird part of this is, he may have been right – it’s just that an ongoing influx of investment has prolonged that failure over the years.
If it seems greedy that he’d suggest such a thing, one reason is that there aren’t such royalties collected on radio broadcasts.
Whether you want to blame the services, tech giants like Apple and Amazon, or the music industry for setting rates, the business model just doesn’t seem to add up anywhere. And 2017 could be the “s*** hits the fan” moment as it becomes ever clearer that no one is able to turn that business model into a win.
Just last week, co-founder and returning CEO Tim Westergren left Pandora. That company has never made a profit, and it seems new investors Sirius XM (satellite radio company) have other plans.
Then there’s Spotify. As its revenues and number of users grow rapidly, its losses are actually growing even more rapidly. That should mean that Ljung’s comment about growing revenue is as much a red flag as it is encouragement.
Noticing a trend here? Pretty much anyone in the streaming business is losing money. That overall picture also will rule out some acquisitions, or reduce the price. And it’s not surprising that this combination might frighten away some investors.
CDM readers and associates frequently compare Bandcamp to SoundCloud. But perhaps if any comparison is apt, it’s because of the contrast in business models, growth rate, and intended audience. Bandcamp remains a niche site for people to consume music, not only as free streams, but as downloads, physical media, and in the form of merchandise. It’s the always-on, “tap water”-style streaming that is having trouble.
To state the painfully obvious, it’s also troubling to look at the streaming players who are thriving. Facebook has stayed out of music (unlike Russian social media network VKontakte). But three other big tech giants – Amazon, Apple, and Google – are able to offer streaming services as “loss-leader” offerings, directing sales elsewhere. Apple may lag Spotify, with 27 million users to Spotify’s 50 million. But then Cupertino doesn’t need Apple Music to turn a profit, since the company can instead sell iPhones, iPads, and Macs.
It’s just as easy to find music on YouTube – which also spells further pain for artists and labels.
Music press have been quick to jump on SoundCloud, often without much to back them up. But now, I believe it’s reasonable to sound some alarms. Staff cuts this significant could slow growth and curb the efforts that would expand revenue. They suggest serious financial obstacles. And there’s still not a clear picture of how streaming will be sustainable as a business model – not for SoundCloud, and not for the entire industry.
And the implications there go far beyond SoundCloud’s offices. They should raise serious questions about what a record label is, how it collects revenue in the digital age, and how much control artists and publishers will have on their music being shared and discovered.
Of course, that absolutely means now is the time to talk about alternatives, including innovative solutions like Blockchain-powered sharing and the like. But the popularity of SoundCloud and Spotify for finding and playing music is going to be a tough benchmark to match.
Whatever happens next, it’s going to involve some major changes. And if these companies do start to contract, a lot of the talent that was working on the problem is going to wind up elsewhere.