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SoundCloud is the #1 platform for new and upcoming hip hop artists, but is it alienating casual music fans to be at the forefront of the music industry? For some, SoundCloud has elevated music creators at the expense of its listeners.
If you follow music trends closely, you probably know that SoundCloud is THE place to find new artists, particularly in genres like hip hop and electronic music.
For more than a decade, SoundCloud has helped democratize music production and distribution for struggling artists. Now, all you need is a smartphone and an Internet connection to share your musical creations with the world. Though the vast majority of SoundCloud creators remain in obscurity, a combination of talent, creativity and a bit of luck has helped a select few go from complete anonymity to worldwide stardom overnight.
So, what’s the problem? If SoundCloud is making the industry more accessible to new artists, shouldn’t it be celebrated for it? Like most important questions, the answer is not simple. SoundCloud has indeed revolutionized the music industry. By sidestepping traditional record labels, artists can get their music directly to fans’ ears in a matter of seconds.
However, SoundCloud is not without its drawbacks. Its primary function is a music publication and distribution platform, but SoundCloud also works as an alternative social media platform for music fans. Like most social media platforms, news travels fast and new artists can go viral before realizing it. For casual music and hip-hop fans, this is a big problem.
Case Study: The Meteoric Rise of Post Malone
Few rappers embody the power of SoundCloud more than Post Malone. One of the most celebrated artists of the “SoundCloud Generation,” Post Malone began rapping as a teenager, creating mixtapes to share with his friends. After moving to Los Angeles, he dedicated all of his time to producing music, eventually releasing his first single, “White Iverson,” on SoundCloud in February of 2015.
Despite having virtually no name recognition at the time, Malone’s single got over 1 million plays on the platform in less than a month. It spread to other areas of the Internet, helping the young artist quickly gain a following — without entering into the domain of “mainstream” artists. Soon after, Post Malone’s meteoric rise allowed him to sign a contract with Republic Records.
Post Malone enjoys enormous success since his debut on SoundCloud, reaching #8 on Billboard’s list of top hip hop artists in 2020. As a result, most casual hip-hop fans have probably heard of him and are, to one degree or another, familiar with his work by now. So, Post Malone is no longer the underdog artist that he used to be.
That said, we live in a world with an “early adopter” mentality. When information travels at the speed of light, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Thus, even if you started listening to Post Malone in 2016, you were already well behind the times.
This may not sound like a big deal to some people, but Post Malone is just one of many examples. The truth is that SoundCloud has launched hundreds of rappers and hip-hop artists to stardom. Keeping up with the latest trends on SoundCloud is much like keeping up with trending topics and stars on Twitter or TikTok.
Unless you’re willing to spend a significant amount of time scanning through the platform to find the hottest up-and-coming stories and content, you’ll probably feel out of the loop.
How SoundCloud Discourages Casual Listeners
It would be difficult to criticize SoundCloud for launching the careers of new artists. Without a democratized music platform like SoundCloud, many successful musicians might not have ever made it. However, SoundCloud inadvertently pushed away people who just want to listen to music to distinguish itself from Spotify. This isn’t just a recent development, either. Since the music platform began in 2007, it has designed itself for music creators — often at the expense of their fans.
One of the primary issues with SoundCloud’s accessibility is its unpopular UI changes. While apps like Spotify and Pandora make it easy to listen to music, organize your favorite songs, and create custom playlists, SoundCloud has a history of prioritizing creators over music listeners when designing (and redesigning) its platform. As a result, nearly 1 in 3 SoundCloud users is also a music creator. It can feel like the platform isn’t designed to meet their needs for casual listeners — and they’re right.
Poor management and wrong design choices at SoundCloud could even be its downfall. Like Post Malone, many famous artists quickly leave the platform to sign on with traditional record labels. Some even choose to form their own record labels to have greater freedom and autonomy with their music.
As the co-founder of Guin Records, I have had the privilege of working with both new and established hip-hop artists. As creators, many of our signed artists benefit from the exposure that SoundCloud provides. However, as music fans, they don’t have as much use for the platform.
I like to keep my finger on the pulse of the music industry, so spending my free time searching for new artists on SoundCloud is just a part of life for me. However, I know that many of my friends and associates don’t have the time or patience to follow the ever-changing trends in hip hop. It’s easier to just plug into more mainstream platforms that make music fans their top priority.
The Bottom Line
New artists can blow up on SoundCloud in a matter of hours. For those that keep a close eye on the hip-hop scene, it’s easy to track down the latest and most popular hits. For casual hip hop fans, it’s much harder to keep up with so many rising artists. Thus, SoundCloud is unintentionally pushing away a large share of its user base.
Unless it makes changes to prioritize both music fans and music creators simultaneously, SoundCloud could find itself losing even more casual listeners in the future.
Originally published on Medium.