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Opinion: The Rise And Fall of Soundcloud. Christian Ward. Roxanne de Bastion. Lyndsie Alguire. Roniit.

[EDIT June 1 2022: We are now on Soundcloud and are aiming to promote musicians who are still active on the platform. Soundcloud definitely isn’t quite as dead as we initially thought it was, and if some artists have grown out of it, there are still some who haven’t abandoned it, and a new generation who has seemingly used it since 2016 onwards]

In 2009, terms like Web 2.0 and “Semantic Web” were generating a lot of buzz, and the World Wide Web was transforming from static, mostly text-and-image websites into a democratized space in which users could collaborate, generate content and generally challenge the notion that you need marketing, a degree, or other things that aren’t art, in order to make art. Blogs and the blogosphere are now seen to have been the proto-Web 2.0 technology, with many interconnected subjects from blogs almost forming the social networks we know of today.

Free Data activists began to advocate for ‘community gardens’, for open architectures to take this content away from money and dominant providers like Google. By the time users were uploading their own paintings, photos, music or videos, some began to ask whether the huge amount of content was detrimental to art, whether it was real art, or should be just considered outsider art.

One of the most popular Web 2.0 websites is Soundcloud, which first appeared in 2007 and allowed users from all over the world to upload songs or even entire albums, to follow other musicians, to share their work to groups (much like Facebook groups work today) for promotion, to like, repost and post comments at certain points in a song. But perhaps the most brilliant feature for musicians was just showing the waveform of a song – this might be what catapulted Soundcloud into its early fame, outclassing Myspace and having its first burst of creative energy around 2009-2011 – and allowing musicians to directly specify the genre of their songs, which showed at the top right-hand side of the music, and a very personal description for each track.

With the large number of new artists, music labels (call them Netlabels 2.0 if you will) appeared overnight, in order to promote this new talent. The number of music blogs increased, and Hype Machine finally saw some serious competition (although it remains strong even today).

After 2012 and 2013, Soundcloud began to focus on bigger musicians (label-worthy musicians) and on mass-appeal, detrimental to many grassroots artists, but very good for bedroom producers who were just getting noticed and were courted by labels. It was, simply put, a producer’s era. For users who just wanted to discover those producers, Soundcloud still offered the best platform, even beating Youtube – posting music on Soundcloud was a badge of honor, and a lot of songs were Soundcloud-exclusive.

It was a series of wrong moves that ended up effectively killing the platform, like giving copyright holders unlimited powers in 2014, implementing Netflix-like country restrictions after 2016, phasing out quality content or the focus on monetization. Labels suddenly blocked entire countries from having access to new songs. A reddit user correctly surmised that with this geoblocking feature, ‘Soundcloud went from being pretty f***ed to completely f***ed in a matter of 24 hours‘, and another, that ‘I don’t think they even understand their niche anymore. They aren’t a place to hold a music library, they’re good for music discovery and mixes. It’s like having a newsfeed that’s for new music and discovering artists.’

‘Nothing good lasts forever’ is a famous saying. Nowadays, you should count yourself lucky if you discover a cool new musician on Soundcloud and you have access to their work. Either artists have moved on from it, or they haven’t, but their label restricts access to them. However, that doesn’t say anything about how Soundcloud really left its mark on music, art, and created entire conversations between 2009 and 2011 (some incredible artist-to-artist feedback is to be found on it), and after that, was just one of the best music discovery sites until 2014-2016. To celebrate THAT Soundcloud, we decided to focus on its early history, and to highlight four musicians who managed to use the platform to their benefit and to transcend it.

Christian Ward – https://soundcloud.com/christianward

Christian Ward is a UK-based artist, music blogger, writer and journalist who uploaded music to Soundcloud in its early days. His website is still around and a very interesting one to follow, but he hasn’t been active in music for the last 10 years until very recently, when he made a sudden comeback. Back then, he performed as himself and as half of duo Architect & Heiress with Roxanne de Bastion.

His song, ‘A Thousand Fathoms Deep’, was the first one we’ve ever noticed that managed to break the free download limit on Soundcloud and had to be reuploaded – it was simply, at the time, one of the tracks that defined Soundcloud, that showed the website’s potential. With a killer motif, a simple beat, iconic lyrics and a crescendo that took the melody further and further, but without a real ‘professional’ mixing or mastering akin to what you would hear on the radio, Ward really sounded like Poets Of The Fall crossed with Pink Floyd and focused on the essentials – just crafting a great song.

Soundcloud had a very nifty ‘artist of the day’ (or was it ‘artist of the week’?) feature back then, promoting musicians it deemed worthy, and Christian Ward was one of them. While we don’t know how this feature worked and what the criteria was, you can imagine what receiving this kind of promotion meant for a musician who was just starting out. It came with having your tracks featured on the main page, and it dramatically increased the number of plays.

Christian Ward never saw the same success as with “A Thousand Fathoms Deep”, but he continued to make great music. With Architect & Heiress, his collaboration with Roxanne de Bastion, the lyrics took a more direct, almost nihilistic route, providing for an interesting conversation between the two artists and even criticizing some aspects of society. ‘I’m not someone else’s dream’, declares de Bastion on “Nothing like Heaven”, while Ward talks about not spending a lifetime on your knees. “The Angry Brigade” is an anarchic track, dominated by de Bastion’s voice declaring “I want to kick down institutions” over a looped beat consisting of a heavy kick and a snare.

Ward returned recently after a decade-long hiatus with a new psychedelic track, ‘All Dressed Up’, and we’re glad to hear more of his music, because it just sounds amazing.

The really sad thing is that the number of plays for that song reflects the reality of the new Soundcloud, where if you’re not a big name backed by a label, you won’t have any followers and plays because no one will ever know you exist. Not even the Soundcloud Pro account can do much for exposure if you’re not willing to spend cash, and Soundcloud Repost, a platform acquired in 2019 to help with promotion, just sounds a lot worse than ‘artist of the day/week’ was: just recognizing musicians that made an impact by themselves and the community around them. ‘Repost by SoundCloud offers several ways to help promote your music such as submitting your tracks for editorial and marketing consideration across an extensive list of DSPs and for other marketing opportunities‘ – that sounds just like submitting a story to the New York Times, or just any dreaded music committee, and instead of advertising musicians themselves, the leave it to third-party sites to do so. Gone is the Web 2.0 promise.

Roxanne de Bastion – https://soundcloud.com/roxanne-de-bastion

Meanwhile, Roxanne de Bastion continued making music. Listening to her recent “Ordinary Love” or “Molecules”, with their incisive lyrics, one can’t help but feeling happy that a very talented musician has received recognition (from BBC Radio and Sky News) and continues to grace fans with their art. Both songs are geo-blocked by Soundcloud, but available on Youtube, which makes one think that over time, Soundcloud just lost the battle with the giants of the industry and was forced to make the bad decisions, the very thing that the Free Data activists were worried about – if you want to listen to de Bastion now, you’ll do it on Youtube, or perhaps Spotify. Why is that worse? Well, Youtube effectively does not allow for a “music conversation” around a song – its comments are a string of reactions, and sometimes hilarity – or trolling – can ensue. You will never learn which sections of the song are the most popular. Youtube is a closed platform. Its live streams are a bit different, with comments following a timeline, but if you want to follow a conversation, you’ll likely do it over Twitter, possibly the best way to gauge interest and opinions for any topic, but also one of the most toxic places on the Internet.

Going back in time to her oldest track, “Indie Electro-Pop” is almost an anthem for most Soundcloud musicians who were just starting out and endlessly pondering whether to add that extra layer of compression, or whether their music fit into any established genre. Listening to it now, it really seems like a relic from a lost age.

However, not to sound all negative, it need not necessarily be a ‘lost’ age. There’s no need to cry over spilled milk, and sites like Audiomack or Hearthis.at do exist, and mostly function like the ‘old’ Soundcloud – good luck in getting them to have the same active musician base, though – it would be like lightning striking twice in the same place. But do we even need that ‘same place’? There is value in looking at those sites and investigating the new generation of musicians using the platforms, because they have, compared to the Soundcloud generation who hasn’t yet migrated, some extra counter-culture-savviness to them. In these days where the Internet is controlled by giants, being on platforms like that is an act of defiance in itself.

Lyndsie Alguire – https://soundcloud.com/lyndsie-alguire

Lyndsie Alguire, a Canadian-based ambient-electronic/ neoclassical musician, might perhaps be the most recognizable Soundcloud name altogether for anyone who’s been using the platform since its inception. Another featured artist, like Christian Ward, her music was truly ahead of the times, and would even be a tough sell in today’s landscape, where names like Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds or Nils Frahm are really in-demand.

Credit Alguire, a classically-trained pianist, for democratizing ambient-electronic and ‘difficult’ neoclassical music compositions for the Web 2.0 crowd. Her debut album, ‘Suspended in Light’, played with fuzzy sounds, glitch noises, featured delightful piano melodies and even the odd ASMR-like bits. It was super-personal, open to a fault, and uplifting.

What Alguire did different than most was strip her music of pretension, keep the runtimes relatively small, really engage with the ecosystem around her (she collaborated with a host of musicians and her music was remixed in turn – she even had a track called “Who Wants To Sing On This”) and really, really experiment, taking her sound in all possible directions.

One of the best remixes, Twobit’s rework of “As You Have Lived”, is no longer available on Soundcloud – a lot of tracks that contributed to last decade’s remix culture were erased, but you can find it on Hearthis.at:

It was not uncommon for Soundcloud musicians to be featured on game soundtracks, and Alguire, seemingly a big fan of Studio Ghibli and Japanese culture (one of tracks is called Kohuhaku, created as a result of her having watched the harrowing 2010 movie “Confessions”, and simply described as “Field recording”), did indeed create a game soundtrack for Foobit Games, a game development company which seems to never have taken flight – unlike her soundtrack.

Alguire’s tracks got darker with time, and she took her art further with her photography, eventually morphing into a full-blown audiovisual artist. To really see how much she experimented with sound, check her Bandcamp page, or the shoegaze track, ‘Moon Pyre‘.

Alguire even collaborated with Klatu on multiple albums (listen to those beats!), another Soundcloud artist who debuted around the same time she did and is still around today (we don’t have a detailed history of Klatu because we’ve only followed him years after he’d been around, but his future-garage tracks were really impressive, and you can see why Soundcloud truly was a place for music conversations as soon as you notice Alguire commenting on his tracks like any normal fan would.)

By 2018, Alguire was already performing live, creating rich soundscapes with the aid of her visuals, while her albums were almost like concept albums, whole universes spun off by a thought, a verse, a feeling.

Alguire’s latest album is “interspersed with field recordings from midnight traipses through factories and industrial zones. “the night is in my mouth” is a love letter to all-nighters, busting your speaker system, trespassing, biking home at 3am, and falling hard“. The title track feels like the culmination of her work and a return to roots, and Lyndsie Alguire remains of the most inspiring musicians of the last decade, while the truly sad thing is seeing her Soundcloud plays plummeting over the last years, a result of Soundcloud choosing to move on from the DIY scene.

Roniit – https://soundcloud.com/roniitmusic

Hailing from Denver, Colorado, Roniit (Ronit Alkayam) debuted on Soundcloud with ‘Infernal Anxiety’, a dark electro track which combined rich vocals with powerful synths and beats, all amounting to the atmosphere of a symphonic metal track without the guitars. A true DIY musician, with a business-school degree to boot, Roniit’s career over the years is similar to that of Lyndsie Alguire, in that she began to explore merging her sound with visuals and she collaborated with a lot of other artists. Unlike Alguire, she has also releases quite a lot of music videos.

On both ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Now or Never’, one really notices Roniit’s ability to create a stunning synth riff. Her music took further steps once she started collaborating with producers such as Trivecta, for “Through The Night”, or Varien for “Rise” – her stunning vocals enriching the heavy bass-driven production. In that respect, Roniit is really one of the smartest musicians from the Web 2.0 era, because crossing over into EDM or chillout territory automatically came with extra exposure and a larger fanbase.

In time, Roniit’s visuals made her into a downtempo version of Chelsea Wolfe of sorts, while the song production started being influenced by artists such as Banks, or even FKA Twigs. “Visceral” is a really high point, with its creative use of colors and a totally different musical direction that still relied on her unique vocal style, while “Fade To Blue” almost sounds like a Billie Eilish electronic R&B remix. Roniit’s ability to borrow, assimilate and transform is that other truly impressive thing about her.

Roniit’s musical intelligence combined with her great decision-making have ensured her a loyal fanbase, one who describes her music as easy to get lost in, all-consuming. Her latest release was no less than a week ago, with “Love’s Gone”, and we expect great things from her in the future:

If one takes a look at the Soundcloud number of plays for her latest songs, especially the Caster x Hollow remix of her song ‘Holy’, they could almost surmise that Roniit hasn’t really been (as) affected by Soundcloud’s policy changes like most musicians, probably partly because she is known in the EDM world. If anything is still going strong on Soundcloud, it’s EDM, with some tracks gathering hundreds of thousands of plays, or more. But listening to ‘Holy’, it’s Roniit ability to adapt, evolve and transform that is more impressive than anything else.

Roniit’s entire ‘XIXI’ album is available on Bandcamp and is a veritable musical odyssey, with an incredible production quality and immersion factor. We have selected ‘Purify’ for more dark-electro listening bliss, but really the entire album is like that: an electronic R&B/downtempo masterpiece. Just let the songs each fade into each other and prepare for a great ride.

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In the end, we hope we have outlined, through all these examples, what was awesome about Soundcloud in the first place, and what went wrong with it over time. We’re not saying that Soundcloud isn’t still useful, or that you still can’t find amazing music on it (because you can: below, we have embedded Clara Tesla, an album by Inude, a band we’ve lucked into while looking for Internet music labels for an article – it seems that a surefire way to discover new talent is looking for labels and then sifting through their catalogue. )

It is clear that in 2022, art still needs democratization, and that the industry giants will actively fight back this process if they are given any space to. As a consequence, many have placed their faith in the blockchain and NFTs. While the jury’s still out on those, in the following weeks we’ll return with a look at Audiomack and Hearthis.at, do a feature on Hype Machine, and of course, publish that article about Internet music labels. We promise to, one day, even write about Soundcloud rap.

Featured Image is Broken Dreams by Hariette Hermann.

Reading material: The Democratization of Art, an Ink Magazine article by Phil Stoneman.

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