SoundCloud is a versatile and effective platform for composers and sound content creators of all kinds, and is arguably the next big thing in online audio. Over the last year and a half I have invested hundreds of hours on SoundCloud and would like to spend a few minutes with you to share a few nuggets I’ve picked up along the way, that may help you as a composer, and that may shed some light on the community aspects of the service, as well.
Ten Point Briefing
- SoundCloud is an audio platform for sharing, promotion and collaboration, with its own social networking framework.
- SoundCloud is accessed via desktop web browsers, embedded webpage widgets and smartphone apps.
- SoundCloud began as a music file sharing service in Berlin in 2007, by Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss, growing from 1 million members in May 2010 to 9 million members in December 2011.
- Members can upload sound files in all common formats, with public or limited visibility, downloadability and all common licensing options, Buy links and a vanity URL, for example soundcloud.com/the-chemical-brothers.
- Tracks can have players embedded on external websites with flexible appearance and browser compatibility options.
- Members can follow other members, provide feedback via timed comments, mark tracks as favourites, keep abreast of other member activity on a dashboard, and create and join groups.
- Detailed stats are available, showing who played your track, where, when, how often, and who downloaded or saved your track to their favourites list.
- SoundCloud is well integrated with Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks. At the Facebook f8 conference in September 2011, Facebook announced a strategic technology partnership with SoundCloud, effectively providing SoundCloud embedded exposure to over 800 million Facebook users.
- Membership is free but there are premium accounts ranging from €29 to €500 offering various levels of storage, stats, widgets, support and other options.
- Finally, and crucially, SoundCloud is a community.
Who Uses SoundCloud?
Essentially, sound content creators of all types, and listeners of all tastes. From dance music producers like Deadmau5, Skrillex and Swedish House Mafia to A-list pop stars like Lady Gaga, Radiohead and Bjork, from indie singer/songwriters to podcasters, comedians and even newspapers like The Economist, and of course composers.
I asked a handful of film and television composers to share their experiences of SoundCloud, starting with LA-based Kerry Muzzey, who enjoys the community-oriented learning and social aspects of SoundCloud:
I have fallen in love with SoundCloud. I’ve enjoyed it not only for the many musical discoveries I’ve made but also for the ability to interact with other composers. I love that so many have been willing to share their tech tips and secret recipes. Sure, it’s a really simple and slick demo-hosting site: but take some time to go a little deeper and you’ll be surprised at the community you’ll discover: these are people who are passionate about music and about the beauty of sound.
Sean Beeson from Ohio has over 400,000 track plays on SoundCloud and gains from the marketing aspects it offers:
I use SoundCloud to gauge the success of my online marketing campaigns. I can see what sites people are accessing my music from, where in the world they are listening from, and what music the are listening to. It helps me to cater my sets to what music is most listened to in the hopes that I can gain greater exposure for my work.
Geographically, members are spread across the world in roughly the following order: US, UK, Germany, rest of Europe, Canada, Russia, Australia, Japan, rest of world.
UK-based Marie-Anne Fischer, film and television composer and chapter director of SCOREcast: London, has experience with a number of online music platforms including ReverbNation. Marie-Anne shared a little about using SoundCloud for professional showreel and private sharing purposes:
I discovered SoundCloud about 10 months ago when I started writing demos for Sonokinetic because they use SoundCloud to post their demos. I like the direct connection and simplicity. SoundCloud is becoming more interesting to me as I have found more film and media composers on SoundCloud than I had on ReverbNation. I like the group features on SoundCloud where there is no clutter. I tend to be using SoundCloud more recently to link prospective clients to my showreel and being able to share private tracks is a great feature.
Given the fact that there are over 9 million members, of course not all members are professionals in the line of work they present on SoundCloud and membership is arguably weighted towards amateur enthusiasts, but that does not detract from its usefulness in professional spheres.
Can SoundCloud Help Your Career?
SCOREcast: London’s own Dominik Johnson, world music production specialist:
SoundCloud, for me, is one of the best community music tools online at the moment for the pro musician / composer / producer. I know the audio quality on my music (typically 48kHz/24bit) can be lost with some of the upload compression, but to me, that’s a price worth paying. A few months ago an independent film director from Berlin got in touch after hearing a few of my works on there, we got chatting on there, then we starting having Skype calls – and BOOM! I’ve been commissioned to write some tracks for his upcoming feature documentary – and yes, his production team does have a budget for the music.
Dominik touched on a point above with regards to upload/playback quality, which I’ll explore in the Technical section further below.
I know of one case where the SoundCloud user was not necessarily the beneficiary of a career opportunity. LA-based film composer, orchestrator and conductor Deon Vozov has this story:
For me as a composer, no, there’s nothing that’s happened on SoundCloud without my initiation that’s led to a contract. However, because I also do some small music supervision work, I have FOUND tracks on SoundCloud and gotten them placed in projects. The first few were free, but there are starting to be licensing gigs that pay a little something, help build reels, and feel more dignified. And believe me, it is much more fun to approach people with money than with “it’ll be good for your reel” statements of questionable accuracy.
Deon continues with an interesting point about the depth of SoundCloud’s penetration into the upper echelons of film-making:
My clients seem to fall into two categories: producers and directors who are very, or at least comfortably, familiar with SoundCloud but not very well-funded yet, and producers and directors who’ve never heard of SoundCloud but can cut those juicy checks we all love to then spend getting the job done.
In other words, my experience has been that it’s still not an industry standard in audio post production. By gently guiding clients towards it, however, I think it will become more so.
Offering more insights than I could ever have hoped for, Deon goes on to make a point about visual versus audio impact of a demo reel:
That said, it’s not selfless support of SoundCloud that has led me to steer clients to the site. Rather, I like to link even initially skittish clients, and potential clients, to private sets here because it gets them focused on listening with their ears rather than their eyes [emphasis mine].
Everyone wants video links, and they will tell you with a straight face that they’re really listening to the music, and they really do believe that they’re telling the truth when they say that. But the reality is that these are highly visual, highly visually sensitive, and highly visually creative people experiencing audio tracks by way of how they feel about picture.
It is possible to separate picture from music, of course, but difficult, and it will always imprint indelibly upon the track. That can work in one’s favor (an expensive car spot, for example) or against it (a feature that suffers a malaise of some kind or other). By sending clients to a simple, easy-to-navigate, custom-built set, they have an interactive experience and can jump around in the set to find what they want to discuss and, if they’re bold enough to create an account, they can even leave timed comments for us to discuss in relation to their project.
Many of the responses in this section came to me as a result of engaging with the community on SoundCloud directly by publishing a track inviting my followers to share their stories as timed comments. Here’s a handful of other stories, in brief:
Uploaded 1st track, surprised by response. Uploaded more. Got made Soundclouder of the Day and then featured on SoundCloud tour page. Label emailed me and now I have two releases out.
— Russell Knight, London
A few months ago Norwegian Landscape photographer Ole Salomonsen approached me via SoundCloud, asking if he could use my track ‘Counting Stars’ on his latest vid of the Northern Lights. My first piece of paid work.
— Mei-Ling Grey, London
Amidst the success stories, two cautionary tales emerged:
I believe I did *not* get a gig because of the music in my SoundCloud profile. I was considered during the final round of applicants, and when asked for a portfolio I directed them to my SoundCloud profile. Something like two days later I found out they gave the job to someone else. This has led me to reassess the quality of the work I upload to SoundCloud, even though it could be that the work I have on my SoundCloud is quite different from the piece I made for that job.
— Rodrigo Hernández, Mexico City
I signed a contract with a company called [redacted] who have a group here on SoundCloud about three months ago. I had to go to a notary and everything, alas I have not heard from them since and they don’t reply to my emails.
— Andy Carter, Cornwall, UK
The insights I’ve gained from these last two are to keep one’s SoundCloud profile tidy and focused on the target market, and to know who you’re dealing with.
One reason I’m able to share this article with you today is that my own case is potentially one more success story to emerge from SoundCloud, but this is not about me so I’ll save that for the end.
How SoundCloud Compares to Other Audio Platforms
In the user content audio hosting space, SoundCloud competes with, among others, BandCamp, ReverbNation and Myspace.
BandCamp is mainly focused on allowing independent artists to sell their work, and are funded in part on a commission basis. Users can customise the look and feel of their music pages and have their tracks downloadable in many formats. BandCamp has attracted some commercially established artists including Amanda Palmer to abandon their labels and self-promote (interestingly, Amanda Palmer also has a SoundCloud account).
Jeremiah Pena, SCOREcaster, says:
I like Bandcamp. I don’t get as many track plays as Soundcloud, but it’s my main method of selling music to the general public, which SoundCloud doesn’t seem to do very well. It’s also very useful for building email lists, since you can have people supply an email address for free downloads. And it’s free, with no major limits like the free version of SoundCloud. I’m able to put a lot more music than I could there.
I do find SoundCloud much better for getting feedback and it has very good community features (commenting, groups, etc.) that Bandcamp doesn’t have.
— Jeremiah Pena, Film Composer, Utah
ReverbNation aims to provide a collaboration and communication platform as well as music hosting for independent artists, and have an embeddable player.
SCOREcast’s Marie-Anne Fischer knows ReverbNation well, having ruled the London and UK Classical charts with a regular #1 spot. In her words:
I started using ReverbNation in 2009 because I was able to link my playlist to my Facebook profile as an app. I wasn’t particularly interested at the time in having a Facebook fan page, so this was a great alternative. Unfortunately Facebook subsequently took away the ReverbNation band playlist feature from personal Facebook pages. ‘My Band’ feature could only feature in a fan or group page but I was still able to use the widgets and apps for posting new tracks.
ReverbNation has been great for meeting musicians and I have already collaborated with a couple of them. During 2009 and 2010 I made great use of my ReverbNation site, my website is linked to my profile which I pay for annually.
Marie-Anne also offers us a comparison with her SoundCloud experience:
You can personalise ReverbNation’s profile which you can’t on SoundCloud but that hasn’t stopped me from using SoundCloud.
I like the statistics SoundCloud collects and provides me and also their feature where people can favour a track and leave a comment.
The great big difference between SoundCloud and ReverbNation is that SoundCloud is purely functional and works well where as on ReverbNation you can add your personal touch to your profile, link music to multiple stores, integrate with other websites, create newsletters, blogs and apps are only but a few of their features.
Marie-Anne is right about SoundCloud being less customisable than ReverbNation, which takes a modular approach to the profile page with a lot of control over content and branding. On SoundCloud, personalisation can be applied to player widgets for website-matching style and colour scheme, for user dropbox page branding, for linking other profiles like Twitter, Facebook etc. and for essential items like profile image and an HTML-enabled description area.
In terms of how that translates into commercial opportunities, I would argue that for a composer it is the presentation of your professional website that is more important than the presentation of your profile on the audio hosting website, but that can be debated in the comments below.
One other factor to consider is the service value available to non-paying customers. Although ReverbNation’s free account allows more tracks to be hosted than SoundCloud’s free account, the size of each track is limited to 8MB which forces lossy upload format; the longer the track the lossier it has to be to fit into 8MB.
Myspace does not make for great headlines these days, having been sold to News Corporation for $580 million in 2005 and then bought by Specific Media and Justin Timberlake in 2011 for $35 million. But as a music hosting social networking site with 33 million unique US visitors in August 2011, it cannot be ignored in this comparison.
Oxford-based soundtrack composer, electronica producer and SCOREcast reader ”The Unfinished” (Matt Bowdler) shared his experience with me:
Myspace, I haven’t used for a long time. It may have improved, but I think it has been superceded by SoundCloud from a music hosting perspective and Facebook from a community perspective. The options were limited (I think ten tracks was the maximum) and it just got incredibly spammy. Endless messages from people who were plugging their latest track or gig that was almost always a genre that bore no relevenace to what you were doing. Quite a bit of spam from Myspace themselves as well. Put quite simply, there isn’t anything that Myspace does that isn’t done better elsewhere.
I think Matt’s view is shared by many in the music community including myself: That Myspace is not necessarily the most strategic technology partner for a professional composer. If you disagree, please share your experience in the comments below.
How do you get your SoundCloud tracks on your web page? SoundCloud makes it simple.
You can embed SoundCloud widgets in several sizes and styles, with both Flash and HTML5 options. HTML5 is more mobile browser-friendly, especially on iPhones and iPads which can’t play Flash, but some older browsers (e.g. IE6) can’t view HTML5.
To embed a track or set, use the Share menu item at top left of the track or set to access the widget options, customise to taste.
Here are some Flash and HTML5 examples of embedded track players.
All of the above have been customised to match SCOREcast Online’s website theme.
The main technical issues reported by professional SoundCloud users are well-known and steps have been taken to address them.
1. SoundCloud playback is compressed at 128kbps, which many audiophiles can discern distinctly from studio-quality uncompressed recording.
In previous email exchanges, SoundCloud staff let me know that they’re always thinking of and considering ways to make the experience better for both creators and listeners. One way for creators to offer higher quality is to enable downloads for their sounds so listeners can access the file in its original quality. They’re regularly discussing this topic internally and are considering changes in the future.
In the meantime, SoundCloud seems to remain the platform of choice for many sound libraries’ demo tracks, including Sonokinetic, 8dio and others, which is a good indicator that the quality, although not perfect, is widely acceptable for professional demo purposes.
2. Flash-based SoundCloud players are subject to the inherent stability and compatibility issues of Flash, particularly where smartphones often have trouble showing Flash controls.
SoundCloud recently released HTML5 versions of their embeddable widgets, addressing both the stability problem and making it compatible with most smartphones and mobile devices including iPhones and iPads. The new HTML5 widgets have been well-received and many say better looking than their Flash predecessors.
3. Some users reported that the encoding produced glitchy playback, particularly in high frequency ranges and at high volume levels.
Up until recently, SoundCloud advised: “This rarely happens but if it does, we suggest uploading in 320kbps 44.1kHz with at least -3dB of headroom” but a recent discovery has revealed that this is no longer required.
FLAC is the recommended upload format for optimal playback quality, but this may not be ideal for download purposes and is probably best-suited for playback-only tracks (non-downloadable). For people who would prefer to have their files available for download, the higher the quality of the lossy file they upload, the higher quality the encoding will be.
The Help Page on this topic offers this advice:
Sometimes our transcoding system can create audio artifacts, as we transcode all tracks to 128 kbps mp3 for streaming playback. Uploading a lossless or high-quality lossy file will usually reduce these to a minimum, but unfortunately there’s not much we can do for the handful of individual tracks that are still affected.
If you choose to make your track downloadable though, the version users can download will be an exact copy of the version you uploaded, without any transcoding.
This is an important point with regards to using SoundCloud for track sharing between yourself and the film production co, or for demo or collaborative purposes: The track you download is the exact track that was uploaded, regardless of the playback encoding. So you can happily share your 192kHz 32-bit float wav file if that tickles your fancy, in full trust that that is how it will be received. You can also do so in complete privacy without violating your NDA.
4. SoundCloud has experienced unscheduled downtime in the past.
For 24 hours in October 2011, SoundCloud fell victim to an aggressive DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack leading to slow response times and occasional periods of downtime.
No data was lost in the attack and no user profile security was compromised, but better measures have since been put in place to defend against future attacks of that nature. Unfortunately, no website is untouchable from such an attack attempt.
My SoundCloud Story
I joined SoundCloud in August 2010 and from the start had a revelatory and inspirational experience, so much so that by New Year’s Day 2011 I resolved to turn my life-long passion and hobby into a career. This I knew would be a long path but one that would hopefully be rewarding at every step of the way, and as 2011 passed by, I reflected on those intentions in confidence that things were finally moving in the right direction.
My first steps on SoundCloud were like most others—a one-way path of uploading music and hoping it would be heard and liked by someone, somewhere, just as most creative artists hope for their own art to be observed and appreciated. It only really happened for me when I realised that it was more than a music hosting site but a community as well.
And so I started engaging in-depth with other people’s music—going through their entire track lists to understand their own creative processes and leaving comments and, drawing on my own experience, leaving constructive feedback along the way. This revealed the reciprocal nature of SoundCloud interaction when all of a sudden my own tracks started drawing a lot of attention.
The third stage of my SoundCloud involvement began in June when I decided to try tapping into the collective creativity of the SoundCloud community.
- The first crowd-sourcing project was extremely simple: “I invite you to suggest a name for this track”. SoundCloud staff noticed this, thought it was a cool idea, and tweeted it to their then 80,000 followers. My track got absolutely bombed by name suggestions and the winning title and subtitle were really well-suited to the track (White Light Rendezvous: For Those Who Follow). With around 200 followers at the time, I then gained another 200 or so on the back of that mini-project.
- The second project was a little more ambitious. I played a 9 minute piano improvisation and called it “I invite you to suggest an orchestral composition with timed comments on this track.” This got a lot of attention too with comments like “a harp arpeggio phrase for next 8 bars” and after about 100 comments I spent a month composing those elements over the original piano improv. I called the resulting track “SoundCloud Sinfonietta: You Composed This” which quickly racked up over 5,000 plays and was a finalist in the G-Technology Europe Driven Creativity Awards.
- The third project is still on-going and is called “Your Tune” where I invited followers to share a 20-second solo melody and composed a full-length orchestral or band instrumental track using the submitted melody.
As well as the community projects I run on SoundCloud, I also produce a lot of original work and get involved in many collaborations. Through a friend on SoundCloud, one of my original tracks “Ochre Threads” was heard by an independent filmmaker in LA, also on SoundCloud, who is working on his 3rd feature-length film and wanted to use the track for a particular scene.
The same filmmaker then spotted a track I released in December 2011—“Of Valour”—and on the strength of that alone gave me the opportunity to score the entire feature-length film, due for release in Summer 2012.
This is potentially the career break I’ve dreamed of for many years and could be my ticket to full-time paid filmscoring work in the future.
Apart from members who used underhanded spam-like tactics to drive playcount and visibility, the most active and successful accounts are those of people who take the time to listen and provide feedback to other SoundClouders. The communities thrive in the timed comments, the track favouritings, the collaborations and in groups, especially those which have forum-like chat areas. There are also regular live meetups across the world, like this one in October 2011, which Yoko Ono got involved in too.
Naturally I prefer an organically grown community to one built on spam and follow-backs, and contributed “How to Grow Your SoundCloud Community” to SoundCloud HQ, which they keep on the front page of the user guide here: soundcloud.com/101
The SoundCloud community is well supported by dedicated community teams with staff in Berlin, London and San Francisco, headed by Europa Award-Winner David Noël. The team actively promotes community projects via their blog, Facebook page (500,000+ followers) and Twitter account (150,000+ followers), for example a global project collecting translations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in as many languages as possible.
One very charming aspect of the SoundCloud Community Team is their daily SoundClouder Of The Day nomination, where a member is singled out for their community activity or other unique attribute that deserves recognition. SCOTD alumni are then often contacted for input on community questions and feedback, and are given a little boost in follower-ship by means of a shoutout on their social networks.
“This Week in SoundCloud” is another community project highlighting interesting discoveries across the ‘Cloud, in podcast format on a weekly basis (incidentally, the jingle for this podcast was written by me and 2 other SoundClouders).
There is a lot to the SoundCloud platform, it is not just an audio widget on your demo page. I’ll end where I began: SoundCloud is a versatile and effective platform for composers and sound content creators of all kinds. It is arguably the next big thing in online audio, and maybe most important… it is a community.