SoundCloud, at first glance, would seem to be a sort of audio-only version of YouTube – a place where people upload music and other audio files to the internet. But in the two years or so I’ve been using it, I’ve discovered that it’s as different from YouTube as a library is from a video arcade. It’s the only “place” online in which I feel a sense of community. I use Facebook, Google Plus, and a couple of other popular “platforms,” but their populations and activities are too varied and diffuse to generate feelings of kinship in me. In the case of the ubiquitous YouTube, the pervasive nastiness that infects many of their comment threads triggers something akin to a gag reflex whenever I stray onto them.
SoundCloud is different. Almost all the people I interact with on it are engaged in creative endeavors. They’re musicians, composers, sound designers, singers and songwriters. Some are relative beginners, others are experienced and accomplished. Anyone can post a “sound” on SoundCloud – a song, a piece of avant-garde electronica, a sound effect, a radio broadcast, your baby’s first words – anything that can be contained in a digital audio file.
According to a piece in the June, 2013 issue of Wired Magazine, “…the Berlin-based company now has 40 million registered users… and reaches more than 200 million people each month…”
Cofounder Alexander Ljung was quoted in in the same article: “We have some people who are into dubstep, some people who are into the sound of songbirds. People can find their own niches and participate.”
In the year I’ve been exploring SoundCloud, I’ve found a number of these niches populated, respectively, by songwriters in many different genres, jam bands, electronic composers, radio stations and record labels, print publications like The New Yorker, well-known jazz, classical and pop recording artists, sound designers, archivists and audiophiles of all persuasions. I’ve found “clouds” (as individuals’ pages are called on SoundCloud) devoted to the sounds of Southern California history, sounds of explosions, genres of music I had never heard of, NPR content, and much more. A search of SoundCloud for the word “cosmology” brought up over 500 audio tracks, 57 “clouds” and 40 “playlists” (compilations of tracks). SoundCloud hosts collections including parts of the Smithsonian’s massive audio archives, the Muzak archives; the archives of Killorglin, Ireland, the national archives of Georgia (the country) and hundreds more.
Like a Borgesian library of nearly infinite possibility, SoundCloud might, in fact, contain something for everyone. What effect its existence will have on the recording industry remains to be quantified, but it certainly seems to be another instance of how digital technology is changing everything about everything.
Since I started using SoundCloud, my music purchases from Apple and Amazon have dropped significantly. SoundCloud is not only the place where I share my own music, it’s increasingly where I go to listen to music. The fact that most of what I hear isn’t anything I could find on iTunes or an internet radio app is telling. Cofounder Ljung says that a relatively small group of “big artists” can no longer determine what music people listen to. While I still consider new releases by Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or the much younger Regina Spektor, noteworthy events, I no longer follow a limited and well defined group of recording artists whose work I listen to and discuss with friends, the way we did in the last century. The distinction between “creator” and “listener” has become fluid. Everyone I know on SoundCloud is both.
I’ve been playing guitar since high school and writing songs since I was in my twenties. Until recently, my music took a back seat to my work as an actor, director and playwright. With the advent of a host of music-making apps for the iPad, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time composing music, songs and spoken word pieces as well as venturing into new forms: remixes, mashups and beats. SoundCloud led me to an online class in songwriting and another in digital production from the Berklee School of Music. SoundCloud is now my most frequently visited site online.
At first it was simply a convenient way to share the music with friends. A number of music apps feature links for uploading directly to it. After a while, though, I began to make use of the website’s capacities for “following” the work of other members, commenting on their tracks and joining groups (“singer-songwriters,” “twelve-bar blues,” etc.). I heard music that was as interesting to me as anything I could find on commercial venues: a guitar player from San Antonio, Tom Adams who plays traditional Chicago blues as well as anyone since BB King;
a woman from Buenos Aries, Laura Montenegro who sounds uncannily like Bessie Smith ; a French pianist, Laurent Guine, who improvises delicately beautiful solos; Jörn Schipper, a German Jazz trumpeter who now concentrates on provocative spoken-word/electronic music collages; Tony Bluestone, a singer from Detroit whose impassioned songs bring me to tears; Walter Paget, a modern Welsh bard who writes songs about his coal-miner father; Kathleen Martin, a singer/musician in Knob Knee, Indiana who records pristine versions of songs by Baez, Dylan, and other icons of the sixties; Mike McCoy, an Australian expat in Spain who plays world-class jazz guitar and sings standards in a voice that reminds me of Fats Waller. And there are more. Sofia, A Parisian composer/singer who spins out hypnotic story-songs that at least one animator found compelling enough to base a short film around, and Iannis, a musician from Athens who plays blues and jazz on his oud.
The ever-growing wave of wonderful music from this online cornucopia has become almost overwhelming. I can spend hours browsing SoundCloud. Following a perceptive comment on one song might lead me to a new composer whose list of “favorite” works by others will take me to the pages of still more musicians. While all of them might not appeal, many will move, instruct or delight me.
After compiling a “playlist” (another useful SoundCloud feature) of tracks that I’d found most interesting, I decided to contact each singer/songwriter/composer on the list. I wanted to know if their experience on SoundCloud was anything like mine. How did they use the service? Had it changed their approach to music at all? Did they share my sense of community?
I heard back from nearly all of the twenty members I queried, receiving emails from France, Germany, Australia, Great Britain (Leicester and London) and elsewhere. Americans who responded come from Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Indiana and Ohio.
Everyone who responded agreed that there was, indeed, a SoundCloud community. Chris Okunbor, who lives on a mountain in Australia, sings classic Delta blues and plays the kind slide guitar I used to hear on Folkways archival recordings from the 1930s, wrote:
“SoundCloud is a very special community…..I’ve seen, on many occasions, when someone is struggling with a negative real-life event, all their friends and supporters hop onto a track and give them positive and kind support. I’ve had over five thousand comments on tracks I’ve posted and only one of them was a bit strange – but I think that person was struggling with their mental health.” Chris said that she has made “genuine friends” on SoundCloud and will be soon be visiting some of them in Europe where they’ve arranged a series of gigs for her. She hopes to do the same thing in the U.S. in 2015.
Ed McCarthy, whose nom de musicien is “edro,” may not make a living from music, but, like many SoundCloud members, he’s been playing guitar for most of his life. He noticed that his passion for music was beginning to ebb some years ago, after a close friend of his, musician Steve Rebbin, died.
Ed wrote to me: “I really didn’t realize that I was grieving until I got back into music and that hole in my life was there. Once I started playing with other people again, I realized again that music was my center. Almost all of my close friends have some connection to music. I don’t consciously think of that when making friendships it just sort of happens.”
He has a number of friends on SoundCloud. “I consider it important to be there to help when I can. We stay in touch with each others’ new music. I like their music more than most commercial music out there these days.”
This last point was echoed in several responses I received. Idris Davies, a Welsh singer-songwriter living in London wrote, “Why don’t I play current music? Well – here I can, current doesn’t have to be X-Factor. It can be anything from any of the guys I’m following, whether it’s Roy’s kitchen parties or Anju’s jazzy vocals, Chris and Derek sliding me back on their dobros, Mark swinging away on his piano or Mick mixing up sweet electro-blues! Discovering and sharing their music brings me great joy!”
Sofia, who lives in Paris and records as “Walt & Vervain,” creates wholly original “electronic pop” songs with vocals. She originally joined SoundCloud hoping it would be a way to get her music heard by record labels. It didn’t happen. But she began to receive hundreds of emails from listeners who loved what she was doing. Now, she writes, “I can’t deny the connection I feel with the people who follow me and whom I follow.”
For Chris Okunbor, this same sense of connection prompts her to give back to the community. “I enjoy supporting and promoting other musicians I feel are really good and are good people, especially some of the young ones…some are not living in the affluent West…and really struggle to be heard and recognized.” Chris reposts dozens of tracks by other musicians on her “cloud.” Thanks to her, I discovered Dwayne-Xtreme, a remarkable singer from Jamaica.
After I’d finished a draft of this piece I found a voice on SoundCloud that was new to me: Barbara Browning, a novelist who teaches at NYU and has recorded and posted covers of hundreds of songs, some well known, some obscure, in her lovely, evocative voice with simple ukelele accompaniment. I discovered that she was not only a terrific singer with impeccable taste (that closely matched my own, naturally) but also a writer of graceful and insightful prose. (I recommend her short piece about spam and Charles Trenet, I Wish You Love.) I immediately wrote to her and asked her to have a look at the draft and comment, if she cared to. Within hours, she responded:
“SoundCloud is so utopian – people are so kind and supportive. The one thing about your article that might irk some of my friends who are professional musicians (emphatically not me!) is that you’re buying less music. Of course the music industry is changing and musicians and composers need to figure out new ways of living with the changing economy. Myself, I’m paying for more music than ever. Because I have a fabulous day job teaching, I can afford to support musicians economically as well as creatively, so I do. If somebody has a “buy it” button on SoundCloud, I often do, and I buy the originals of the music I cover. Because I post all my music with Creative Commons licenses, some of my friends still think I’m helping contribute to the increasingly bleak situation where people assume music will be free. Deep down, I’m a big fat communist, so I have doubts about ALL private property, intellectual as well as material, but we live in this complicated world… As you know, I fall on the side of wanting to stimulate the gift economy – and the feminist in me wants us to pay special attention to affective labor and sentimental value. All of these things are intertwined in my mind.”
Her phrase, “affective labor and sentimental value,” continues to echo in my mind, evoking the possibility of a shamelessly utopian economic model. When I asked Barbara about the provenance of that notion, she wrote:
“if you want more on affective labor, a good Marxist feminist theorist to start with is Sylvia Federici, but of course you can always just talk to a waitress or a nurse or a mom about labors of love.”
For many members, including this writer, the greatest value SoundCloud offers isn’t the space it provides to store and share music. It’s the inspiration to our creativity and the nurture of our processes that count. Axel Weiss, a jazz guitarist, composer and painter from Bavaria, wrote that some of his musical ideas would simply never come into the world without the supportive outlet that SoundCloud provides. Justin Valente, a blues guitarist from New Jersey maintains that his past eight months on SoundCloud have been the most productive of his twenty-five year long career.
Alexa Weber Morales, an Oakland, California singer-songwriter who sang on the Grammy-nominated latin jazz album Bien! Bien! and sings, tours and writes lyrics with Pacific Mambo Orchestra, made an insightful connection between craft and community:
“If you believe in craft, and I strongly do, than a community like SoundCloud is inspiring. However, a lot of musicians do like I did at first: automatically post their tracks from CD Baby (you can just click a button), see zero comments/interaction, and let it lie fallow. I say forget Pinterest (tried it), LinkedIn, ReverbNation, MySpace (as if!) and FaceBook and enjoy a community purpose-built for musicians. So what if you don’t find many music fans there, half or more of the music business has to do with inspiration and collaboration with other musicians and who you know. This is a way to do all those things, without getting sucked into other time-wasters.”
Alexa, Axel and Justin, along with most of the people who emailed me, frequently collaborate with other SoundCloud members, over considerable physical distances, sometimes without ever having met in person. Idris Davies, in London and Chris Okunbor in Australia created a haunting mashup of “death songs” from the black tradition, including chants, hollers and songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton and others. “musicaserj II,” a Paris-based composer-musician, remixed their work and added an electric guitar part.
Jim, a Philadelphia guitarist who goes by the name of “telefan” recorded and uploaded a traditional twelve-bar blues guitar track, “Two-Minute Blues” and invited anyone who was interested to add a vocal track, a second guitar part or another instrument. After about three weeks, more than thirty musicians have taken him up on the offer “It has been such an amazing success,” he writes, “also very much a learning experience for me as a guitarist to hear other great players’ interpretations of the same piece.”
This sort of “song-swapping” reminds me of some of my earliest musical experiences when, from age eleven on, my family would spend summers in a small mountain town in Southern California where a folk-music “workshop” run by then-blacklisted Pete Seeger would take place. That was where I learned my first guitar chords and, later on, a few blues licks. Besides Pete, folk-music virtuosos like The New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGee, Sonny Terry and Bess Lomax Hawes would teach there, and hundreds of fans and amateur folkies would gather to learn and pass around songs, riffs and techniques.
In high school, college, and later, I stayed connected to the folk music community at venues like the legendary Ash Grove in L.A., McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Ice House in Pasadena. But, eventually, I drifted away from that world as other parts of life made greater demands.
For me, the most positive feature of the so-called “digital revolution” is the unparalleled access to music – as a listener and a musician – I now enjoy. Until my own experience on SoundCloud, I had remained skeptical about the heralded “democratization of art,” that the internet has reportedly brought about. But the truth is that, these days, almost all the music I listen to is written, performed and recorded outside any commercial structure, mostly offered for free, by people who are, in terms of celebrity, unknown. Could it be that – at least in this one area of life – we have stumbled our way into the gift economy that Lewis Hyde wrote about so compellingly in his classic book, The Gift?
The people I’ve gotten to know on SoundCloud – though many would not fit in any sort of “folk” category – have brought me back to a sense of participation in music as an activity that is intensely personal and, at the same time, collective. Whether listening to music that moves me with its beauty, power, sense of history or its humor, or in giving and receiving help in songwriting or music production, or in philosophical conversations about music, and everything else, I sometimes feel that I’m taking part in a never-ending global hootenanny – the kind of spontaneous group sing- and play- along that was once a vibrant part of American culture. Maybe it still is.
What We Talk About When We Talk About SoundCloud:
“I’ve found SC has been a way of getting a little of the same joy I get from gigging back into my life without the live nerves etc. I’m not saying it replaces it but I find the feedback I get has driven me and it’s just been such a joy and sense of completion to post a song and have it heard…
“The SoundCloud community is a little eco-system of groups of individuals sharing music, ideas, advice and just life. I suppose other social platforms are ways of sharing what you ate for breakfast or what you’re watching on telly, SC is a platform for sharing music – and I don’t need to tell you how provocative, leading and rich a subject that is, do I!”
“I think there are more communities within Soundcloud. It’s like living in a small town and you just pick the ones you feel comfortable with, the ones who are on the same wavelength. It’s a microscopic world in a way.”
“SoundCloud has replaced my old 4track.”
“I find you can quickly see through to people’s hearts and intentions…through their music/lyrics/comments, and watching the way they treat others of all genders. SC is a very special community“
– Chris Okunbor, Singer, Guitarist, Blue Mountains, Australia
“There’s that part of SC where people really listen to one another’s music, comment and like (or not). These people often do real collaborations, where each invests some time, someone does the mix and master etc…so yes, there’s a community with a real interest into the others. Mostly, they also make this typical handmade music, play real instruments, write songs with lyrics etc. Then there’s another world, where people just repost and comment (mostly standard blabla) and like other peoples music just in return for the same being done to them. Thus, their tracks quickly collect lots of plays and likes, but it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just a deal. maybe they think that makes their music better, that this is a career starter, but I don’t think so.”
– Katja Tennigheit, Seeheim-Jugenheim, Germany
“I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of nastiness among commenters at SC. I’ve often wondered if someone goes around and deletes anything too untoward! It presents the other problem, though, of never getting helpful feedback or 100% honesty from fellow users. Early on I actually tried being more truthful — still not unkind, but recommending minor adjustments that could be made — and I’ve had mostly very good reactions to that. OTOH, I’ve lost some followers as a result, too. My approach to every interaction in life was / is / and always will be applying the Golden Rule: Would I want to see / hear such a note in return?”
– Kathleen Martin, Singer/Musician, Knob Knee, Indiana
“Music is a personal thing. To share that is beautiful, man! Creating music puts me in a special place… Music pulls people together where as politics, religion seems to pull people apart.”
– Tony Pappas (Tony Bluestone), Singer, Songwriter, Detroit, Michigan
“For me SoundCloud was a life saver when I came upon it
several years ago. It opened up a whole new thing for me, and I have been quite (happily) surprised by the responses I have got from others (all unsolicited).”
– Phutz, Singer, Songwriter, Sound Artist, Western Massachusetts
Links my own music: