“Work hard, play nice, move up.” SoundCloud's mission to create a musical middle class.
I meet David Noël, VP of Community for SoundCloud, in a New York City hotel lobby. He's flown in from Berlin by way of San Francisco and has a tight schedule. However, we end up chatting at length about music festivals in Europe, after discovering he is originally from Belgium, where I spent many a weekend seeing hard-core shows, as a one-time French resident over a decade ago. You wouldn't think it to see David's “favorites” list in his SoundCloud profile, but he used to be the lead-screamer for a hard-core punk band. It goes to show the evolution of sound works in close synthesis with its listener.
Paperhouses: Speaking of festival culture, and with the music industry what it is, people say that most of musical commerce is at the service of live shows. How does SoundCloud integrate with live music?
David: I think it doesn't. (laughter) We think we've built a beautiful product for people to share sounds online, which is what we set out to deliver. I think we've done a good job doing that. When you think of creativity or music, being an artist, there's not this one thing you have to do. It's not about recording something and selling the CD or a piece of Vinyl. It somehow becomes a much broader operation, which has come with a whole set of challenges but also a whole set of opportunities. It's much easier for people to get heard nowadays. So that's a way we think about SoundCloud. As a performing, touring band, you could use SoundCloud in a unique and innovative way that other people haven't used. For example, One Direction, is recording tour diaries, and connecting with the fans. With technology it can be, “how can I integrate it in my life my touring life and leverage technology, the same way people use Twitter or Instagram to document or connect with their fans.” Sound is a component in that. There's many ways you can think of how to integrate offline with online. The more uniquely you can do it, the more creative you can be around that, the more you can have a sense of differentiation. As an artist, the world is a playground and technology has become your toy. You can take blocks, those pieces of technology and put them together and create something new and say “this is who I want to be over the course of the next six months on tour.”
Paperhouses: Conversely, the suggestion of music online puts to question the old model of the music industry, but many people say “good riddance to the CD,” “it was already a bloated economy”… A lot of experiencing music used to feel really transactional. You had to give to get. Now it seems more and more musicians provide their content for free, but how does SoundCloud then profit?
David: The way we've been operating now is, if you think of your SoundCloud profile as a tool to promote yourself, grow an audience, you start by using it for free. Now we see a lot of people finding value and utilizing those features and wanting more. There are people who said “we want more storage space” or “more granular statistics, to see how my content is being engaged with. That's where we've been monetizing since the early days. It's been working really well. Keeps us in check with the creator needs. More recently we started working with brands as well. Introducing and welcoming bands to come and participate as community members by creating custom branded content.
One current example is Levi's and Station to Station. You have a train going coast to coast and on the train there's artists, a lot of content being recorded and shared. You see, the way they introduced themselves to the SoundCloud community is very authentic. They want to be creators themselves.
Station by Station train.
I love the idea of a train going coast to coast. There's something nostalgic about it. There's also the affinity to the arts and technology and innovation. It's a great combination. It's a beautiful campaign.
It's interesting… we spend a lot of time in New York right now, talking to agencies and clients excited about the concept of sound. Not something that's an afterthought. If you think about it, why is that the case. It is a medium that we connect with every day. Sound is among us. The scenery in this hotel cafe would be very different if there weren't background music.
Paperhouses: SoundCloud is known primarily as a tool for musicians but we're talking about branding exercises here, and I wonder… a music purist would bristle at the idea of music being used to market a brand or product, but what you think about that?
David: It's a good question. It depends on what you want. In the end it comes down to as an artist. What are the main goals you try to achieve as an artist? What are the elements you pick and choose to achieve those goals? It's like you said before, music was transactional. You paid something and got music in return for it. Now, it's like there are many different avenues to pursue your art. There are different ambitions as well. A lot of the people in SoundCloud now are on a whole long tail creator community. Their main motivation is to share with others, to collaborate, to learn, to become better. Their first thought is about how to get heard in the first place. They don't think about making this a career. They're thinking about how to get better at their art. From there you can choose how you want to monetize… use other services to sell your tracks or create a Kickstarter or you go on tour… There's so many things you can do now. It comes down to the artist to find their main goal and the mechanics of achieving that goal. That's the beauty of it, I think; why it sounds overwhelming. There's not one way to do it, there are many ways. You can really build a nice bouquet of solutions.
Paperhouses: I like the long-tail analogy because it suggests there's a symbiotic relationship between brands and pure artists, where the financial backing or the commercial music funds the platform for all these other non-commercial musicians. That's effectively the beauty of a longtail economy, that there's room for both.The guy with five followers recording avant-garde noise and then the One Direction tour diary…
Obviously one unique function of SoundCloud is the comments, the timeline comments, but how heavily monitored is that?
David: Not at all. I mean not from us. It's impossible. It's millions of comments. But that's the great thing about community. Because it's a product designed to let communities form themselves, they have a stake in what they've created. So if someone shows up and doesn't adhere to the rules, they get called out real fast.
Paperhouses: I have to say I'm always surprised that all the comments are glowing and positive.
David: I'm glad you say that.
Paperhouses: Maybe I'm just not seeing the negative?
David: I'd tend to agree with you actually. I see mostly positive comments. That's incredible, because we're not responsible for that, it's the community. The key here is that by writing a comment associated with your profile, you want to look good. You don't want to be that guy. So when someone clicks through to your account and you have an interest in having your music heard, or your sounds heard. If you're around and you're a douche, people will not interact with you. By default it creates a baseline of being positive and if you criticize, make it constructive. That's really a theme that was able to stay even though we grew so much.
Paperhosues: I'm still baffled, not in a bad way at all… but I just think about places like YouTube and other other media platforms famously populated by trolls who thrive on harassing general users. I just wonder… a troll by definition is supposed to be unlikable. Maybe it has to do with the sound element being divorced from the visual elements.
Thinking about community, though, why do you think it's important for music to be shared in this way?
David: To me, it comes down to a very simple thing. If I created something, I will decide if I want someone to experience it or not. I think that comes down to the fundamental product that we build. It's grown from a frustration the founders had that there was no simple and easy and beautiful way to share what you created either publicly or privately, and the ability to give people the ability to give consistent feedback at specific moments. It still represents key things.
The way I use it… I don't consider myself a musician anymore, the same way I did ten years ago with this band. But I still have a guitar at home, and now I have a recording device in my pocket, in this phone app. So when I want to capture something like the first sounds of my newborn nephew, I want to capture them and save them privately. I don't want to share them yet, necessarily. I have the option, though. Maybe I have a completely unprofessional guitar sketch. It's just an idea I want to get out there to see if it resonates with people. When it resonates with people and are like “I really love this chord progression, can I turn it into a song?” I say “of course! Please.” It's a new collaborative process. It removes a barrier and invites people to play and organize themselves and to collaborate. They decide if they want to share it or not. That's about it.
Paperhouses: SoundCloud has rendered music into information, because it's communicated between people as a learning tool, as opposed to just entertainment. I mean it's certainly primarily entertainment, but it's also become information technology.
Dave: To use a buzzword, SoundCloud has actually become social media. It's a media platform that is inherently social. Not only is it unique, it also removes this notion that music or sound has to be passive. It used to be, music's just behind a play button and I'm going to do something else while it's in the background. Now you actually have an interaction with a song or a podcast or with this story or with this sound that is noise or a child singing. And that's great. That then becomes a connection between creator and listener, but ideally also between listeners themselves, sparking conversation. Imagine it's the White House sharing their weekly radio address on SoundCloud and it's Obama talking about Syria. It uses his message, through SoundCloud, as a way for people to connect with each other.
Paperhouses: Are you seeing in the artist community, an evolution of music based on comments?
Dave: All the time. There's actually a singer-songwriter in Brooklyn, Cyra Morgan, who started with nothing. She had three chords. She goes on SoundCloud and has this lullaby in her head. She takes a guitar, plays a couple chords… she keeps on doing this, and people organize and give her feedback. She goes back and gets better and practices and nine months later she has amassed over 10,000 followers and has run collaborations with dozens of people from around the world. Last week, she was part of a collaboration between five SoundCloud members who created the soundtrack for a (TV show). It's amateurs with professional aspirations who connected on SoundCloud and got better over the course of years and made themselves an opportunity. The beauty of it is it becomes visible. Those stories surface.
Cyra Morgan (Image via Facebook)
Paperhouses: That's incredible! And it's also the template of open source media. It's an iteration of an original idea that's collaborated upon.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. There's another guy that was part of this group of five from London. He works at a bank and is a composer as well. At home he composes orchestral music and he was frustrated that he wasn't able to turn his compositions into a job. Then he found SoundCloud and built a community around himself, identified himself, positioned himself as a leader in the community, coming up with great ideas on how to organize people and get them excited. He did improv on piano for three minutes, and everybody commented on different moments. A month later he delivers a thirteen minute orchestral piece consisting of seventy ideas, coming from the community, and of which thirteen different vocal layers came from an opera singer in Portland Oregon. For him, it's a new way of being creative.
Paperhouses: What are you seeing is the most popular genre… not popular in terms of listens but in terms of uploads.
Dave: So, electronic music is really popular, and it's mostly because it's been around the longest on SoundCloud. It got adopted by the electronic community early on because of the nature of the genre. Electronic music is something you can create and put up and iterate upon easily. In rock music or pop music, the creative process is a little different, where you sit in a room until a song is perfect, and then you put it out there. Hip-hop is a little bit in between, where it is about perfecting craft but with a different approach. And then you have the whole audio part: Comedy is growing super fast, like The Bugle from John Oliver, Kevin Smith… Then you have news organizations, like The BBC and The Guardian and CNN who syndicate their radio content on SoundCloud. We have education: Stanford, LSE, Harvard, Yale who all have audio content–lectures and presentations and historic graduation speeches.
Paperhouses: As the community ambassador, what do you want to see more of in SoundCloud?
David: There are so many things I would dream up or would love to see. I think it's about seeing where we can take this collaborative theme. Bigger and more of those things. There's actually a great example from last year. So, Snoop Dogg (N.K.A. Snoop Lion) understood what SoundCloud was all about, early on. It's a social network, it's about music, about collaboration, about up-and-comers. “I want to be involved,” he said. Every two days he released work-in-progress that he didn't use. Vocals or a beat or whatever. He gave it to the community. He played around with this. Then he would get submissions back. He actually found this woman from Poland. He said “I really love your voice” and they talked to each other. They took it offline and talked privately through SounCloud for nine months and I think they ended up collaborating on over 60 tracks. Then they produced an album, he flies over to Poland with a documentary film crew, and creates 13 music videos that all become a feature-length movie. We premiered it at SXSW in our space this year. That's what I want to see more of, I think. Given that SoundCloud is the largest sound-creator community in the world, the long-tail doesn't mean that it's bad quality. There's so much talent there and suddenly you have more voice. It's about connecting established artists with aspirational ones. I want to see more of that. Ways of how people who carry a lot of weight can raise the musical middle class.
Paperhouses: I love that, the musical middle class.
David: I have to attribute it to Claude, a music producer in New York. That's exactly what it is, though. For the listener, for millions of listeners, those become interesting stories, engaging stories, that we want to tell more of. We see them happening a lot on SoundCloud. That's the beauty of it. It's not about a very well defined segment of people. It's about anyone being able to participate and moving up.
Work hard, be nice, move up.