By all rights, the folks at SoundCloud should be celebrating right now--the service recently announced that it signed a deal with Sony Music, the last of the three major labels it needed onboard, and can now begin planning for the launch of an official streaming music service, as well as hosting major label content. But the deal might be too little, too late. A few days earlier, Dubset Media announced a partnership with Apple Music, giving that service the rights to stream millions of mashups and remixes, with the artists being compensated for their samples. There's little doubt that Spotify and other major streaming services will sign similar deals in the future.
With this deal, one thing that made SoundCloud unique has all but disappeared. There are reports that SoundCloud is planning to launch a $10 a month streaming service soon--but by the time it is on the market, will they be too late to the party?
SoundCloud is the equivalent of the mixtape for today's generation--DJs use it to showcase new mixes and try out new material, and, ultimately, as a loss leader to drum up attention for other projects. Artists use it to experiment with new music and go direct to the fans (often without clearing samples or going through label legalities). When majors started pulling content, many DJs and artists found themselves confused and at a loss--if they couldn't use the platform to post remixes or test new material, what good was it? And even with the deals in place, there's no sense of how much control labels will want over their content. Will the labels want to approve all remixes and only post official mixes or tracks they think reflect well on an artist, leaving amateur mixes out in the cold? And will the labels use their clout to make sure their artists are promoted above independent artists who use SoundCloud to share their music with the world and relied on the crate-digging nature of the site to gain traction?
SoundCloud's greatest enemy, however, has been its own success. Artists like Kendrick Lamar (and his TDE camp) credit the platform for much of their success. However, they were eventually forced to back away from using it by lawyers at the labels once the industry realized the power it had. Most of these deals have since been fixed, but once SoundCloud became more than just a cool little site/startup and had a real audience, labels quickly wanted their cut, which has proved challenging for all parties involved.
There are plenty of questions about the Dubset and Apple deal as well. Labels and publishers already have some control over approval on mixes--for instance, certain tracks can't played next to each other, certain artists are excluded, among other examples of weird but typical music industry handcuffing. Dubset's catalog, while deep, is not complete--so what happens to a mix that has two-thirds cleared tracks and one-third uncleared? It isn't easy for a DJ in a live mix, where songs are played next to each other for reasons 100 percent related to sound and flow and NOT label politics, to go back and just take a song out or edit a mix. As a DJ, I can't imagine putting together a mix with so many rules and obscure details. Also, given that Apple is the largest company in the world and tends to err on the side of caution, I wouldn't be surprised if it took a while before we saw this roll out. It is an extremely positive step forward for the industry overall, which I hope can eventually clear these challenges.
For now, this still leaves DJs in a holding pattern, and SoundCloud in a precarious position. Users have shown that they want everything in one place, and there's not a huge willingness to pay for multiple streaming services that all have essentially the same content. Unless SoundCloud can bring something amazing to the market very soon, its luck might run out, just like mixtapes did after SoundCloud.