6 Things That Might Make the Great Soundcloud.com Even Greater

Soundcloud.com provides one the strongest infrastructures, if not the strongest, for communities of musicians and their listeners on the Internet. It’s a place where people share music they’ve made, listen to other people’s music, comment, make purchases, and collaborate.

And the service keeps getting stronger. It recently teamed with Tumblr for a smooth means of presenting Soundcloud material on the microblogging service, and the Soundcloud “app gallery” features an expanding number of tools that make use of its generous API.

The efforts are apparently working, because Soundcloud is more popular than ever. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last month, the service has over five million members, and fourth fifths of them signed up in the past year.

But bigger isn’t a sure thing. The recent sale of MySpace for a fraction of its highest market valuation is evidence that rapid growth even in a field as ubiquitous as music can go terribly wrong.

From a user-interface standpoint, nothing in particular is wrong with Soundcloud, certainly not yet, though there is a low-level sense of feature creep. Much like the personal-organization tool Evernote, Soundcloud is a device-spanning and software-spanning service (computer, phone, browser, app, etc.) that defined itself early on by its simplicity, but that has over time become more complicated, more rich in tools.

Despite which, below are suggestions for six additional things that could make the great Soundcloud even greater. Heck, there’s a chance that one or more of the ideas below already exist and I just haven’t come upon them because the Soundcloud interface’s sublime cleanness masks its underlying complexities — that is, because I didn’t look closely enough. But I write this as a heavy Soundcloud user, and one who if anything wants to use Soundcloud even more:

1. GROUPING GROUPIES: Let Soundcloud users create subsets of the users they follow.

Social Sorting: The Soundcloud following/followers interface already has a settings option (see upper right), so Grouping Groupies would be an iterative change

I follow 288 accounts on Soundcloud as of this writing, and the “Incoming tracks” feed in the site’s Dashboard is not the most effective way to experience them. It would be nice to be able to create subgroups so that I could observe the incoming tracks based on categories I myself create: close friends, people whom I correlate with certain genres (noise, field recordings, minimal techno), people who live in a particular area (Tokyo, San Francisco, etc.), fellow listeners (folks who rarely if ever actually post music), record labels, netlabels, etc. There are pros and cons to this suggestion. On Twitter, for example, it’s not uncommon for people to follow everyone who follows them and to then employ Twitter Lists as a means to keep track of the select few they actually want to keep tabs on. That approach undermines Twitter’s internal workings by muddying its ability to sense who is really communicating with whom. (Fully scaled, everyone would just follow everyone, and then use a List to sort, and that’s untenable.) But even if you stick to the social contract of only following people you’re interested in, groupings would simply let the listener organize his or her listening habits, rather than stick one’s ear in the direction of a fire hose. (There are precedents in Soundcloud for this: The Following/Followers interface has a settings option. There is a Contact Lists option under People. And there are Groups, which function like clubs of like-minded people.)

2. FEED SMARTER: Make the Dashboard’s “Incoming tracks” feed work algorithmically, rather than just chronologically.

For a service that is enjoyed by, and by all appearances coded by, people who use advanced computer systems as a platform for creativity, the main Soundcloud feed is somewhat antiquated. It just shows the most recent tracks by accounts you follow. There should be options to view the feed algorithmically, in addition to the standard “show me what’s new” approach. The algorithmic feed serves a similar role to the “Grouping Groupies” mode mentioned above, and they work together: the algorithmic feeds learn from the user-collated groups, as well as from user habits. (Facebook is, of course, a poster child for not employing algorithmic feeds, but the failures of Facebook’s feeds are a failure of implementation, not of the overall idea.)

3. BUSK DIGITALLY: Allow listeners to tip musicians.

Case Open: There’s already a tradition of the guitar case doubling as a tip jar. Soundcloud can provide its musician-users with a virtual guitar case.

Music commerce isn’t dead. It’s just found new places to do business. On Soundcloud, for example, people have the opportunity to pay to download tracks they have already been able to stream in full. There’s a lesson for Soundcloud to learn from Kickstarter.com, just on the far opposite end of the transaction chronology. The traditional record-buying mode was that the consumer purchased an album after it had been produced and manufactured. The Kickstarter mode varies from project to project, but generally speaking it involves the consumer participating as benefactor, contributing funds before the recording has been manufactured, often before it has even been recorded. There’s space on the other end of this continuum: Soundcloud could let users show their appreciation after hearing music by providing a “tip jar.” And the musicians could determine how this music would be spent. For example, a musician could use it, in a Kickstarter-like campaign mode, to gain funds to pay for a particular Soundcloud upgrade (somewhat modeled on the MMORPG system, in which gamers have the option to purchase items to help them make their way in a free gaming environment). Or it could be funneled into a bank account or PayPal account. Or into a Soundcloud account, that they could they use to re-disperse the funds to other Soundcloud users. Who knows, perhaps the funds could even — to come full circle — be used to start a Kickstarter project to pay for a collectively agreed upon development project based on the Soundcloud API.

4. GET PERSONAL: Facilitate visual individualization of user pages.

Spine Tingling: Dave Muller’s affectionate paintings of the narrowest portion of a vinyl LP cover show just how much information and personality can be packed into a small space.

Give users, especially those who post their own music, some opportunity to make their pages feel more like their personal pages. This needn’t get all MySpace/Geocities, not some out-of-control, custom-HTML visual nightmare. The utilitarian, orange-highlighted interface of Soundcloud stands in stark, willful contrast to MySpace’s mistakes, and rightly so. But a little personalization could go a long way. There are at least two reasons to do this. For musicians, it would make their pages feel even more like their home. For listeners, it would help orient them: Am I on a Soundcloud-generated list page, or am I on a page overseen by a human? If the answer is “human,” then let me, as a listener, feel it. It wouldn’t take much, perhaps just a thin bar, reminiscent of the spine from an album or CD. That would be more than sufficient to set the scene. (As shown above, Dave Muller’s affectionate paintings of worn LP spines were something of an inspiration to this idea.)

5. CHARGE ME: Give listeners a reason and an opportunity to pay a subscription fee.

Soundcloud doesn’t participate in “Pay to Play,” but sometimes it can feel that way. “Pay to Play” was, and perhaps remains, the means by which some live-music venues require acts to cough up a fee to play the stage, with the understanding the bands will get a slice of the door and the bar. Since Soundcloud primarily offers premium services aimed at musicians, it’s essentially charging musicians for the opportunity to reach an audience. That’s fine; the Internet has done a topsy-turvy with many industries, many former business norms. (At a highly scaled level, this would be along the lines of Hulu ditching its subscription fee and somehow charging the networks whose shows are its content.) However, there must be some means by which Soundcloud could provide additional services to listeners that listeners would be willing to pay for. And just to be clear: this isn’t a suggestion that Soundcloud take some currently free capabilities and turn them into paid-only features. It’s about coming up with new things listeners would appreciate. Perhaps a virtual hard drive for downloads? Perhaps a private MP3 player where one can upload ones own collection of recordings, along the lines of other recent cloud-based music lockers? Perhaps a blogging service, or the ability to host “radio stations” of material selected by the listener?

6. MOVE BEYOND: Staying true to your URL means expanding beyond music.

Soundcloud.com is called Soundcloud.com for a reason. It is not just about music. Music is, as the saying goes, just organized sound. There are already activities on Soundcloud that are not traditionally considered “music,” such as field recordings and spoken word. Tools should be developed to let people use Soundcloud readily for non-music purposes. For example, as a (private) audio journal, perhaps one that hooks up with Google for voice-recognition translation of those recordings into typed words.

(Photo of guitarist from flickr.com thanks to Creative Commons license.)

14 thoughts on “6 Things That Might Make the Great Soundcloud.com Even Greater

  1. I’m another one of those heavy soundcloud users and none of the above suggestions seem to be already existing features. I think you have a couple of really good ideas here, which I hope the soundcloud team will take into account when planning new features. There’s a thin line between making something easy and simple and just underpowering a platform. In the end hardcore minimalism is great for the aesthetics, but might be frustrating on tool that has to witstand day-to-day usage. Especially the user management and the “incoming tracks” page might make soundcloud a lot more usable with some of your suggestions. And why not take some inspiration from services like 8tracks and apply it to soundcloud? Right now it feels like soundcloud is a lot more focused on musicians and lables than on listeners… but what is a musician without someone to listen?

  2. One problem I have with Soundcloud is their pricing structure. Last year I had a Premium Lite account (€29 a year = US$41) and earlier this year I upgraded to a Premium Solo (€79 a year = US$113).

    That’s rather excessive considering what my web hosting costs, and I get a significantly better download “bang for the buck” numbers with self-hosted RSS feeds hooked up to iTunes and Feedburner. It’s so much better for me to DIY via RSS that I certainly won’t keep the Soundcloud Premium Solo account next year, and I might even drop it all the way back to the freebee account and just cycle tracks. It’s nothing against Soundcloud – I love what they’ve built. It’s just that for $113 a year there ought to be more than some cloud space and neato widgets.

    If artists like me don’t see any value in Soundcloud in the future then this might put a serious crimp in their revenues down the road as people downgrade or leave. The history of the web is littered with services like MP3.com, MySpace, last.fm, Garageband.com, Bandcamp, et al – although I think Bandcamp has a better chance at surviving in the long term.

    What I’d love to see from Soundcloud are more lower-priced user levels. I won’t re-up for $113, and I probably won’t re-up for $41, but I might re-up for $15 or $20 – particularly if Soundcloud did something like required me to offer a number of tracks for sale at Bandcamp or wherever and then took 10% to 15% commission on each purchase through their links. Something like that. The “River of Nickels” theory. I doubt that will happen.

    Soundcloud’s business model is based on musicians ponying up and doing the “pay for play” thing. Sure, the interface is great and the community aspect attracts many, but most of us musicians are not full-timers or careerists. We’re artisans. We can afford to be fickle. Something great may be right around the corner to usurp it all, or at least turn it into a ghost town in short order.

  3. I just want to be able to download sets at the click of a single button.

    I like the idea of a smarter Dashboard feed, I think there’s room for a lot of customization there. The grouping suggestion would play nicely with a better Dashboard, too.

    I really don’t like the idea of visual customization of Soundcloud pages. I think one of Soundcloud’s strengths is that it is and appears utilitarian, and isn’t a Myspace-like substitute for a personal webpage. Once people start hacking the interface with personalized visual clatter, the service will start to suck a lot.

    1. I should add, that even though you’re not advocating for it going the full Myspace, that’s what will happen more or less, as it always does when those kinds of things become implemented. I think Soundcloud will suffer once it gives users the opportunity to think of it as their main web presence, the same problem that something like Soundclick suffers.

    1. Remove emphasis on looking at waveforms. Yes it’s neat but it takes away from the music. Sometimes it’s useful, usually not. Are people going to use SC less if there aren’t so many waveforms everywhere?
  4. Thanks for weighing in, folks:

    @papernoise: Much appreciated. The musician emphasis has been a solid foundation, and I hope the service can sort out how to give listeners some attention.

    @Rushton: Yeah, I haven’t done much comparison-wise, myself. There’s no current reason for me to subscribe, except out of some desire to show support. I know I’m paying $10 to Dropbox, and if presenting (rather than listening) were my focus I could use the public space for storage for streaming if I chose to. Of course, Soundcloud brings more than storage. But you put it well: services have come and gone. And the will again.

    @Hamann: Sets-download. Check. Excellent point. Glad you dig the grouping/inbox ideas. Thanks. As for the visual, others have pushed back on this, too, and clearly Soundcloud is hesitant about it. I think it could be done with a very small amount of visual information, but that’s just my take. I see the slippery slope you describe in your follow-up.

    @Doug: Me, I dig the waveforms. I think they are, even more than “orange,” synonymous with Soundcloud, and have some interesting effects — signaling what the listening experience will be like before it starts (sinuous, loud/soft, slow beats, fast beats, so-random-it-must-be-a-field-recording), finding a common visual ground between disparate source subjects, and others.

  5. Brilliant ideas! I’d like to add an idea: Discounts for people with multiple paid accounts (I have 3 premium accounts for various projects, and it get’s expensive quick). Thanks so much for this post, I hope the folks at SC read it through!


  6. @Marc I feel you. I don’t want waveforms to go away, and I understand it’s a core brand element. Still I prefer an emphasis on listening. I like the surprise of the music, and looking takes away focus.

    Anyhow good ideas ~ cheers

  7. I have lately been thinking about some of the things I think the netlabel community ‘needs’, and one of these days one of these companies, be it SoundCloud or Sonic Squirrel or some other company is going to come along and provide it: an algorithmic listener tool to geared to promote new artists, with integrated linkage to downloadability. I think SoundCloud has part of this model right, with the listener not having to pay for explorations into new sounds, the artist paying for the privilege of being heard.

    Otherwise, great article, thanks for posting it… I think your suggestions are right on, for the most part.

    I especially agree with your first suggestion. I have been very conservative with picking whom to follow on SC, but I still feel overwhelmed keeping up all of the newest tracks – and worrying about missing stuff because some weeks I just can’t catch up with 100+ songs. The “subsets” you describe would really help.

    I’d love to see some sort of way to separate tracks over 10 or 15 minutes in length into a different category, so I can hear all the new “songs” and then check out the podcasts and mixes and live documents when I have time.

    A ‘tip jar’ is a great idea. Sonic Squirrel is all over this idea already with their ‘rubels’. You ought to be able to load an account and give tips out as credit, with a simple click just like they do on Sonic Squirrel.

    I must admit I do cringe a little bit about the personalization idea. I know you’ve clearly stated that you’re not talking about crazy MySpace style personalization, but those days at MySpace were SO bad, that I can still think back on my experiences there and be grateful and appreciative of SC’s minimalist aesthetic.

    I think if they could work up an algorithmic “random” radio station type function based on listening history AND on feedback (with some sort of “like this” / “don’t like this” button, strictly for radio play/personalization of listener’s algorithm… not for artist feedback) and do this while intuitively integrating download links (or buy links – with no prejudice against offsite linkage) then they could be nearly unassailable as a service to both listeners and internet musicians.

  8. If I may add one thing… but it’s more kind of a general thought. As usual with online services the biggest problem is not the service but the people using it. It’s sad that design has always to force people to use the service properly instead of making a mess. Since too much freedom will always result in a big mess. I mean the problem with Myspace was that people could do what they wanted with their profiles and the result we all know. But let’s get back to soundcloud: one thing that bugs me a lot is that I get continuosly followed by people who are just hunting for followers as they were doing in myspace times. They don’t follow you because they like your music, but because they hope will follow back out of kindness. You recognize these people because they have about 2000 people they follow and only a handful who are following them.

    What I want to say, these mechanics can be dangerous for a community, since people are not creating any community at all. And again, it’s what people do with the service, not the service per se. And this is just an example.

    Now I think apart from all the feature and design related stuff, what soundcloud could do (and that would be really innovative) is focusing on creating a culture, a mindset…

    Let me explain better. I work as an art director in the filed of urban mobility and sustainability. We do a lot of work for city administrations to increase the modal split of people using bicycles, and to decrease security issues. Now one thing you notices quite quickly is that it’s not so much an issue of infrastructures, but of culture, of how people think and the idea they have of the world around them. It’s about what people see as a value, and what makes them act in a certain way in the end.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment… and I hope at least some of what I said makes sense…

  9. I agree with your suggestions, the unique visualisation of the page would imho not be absolutely necessary but the other points would improve SC clear.

    That´s true what papernoise mentioned, the most followers are not interested in the music but speculate on a following in return. Therefore the number of followers are for me useless and unimportant, more important of course the likes and comments (beyond every kind of spamming)

    I want to add another suggestion. There should comments and likes to be open for all, that nobody has to register for it. Because if you have to register, it´s only for SC-users possible to comment – that means the most are musicians and wouldn´t it be better if we could reach also consumers (non musicians)? A comment or following from a consumer is more likely an honest one because they don´t expect a kind “sercive in return” and also getting a wider range of feedbacks.

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