With each creation tool, each means of broadcasting audio via the Web, the force of music technological access accelerates. What was once limited to an elite able to make use of studios and labels spreads to more corners of the globe. But what will that democratization mean?
Earlier this summer, I got to speak to two people whose companies have been instrumental in the ways in which people make and share music today. Eric Wahlforss is co-founder and CTO of SoundCloud; Daniel Haver is CEO of Native Instruments. Those jobs keep them pretty busy, so this is the first time they’d actually been on a single stage together. We had a public panel discussion (below) followed by a briefer, private interview (above) for Berlin’s Tech Open Air festival in July.
We cover a range of topics from the explosive growth of mobile production and sharing to the influence of online connectivity on genre and geography to new ways of DJing and listening.
The “future of music” isn’t just a catchy theoretical topic for Eric and Daniel – if you’re in that role, maneuvering that future is part of the job description. For Native Instruments, the principle challenge seems to be managing user complexity, and making tools that anticipate a range of essentially unpredictable uses – independent of genre. (Case in point: I’m fairly certain no one at NI would ever have imagined their Massive synth would wind up becoming a signature sound of a hitherto-unheard-of American dance music genre.)
For SoundCloud, it’s working out how to navigate sheer quantity – democratization is a positive force only when combined with successful discovery. The “Hard Wax” metaphor is apt; I’ve heard several people say that they can’t imagine the techno scene today without the landmark Berlin record store. Now, you have a similar transmission of information online in place of the crate digging community.
Eric also describes the various constituent interests on SoundCloud – creators, rights holders, and now curators. And what I found particularly interesting was his desire to balance all these elements and monetize all of them, both via ads and subscriptions.
Of course, on the SoundCloud side, there are a lot of questions I wanted to get clearer answers to that weren’t possible. Eric is eloquent when talking about the monetization vision, but SoundCloud the entity has been mum on specifics of how it will satisfy growing pressures to license content on the service. It seems on one hand, they have a bold vision for how music money could work, but a year after the rollout of On SoundCloud, they seem to be fighting an uphill battle against many of the larger traditional content creators. And to sway those creators, they have to deliver on more of the material value of the On SoundCloud program. Eric went into more detail on the monetization topic late last year at TechCrunch Disrupt in London, also worth watching if this subject interests you:
Since Eric’s appearance with us, the plot has thickened. British performing rights organization PRS has sued SoundCloud after the group says five years of negotiations broke down. It’s worth understanding, though, that the question of licensing involves some counter-intuitive situations. For instance, let’s say you upload your own music to the service – but that same music is something you’ve registered with a performing rights organization. Now, even though you uploaded it, your music should technically cost SoundCloud any time someone plays it. (Incidentally, you don’t have to be British in this scenario: PRS is also collecting, say, American songwriters represented by ASCAP and BMI, and other similar organizations around the world.)
Label negotiations, which are handled via a separate license, are facing their own problems – Sony has pulled out complaining of a lack of monetization options. Even this distinction between writers, publishers, and labels, each requiring separate licenses, itself illustrates the collision between a system built for old media and the way music is shared via new media.
Simultaneously, succumbing to external licensing pressure and legal obligations is prompting SoundCloud to step on the toes of some of its own users. The situation with takedowns was neatly summed up by Fact Magazine with the pithy headline, “What the hell is going on with SoundCloud?”. (Rough answer to that question: what’s going on with them is that they’re trying to curtail use of certain materials before they wind up in legal troubles that could shut down the site.)
SoundCloud hasn’t yet offered an on-the-record explanation to requests for comment from CDM on some of these issues.
However, I think that makes the perspective of NI and SoundCloud looking into the future no less compelling. Musical practice continues to transform, even as the institutions that handle licensing and payments may steadfastly insist on their existing frameworks.
Here’s our full panel discussion – realizing we balance very different challenges faced by one of the world’s leading tool creators and the world’s leading sound sharing tool: