Last month, two seemingly unrelated tech music business announcements were made that have the potential to reshape the creative dance-music marketplace online. First, Apple Music announced its new partnership with digital distributor Dubset that would allow the streaming service to post DJ sets that contain certain copyrighted material, a practice that until now has faced many legal and financial hurdles. Two weeks later, the free audio streaming and download site SoundCloud laid out a new, two-layer service in light of its freshly cut deals with the major labels. For ten dollars a month, subscribers can access major-label content, while everyone else can still listen to the DJ sets and tracks uploaded by individual users.
Since its October 2008 debut, SoundCloud has been the de facto home for everybody from singer-songwriters to abstract-leaning producers, but it was intended from the start as a showcase for DJ mixes. Prior to the site's launch, founders Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss handed free accounts to some of their favorite dance DJs and producers to get the ball rolling.
They're still the site's biggest users. "If someone is just blindly sending me [music], it's almost always a private link on SoundCloud," says Morgan Neiman, an L.A.-based DJ and producer under the alias Ducky. "And there are lots of musicians you could describe as 'professional' who grow their careers through SoundCloud. I know producer-DJs who tour across the country and internationally for whom SoundCloud is still an essential tool." For musicians like these, the potential loss of a platform as readymade and widespread as SoundCloud, as it goes legit, is a severe blow.
Moreover, SoundCloud has been a central aspect to a subtle but decisive shift in the digital music-making path. DJs who become producers have often cut their teeth by remixing others' tracks, all the way back to Larry Levan's day. "I don't think there's a disco DJ who doesn't have their own edit of [First Choice's] 'Let No Man Put Asunder,'" Brendan M. Gillen (BMG) of the Ann Arbor electro group Ectomorph said in a 2003 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, before playing one by Detroit techno titan Derrick May. But those versions tended to stay in the hands of a select group. ("A few DJs in Detroit had it," BMG said of May's "Asunder" edit, adding: "I got it from his hair stylist.") For the most part, dance or hip-hop producers had to prove their mettle with original tracks before being commissioned to make remixes.
Sometimes an unsolicited remix would even see commercial release. In 1990, while backstage at the NBC studio for an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, Suzanne Vega was played a new version of her song "Tom's Diner," which she'd issued three years earlier on her second album Solitude Standing. Vega had sung the song a cappella, on record and onstage: "She would actually open her shows with it," recalls Ron Fierstein, Vega's manager at the time, who was with her at the Letterman taping. The new version put Vega's bare vocal to a simple but lush backing track keyed to a shuffling breakbeat ambling along at house tempo. "Suzanne started laughing," says Fierstein. "She thought it was the coolest thing she'd ever heard." Her label, A&M Records, wanted to kill the track; instead, the singer said: "Let's buy it from them." Credited to DNA featuring Suzanne Vega, the remix went top five in the U.S. top-five and has a singularly ubiquitous afterlife since then.
Illegal remixes began to accelerate in the late nineties thanks to the proliferation of stems (raw, unmixed multitrack recordings, including isolated parts such as vocals or drums) on file-sharing sites and then YouTube, as well as the increased availability of "sample packs" of isolated sounds intended for fledgling producers. It's no coincidence that for a time in the mid-2000s, blaring dance tracks — most of them remixes — that were reminiscent of Justice's Cross, encoded at a thin, lossy 128 kbps, and generally traded online were collectively dubbed "blog house." In recent years, SoundCloud's easy-upload platform has allowed young beat-makers who want to cut their teeth on remixes of well-known tracks before moving on to original creations to run riot.
Both as a DJ and the co-founder of the label Club Aerobics, Neiman receives a steady stream of demos. "I am starting to find more upcoming artists with just a few tracks, and usually at least a few of those are remixes," she says. "With newer artists, I hear their remixes or bootlegs before many original tracks. The last person we released on Club Aerobics, Ryuki Miyamoto, sent me a single bootleg of a Tofubeats track that he had done, and we pursued him. I think for new producers, using stems or making a bootleg of a track provides them with a foundation to develop their sound without having to create everything from scratch. It takes pressure off both creatively and technically, but they still have their sound, you know?"
The most obvious current example of this is Kygo, who helped popularize the style dubbed tropical house; his earliest work, as he told me earlier this year, involved adding beats and new instrumentation to Ed Sheeran and Passengers songs. In an echo of DNA turning "Tom's Diner" into a hit, Kygo's trop-ho (let's call it) peer Felix Jaehn's remix of Jamaican singer OMI's "Cheerleader" took the song to the top of the U.S. pop singles chart.
SoundCloud's position as a safe space to incubate this type of "derivative content" (Neiman's term) is threatened as it moves into a more top-down biz-focused position as just another version of Spotify. A number of DJ sets and remixes have been scrubbed from the site for violating copyright — even as many others figure out workarounds or just get overlooked. Additionally, SoundCloud's users include a large number of major-label acts, from R&B giants Beyoncé, Usher, and Frank Ocean to surging country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark. It's an open question yet of whether, as paid service kicks in, those artists' holdings move to the subscription-only tier.
All this uncertainty has led to several DJs to laud Apple's deal with Dubset, , which has a licensing firm with agreements with more than 14,000 publishers and labels: "The music business today has changed . . . major," tweeted King Britt, a Phailadelphia native who's been making records for more than a quarter-century. The nut of the agreement hinges on Dubset's proprietary software bot, MixBank, which can read a file, locate copyrighted material on it in roughly one-quarter of its playing time — and then apportion out rights. The idea is to allow unofficial remixes of well-known material and unlicensed DJ sets that have for years been distributed through underground channels online, samizdat style, to be monetized quickly and painlessly, with proceeds divided between the remixer and/or DJ and the artists being utilized.
"The modern content creator is the modern content consumer," says Dubset president Stephen White. "All we're doing is putting the appropriate plumbing below the behaviors they're already displaying." His firm isn't the only one attempting to make this happen, either: There's also Legitmix, whose founder Omid McDonald developed software that allowed a listener to utilize extant (and nominally purchased) MP3 files to "complete" a remix utilizing a prominent sample, and MetaPop, run by ex-Beatport CEO Matthew Adell, which bills itself as "the premier global provider of remix rights management, licensing, tracking, distribution and royalty services for remixers and rights holders."
Good luck getting every rights-holder in one place, though. As White puts it, "The amount of mixed or remixed content that is created is the equivalent of the current recorded music library of all time across three months." He notes that while Apple Music or Spotify might have 30 million tracks, "the numbers of the amount of content on YouTube" is closer to a billion. But even under those odds, a system like Dubset's has the promise of making certain things much easier. Licensing, for example, has become a thicket in the post-Internet age. As reissue producer and writer Andy Zax told me in 2012, licensing tracks for compilations is "just not a priority any more. There's a certain bureaucracy that the majors are less capable of grappling with on a regular basis." Dubset's software could potentially whittle away that kind of bureaucracy.
For instance, in 2000, the British label Strut, in conjunction with the fabled disco indie West End Records, issued Live at the Paradise Garage, a 90-minute set recorded on reel-to-reel in 1979 by the legendary New York DJ Larry Levan. Though a new Levan compilation, Genius of Time, which was recently named Best New Reissue by Pitchfork, takes its selections from the Universal catalog, making it relatively easy to put together, clearing the licensing rights for the 19 tracks on Live at the Paradise Garage took four years to complete, the late Mel Cheren, the Garage's financial backer and West End's founder, told Billboard. With Dubset's software, the same thing could conceivably be accomplished in about 22 minutes.
That is, if all the tracks on a mix can be licensed — hardly a sure thing, beginning with the fact that, according to Music Business Worldwide, Dubset's deals include none with major labels, which severely limits how many user-made remixes it can license. And it stands to reason that many, if not most, neophyte producers will first try their hands at something on a major, thereby limiting the number of remixes or DJ mixes Apple and Dubset might thereby monetize. (Neither Apple nor SoundCloud would comment on the record for this story.)
White waves off these concerns: "We look at this as a marathon, not a sprint," he says. "Folks like Spinnin', Ultra, and other dance labels are licensed and on board with us. We continue to work to attain major label licensing agreement. We have a number of folks who are tied to the majors" — including such big-stage dance headliners as David Guetta and Afrojack. "We have content that is currently cleared under the label agreements we have in place. Spinnin' Records is a great example of this — the [podcast series] Spinnin' Sessions are made up of 100 percent Spinnin' Records content — high demand mixes that consumers care about that are made up of a single label or label group."
There's reason to hope this kind of action bears fruit — at least musically. For one thing, the December 1991 copyright-infringement verdict against rapper Biz Markie for using a chunk of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" that he had failed to legally clear largely put a halt on a freewheeling era of sample-based hip-hop production. The Dubset/Legitmix/MetaPop model might open that door back up again. For another, there are an uncountable number of DJ sets out there, old and new, in all styles of music, that might find new ears thanks to rights-clearing technology, from Tom Moulton's word-building early-seventies reel-to-reel sets to last week's Essential Mix.
For all the altruism at work here, the money is likely to be minuscule: When Apple Music launched, during the three-month trial period, it agreed (after public pressure from, among others, Taylor Swift) to pay publishers 0.047 cents per stream. That figure would have to go up exponentially for it to make much difference, and even if an hour-long DJ set receives a larger fee, it's still minuscule. ("A really popular artist could make hundreds!" quipped a DJ friend.) Until the day comes when everyone is under the same umbrella — a day we will likely never see — those DJs and producers will do what they've done for decades: Keep it underground.
SoundCloud co-founders Eric Wahlforss, left, and Alex Ljung in 2016. The company closed a significant financing round on Aug. 11, 2017. Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption
SoundCloud co-founders Eric Wahlforss, left, and Alex Ljung in 2016. The company closed a significant financing round on Aug. 11, 2017.Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
SoundCloud and the uploads of its many rappers, producers, noise bands and nascent podcasts are safe, for now. The company announced the "largest financing round in the history of SoundCloud" in a blog post this morning; a source with direct knowledge who requested anonymity in discussing the private business transaction confirmed to NPR Music that the amount was around $170 million. Not including this most recent financing, the company has raised $298 million across eight funding rounds, according to CrunchBase.
The funding comes from two firms, The Raine Group — which also holds stakes in Vice Media and C3 Presents, the owner of Lollapalooza — and Temesek Holdings, a state-run Singaporean holding company with interests in several state-run Chinese companies.
In addition, co-founder Alex Ljung will be stepping down as CEO, but remaining chairman. Ljung will be replaced by Kerry Trainor (who also takes a seat on the board), former CEO of Vimeo. Mike Weissman will be taking over the still-vacant COO position, from the same position at Vimeo. Co-founder Eric Wahlforss will remain as chief product officer, a role he transitioned to from chief technology officer in January.
"There's an insane amount of noise about SoundCloud in the world right now. And it's just that, noise," wrote SoundCloud co-founder and CEO Alex Ljung in a post published July 14, eight days after announcing he was laying off around 40 percent of his company's staff as a cost-cutting measure.
That news rightly prompted some concern for the company's well-being. Many wondered what would happen to the wide variety of music uploaded to the platform (for my part, I've spent the morning listening to the brilliant catalog of Call and Response Records in Tokyo), prompting attempts to archive that material. As well, many wondered what would happen to global music culture after a potential loss of the unique ecosystem cultivated by SoundCloud's free-for-all-style strategy. The vast catalog of creator-uploaded work has long differentiated SoundCloud from other digital music companies like Spotify or Apple Music, which require artists to use a digital distributor to be listenable.
That same differentiation, though, caused the company its fair share of problems. As SoundCloud grew in popularity, major labels and publishing companies began noticing, for example, the many DJ mixes taking advantage of their intellectual property. The major labels began their negotiations with the company aggressively, pulling music down as they worked out deals that ended with all three of the majors (Universal, Warner and Sony) holding equity in the company. This also resulted in SoundCloud launching a paid streaming service, called SoundCloud Go, which has failed to gain much traction.
"We're all just getting started," Ljung writes. Whether or not that's true, they at least have not reached their conclusion.