August 21, 2017
Adam Marx is an Atlanta-based consultant, tech writer, and music industry entrepreneur.
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It’s no secret that SoundCloud is troubled. Last month, news broke that the music streaming service slashed 40 percent of its workforce (173 jobs) and closed two of its offices (London and San Francisco). Two weeks ago, it dropped its founding CEO to secure new funding on the back of reports that it could run out of money within 50 days or so.

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The developments weren’t without augur or portent.

SoundCloud’s current situation brings us back to our prior thesis: namely that the company’s shift into the major label paradigm was a tactical error. And due to that mistake, SoundCloud lost its focus on an exploding demographic in the form of independent music, which it initially showed signs of controlling.

Rising Red Ink

Let’s run the numbers quickly. As I noted in my previous piece, Soundcloud’s revenue has grown for years. In 2010, the company recorded $1.8 million in top line; in 2012, $9.6 million; and, in 2014, $19.6 million.

But those gains came with rising losses. Soundcloud lost $2.01 million in 2010; $14.9 million in 2012; and $44.2 million in 2014.

The trend of impressive losses continued into 2015, when SoundCloud’s revenue increased by 10 percent to $22.5 million. Unfortunately, for the company, its losses grew by a larger 23.5 percent to $54.6 million in 2015.

And according to a recent Music Business Worldwide analysis, even post-cuts, Soundcloud won’t cut expenses to fully ameliorate its rising costs and royalty payments.

Major (Label) Gamble

Its cuts in staff are indicative of a larger problem. Namely, SoundCloud’s royalty payments are expensive. If Soundcloud’s payout to the major labels is similar to Spotify, it could reach the 80 percent mark of its subscription-sourced top line; in related topics, SoundCloud has consistently declined to comment on how much the major labels own of the company.

Adding to its financial picture, SoundCloud opened a $70 million credit line to keep its doors open.

While major label deals grant SoundCloud access to the world’s most popular catalogs, the royalty payments accompanying that catalog can be a Sisyphus-like experience.

The accompanying costs are high. For example, growth only accounts for one factor in determining a royalty payment. Other factors can range from the labels’ own fiscal bottom lines (which no streaming service can control) to the labels’ employment of a Most Favored Nation clause in their streaming contracts.

Major label content is also available through an array of streaming options: Spotify, Apple, (now) SoundCloud, Pandora, Tidal, and so forth. Given the number of services offering major label tunes, access to that content doesn’t make a streaming service unique. Rather, it gives the major labels outsized influence on a streaming service’s content offerings.

In Soundcloud’s case, the new major label paradigm likely impacted the now-beleaguered music streaming company in two ways:

  1. Major label deals changed SoundCloud’s value proposition. Due to its major label deal, Soundcloud could sell the same major label content as Spotify and Apple. SoundCloud would no longer be the home only for independent audio,  putting a pin in what arguably made the streaming service unique.
  2. The major label deals now required SoundCloud to pay the same piper as Spotify, Apple, and others.

All of this amplified SoundCloud’s already-noted strategic shift, and potential misstep: moving away from the independent music demographic—a group that it had performed well in previously.

Up until autumn 2015, SoundCloud primarily subsisted on independent music and user-generated content. But in the time it took SoundCloud to switch paradigms from the independent universe to the major labels, the market had changed. Whereas independent material up to 2015 was considered disinteresting to general consumers due to niche appeal, by the end of 2016, independent music streaming revenues made up $5.1 billion of the industry’s total haul of $16.1 billion. In fact, the independent market outsized Universal’s cut by more than $500 million.

Multiple arguments can be made about what has led the independent demographic to become the largest pie of the streaming-revenue pie. What’s clear, though, is that the old trope that’s been widely circulated about independent music—that nobody cares and it doesn’t make any money—is likely false.

From 2003-2012 alone, the independent landscape exploded in terms of participants. And it’s that market that Soundcloud likely ceded ground on due to its deals with major labels.

What Ifs And Takeaways

All this underscores SoundCloud’s decision to start down the major label path.

If it had made the same job cuts and office closures in 2015 that have now been enacted, then Soundcloud might look very different. The company might have been able to close the gap long enough for the numbers to show—as they are now—that independent music is a real area of growth in the music universe.

If that had happened, it might have given financial-credence to its massive independent catalog, independent-enthusiast userbase, and independent reputation. But the major label paradigm is like a lobster-trap; it’s very, very hard to back out of once you’re in.

Of course, all that assumes that Soundcloud would have been able to settle lawsuits and figure out a way to monetize its gigantic repository. Assuming it could, SoundCloud might now be the clear frontrunner in its own arena of music, almost completely removed from the whims and dynamics of the major label world which Spotify and Apple have to contend with.

What’s important to recognize now is that the music universe is multidimensional, and, with the explosive growth of independent content, it’s adding new layers by the day. SoundCloud’s plight should encourage—not dissuade—future would-be music-tech startups or entrepreneurs and investors. Let Spotify and Apple battle it out for the major label world; the independent universe is growing quickly anyway.

Whether it’s too late for Soundcloud to take advantage of that growth will depend on its ability to navigate its choppier, less-funded, waters.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias