For the artists who rely on SoundCloud to distribute their music free of charge, this week began with an alarming email.
On Monday morning, the streaming service proclaimed that it was “bringing lossless HD storage and downloads to all.” But hidden inside that early Christmas present was a razor blade: “To make lossless HD file management free to all, starting December 9th, our free upload limit will change from 3 hours of audio, to 3 hours or 15 tracks.”
Unless you’re making 12-minute songs, 15 tracks is significantly less than three hours of audio; to get additional space, users would now have to pay. Artists wasted little time in venting their frustration on social media. “Some people just don’t have enough of an income to put in that much a month, so [the new limit] can hinder an artist’s growth,” says the SoundCloud user Kyun, who declined to give his real name. Kyun started a Change.org petition to “show SoundCloud how wrong it is to limit artists with monetary gates instead of creating an open platform for young talent to grow and express themselves.”
While the petition hadn’t yet reached its goal of 100 signatures on Thursday, a Reddit thread titled “Soundcloud is quietly forcing out a majority of its Musicians/Producers on December 9th” quickly attracted close to 12,000 upvotes. Some corners of the music industry took note of SoundCloud’s new stance as well. “There’s a huge difference between [the old limit of] three hours and 15 songs,” says Eli Piccarreta, an A&R at Atlantic Records. “Especially today — now three hours is often over 50 songs. I don’t want artists, especially new artists, to feel discouraged from creating SoundCloud accounts and uploading music.”
But in a surprising turnaround, SoundCloud reversed course on Thursday. The company wrote in a blog post that “we’ve decided not to roll out the change to our free upload limits and will continue to refine our balance of free and paid offerings to make the platform as creative and accessible as possible while building a sustainable business.”
SoundCloud has been limping forward in the last five years. As the company started cozying up to the major labels in 2014, eventually inking deals with all three, it started to lose some of the freewheeling, anything-goes luster that bred and attracted future stars. Producers complained about the platform’s aggressive takedowns of their songs. SoundCloud went after mixes and remixes, which had helped it gain listeners in the first place.
This was all supposed to help SoundCloud play next to Spotify and Apple Music. But the company continued to struggle. In 2017, it laid off a large number of employees and was thought to be 50 days away from bankruptcy. While SoundCloud avoided that fate, and was deemed financially healthy earlier this year, it has since been overshadowed by other platforms like TikTok, which rapidly amassed a large user-base and consistently launches songs onto the charts and into multi-million major-label contracts.
Soundcloud’s Monday email seemed like another step down the same path, a move that was focused on the bottom line at the expense of the reckless artistry that once made the platform so exciting. “[Streaming] companies don’t get in the game to be libraries, they get in the game to be profitable,” says Nick Catchdubs, a DJ-producer and co-founder of the Fool’s Gold label. “They try to serve two masters, but at the end of the day, being profitable is gonna win out.”
“I want some random creative kid to be able to just post a record and blow my mind,” Catchdubs adds. “It would be a bummer if something hinders that. But SoundCloud is paying the server bill.”
But communities on Reddit, Discord, and Twitter were angered by SoundCloud’s decision on Monday — regardless of server bills. “If this new implementation goes through on December 9th, then Soundcloud will become a shell of what it used to be; users will leave for other platforms in droves and everyone will be worse for it,” an impassioned Reddit user wrote. “… In short, R.I.P. Soundcloud. Cause of death: Suicide.”
Other streaming platforms moved quickly to capitalize on what they saw as SoundCloud’s mistake. The Twitter timeline for Audius, a “decentralized and open-source” streaming service, was littered with tweets from pissed-off musicians narrating their experience of leaving SoundCloud and trying Audius for the first time.
If you're upset about the news today, a reminder:
Audius has free, unlimited uploads.
That's zero storage limits.
320kbps hi-fi sound.
No frivolous takedowns or account bans.
A supportive community & responsive team.
— Audius (@AudiusProject) December 2, 2019
Another free streaming platform, Audiomack, also went for the jugular in a pointed new ad campaign: “Audiomack is always free, whether you have 15 tracks or 15,000.” “It is short-sighted to place limits on the amount of content an artist can contribute to your platform — imagine if Instagram limited the number of photos you can upload,” Audiomack co-founder Dave Macli tells Rolling Stone. “Audiomack provides creators with all of our tools and reporting for free because the content they share brings fans into our platform.”
Audiomack will NEVER charge artists. pic.twitter.com/MyVZWdY3ED
— Audiomack (@audiomack) December 4, 2019
Soundcloud didn’t mention its competitors in its Thursday blog post. But it did back down, at least for now. “We’ve spent the last few days since the announcement listening to you, learning from what you’ve said, and reflecting about what makes SoundCloud special as an open platform that helps creators of all types express themselves,” the company wrote in a statement. “And we heard you.”
Kyun, who is currently studying for his finals at Florida Tech, cheered the company’s reversal. “That’s actually amazing,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to change so quickly.”