The influential trip-hop act originally recorded their version of the Swedish pop hit for a film soundtrack; until now, it could only be found on YouTube. It now becomes one of the higher-profile songs to be released through SoundCloud’s fan-powered royalty program, which launched in April with lofty goals of making the streaming economy more equitable for artists.
“When we heard that SoundCloud switched to a fairer user-centric payment system of streaming music, we were happy to make it the only place to stream our unreleased version of ABBA’s ‘SOS,’ ” Portishead’s Geoff Barrow said in a statement. “After recording it years ago for Ben Wheatley’s film High-Rise, we are excited to finally share it with the world, and we are even more excited that all streaming profits are going to a great cause.”
Added Michael Pelczynski, SoundCloud’s head of content and rights holder strategy: “Portishead’s timeless sound has inspired countless artists and given rise to many emerging genres on SoundCloud. We are honored Portishead chose SoundCloud, the only platform where the artist to fan connection is directly rewarded, as the first place to exclusively release their cover of this iconic song.”
The concept of fan-powered royalties has been discussed in the industry since the streaming era began in the 2010s. Right now, services like Apple Music and Spotify pay music rights holders using a formula based on artists’ percentage of the overall streaming market. This means that a song’s individual stream royalties don’t necessarily go directly to the artist who made that song, but rather to a larger pool which is then divvied up based on who has the most listens. Such a model benefits the highest superstars like Drake or Ariana Grande, but smaller and lesser-streamed acts often take less.
Both signed and independent artists have been vocal for years about their frustrations over music streaming’s current business model, unsure why their hundreds of thousands or even millions of streams each month result in comparatively little return. SoundCloud is testing out this alternative model; Spotify, for its part, launched a website in March looking to pull the curtain back on how its business operates, arguing that the old way people quantify listening and success doesn’t make sense in a new listening world in which customers play a flat monthly fee to access more music than ever before.
SoundCloud’s move comes at a time where artists are demanding more clarity as well as change from the streaming giants. In the fan-powered model, a listener’s streaming cash will go directly toward the music they consume, and only there. SoundCloud says fan-powered royalties will benefit rising independent artists, but the system has yet to be proven on a mass level. (Charlie Hellman, Spotify’s head of marketplace, told Rolling Stone in March that its own studies on fan-powered royalty payments didn’t yield a significant shift toward higher payments for smaller artists.)
Beyond the potential cash rewards, advocates for the newer system say fan-powered royalties encourage more transparency.
“If you’re one of the biggest artists, you are going to be rewarded [in the current system],” Merck Mercuriadis, CEO of Hipgnosis Songs Fund, told Rolling Stone in March. “If you’re an indie artist right now, you’re probably losing out to artists that are being given a high promotional profile by the record companies, but that are, in fact, not actually getting the level of spins that the hype might make you think that they’re getting.”