why tiktok should acquire soundcloud

had this thought a couple months ago and put it in my phone notes. big shoutout to the inaugural reboot cohort (https://reboothq.substack.com/) for enabling me to write this! tech x biz foreva!!!!

TikTok has taken the music world by storm. Although it is primarily presented as a video sharing app, it doubles as an indirect music discovery platform. Users are cutting and morphing snippets of sound and pairing them with visuals that influence real world trends, like new dances (Drake’s “Toosie Slide” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”) and unexpected user-brand collaboration. In one instance, TikTok user @DoggFace420 got sponsored by Ocean Spray and recognized by Fleetwood Mac for using their single “Dreams'' whilst sipping on the brand’s cranberry juice during a skateboard commute home. However, a huge downside of TikTok virality is that users often have no idea what songs they’re listening to, and thus cannot find nor support the artists who are behind the trends they participate in. As such, artists are at a disadvantage in retaining new listeners from TikTok.  By integrating with a service like SoundCloud which enables attribution, TikTok users would have a more direct pipeline to identify the artists whose music they are engaging with and join that artists’ community.

SoundCloud is a Berlin-based PC and mobile music streaming platform founded in 2007 by sound designer Alexander Ljung and electronic dance musician Eric Wahlforss. At the time of SoundCloud’s conception, Myspace was on its way out of the market as a popular music distribution site. Unlike Myspace, whose main objective was centered around the typical social media archetype of profile curation and number of online friends, SoundCloud took a minimalist approach centered around musical content with just a simple, attached profile to act as an identifier. From then on the product lit up like a wildfire, accumulating 7.5 million registered users by 2011 and cementing its familiarity within the indie and rap communities. As the platform grew, industry icons like Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, and the late Mac Miller used SoundCloud to release music to their respective fanbases. By 2017, the Recording Academy also began recognizing the impact of Soundcloud by allowing streaming-only projects to be eligible for awards after a petition over Chance the Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ project being ineligible. As a result of the rule change, Coloring Book won Best Rap Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards and Chance shouted out SoundCloud for “holding [him] down”.

Rarely ever does creation happen in isolation. Throughout the course of history, some of the most creative and influential hubs seem to have materialized out of mere coincidence. From the Italian Renaissance, inspired by the Medici and Pazzi families to the Harlem Renaissance, inspired by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like, catalysts of their respective disciplines came together to change the foreseeable future and the world we know today. In personal context, my teenage years during the early 2010s Chicago music scene were the most recent installment in this timeline of serendipitous history. During this time, I was a first-hand witness in the rise of Chief Keef and Glo Gang (later known as Glory Boys, who coined the now popular term “glo up/glow up”), the rise of the SaveMoney Collective, whose most notable members are Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa, and most recently the rise of Lucki and Outsiders Gang (now known as 197). In a way, musical freedom was their fuel and the vehicle that transported them to success was Soundcloud.

As TikTok makes its transition to the professional world, spanning account holders from CBS News to Will Smith, the platform uniquely positions itself as a place where grassroots artists can see the direct impact of their music and directly interact with professional counterparts that are participating. By appending features like dueting and stitching, which respectively allows users to record a video of themself beside an original video or integrate scenes from other videos into their own, TikTok has given users the most creative agency they’ve ever had. Contrary to how Instagram founder Kevin Systrom adamantly fought against including a “Regram” feature in Instagram’s early product days because it would “discourage users from posting original content”, TikTok’s strategic lean-in to these ideas has allowed nearly infinite contributions to meme culture, stock market advice, and beyond. Dueting and stitching have also allowed for a crescendo of in-app trends whose virality have transferred to tangible success for users, especially music artists outside of the platform. A notable example is Soundcloud artist Erica Banks, whose song ‘Buss It’ was appended to a part of Nelly’s ‘It’s Getting Hot In Here’ and went viral in a TikTok trend dubbed the Buss It Challenge. At the peak of its virality, everyone from Golden Globe Award actress Tracee Ellis Ross to Grammy nominated artist Chloe Bailey participated in the trend by dropping low and dancing to Banks’ song. From this, Banks has received a record deal from Warner Records, a newly minted 6.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify and a recent collaboration with Travis Scott on a Buss It Remix. However, despite the popularity of the Buss It Challenge and many other viral TikTok trends, artists often do not get automatic recognition for their music due to TikTok’s ambiguous naming convention for sounds used in videos. As such, they often have to self-promote and remind the world that the content being excessively consumed belongs to them. 

 

Similar to how movies generate buzz via trailers, musicians (especially in the rap community) generate buzz via posting snippets. Some snippets are typically a video of the artist nodding their head to an unreleased song while in the studio, or even cuts of a forthcoming music video. The best example of a current artist who has leveraged their TikTok clout to contribute to their Soundcloud audience is Curtis Waters. With the recent success of his single “Stunnin’” in a TikTok trend dubbed the Stunnin’ Challenge, Curtis has been able to funnel his TikTok interactions into his Soundcloud streaming audience. Since then, Curtis has signed with BMG Records, accumulated 4.29 million streams on Stunnin’, and has distilled his creative process to releasing new musical content on TikTok and transferring initial traffic from there to Soundcloud. With emerging strategies like these, artists in the future will need to develop a symbiotic channel between the platform where they received the most user engagement and transfer that to their streaming platforms. Over the course of 2020, TikTok’s users base grew 75% with their next direct competitor having 1/33rd less users. In 2019, Soundcloud generated $166 million in gross revenue and reported its first profitable quarter in Q3 2020 thus solidifying its continued legacy in the independent music scene for up and coming artists. In these cases, a Soundcloud acquisition by Tiktok would be a no-brainer.

A potential problem of TikTok acquiring Soundcloud could involve artists feeling like they have to stifle their voices, or tailor their content to be digestible for Tiktok. Another potential problem could pertain to creator monetization and begs the question of “If TikTok were to acquire a music service, why not BandCamp? Since that service provides direct monetization to artists”. In regards to the first issue, TikTok’s longevity thus far has come from their vast monthly user base of 689 million people which have cultivated a plethora of sub-niche communities, like cottage-core dressing, and LED wall building. With the presence of specific communities like these, artists will likely be able to reach an audience who will appreciate the sound and message they promote. However, TikTok has been known to censor the content of users who are deemed undesirable by moderators, thus changing the scope of conversation from artist-audience engagement to censorship policy related to the platform’s structure. In the other case of creator monetization, TikTok has taken a strong stance in supporting valuable artists on its platform by starting a creator’s fund and pledging over $316 million to TikTok creators over the next 3 years. Distribution of funds are based on engagement between a user and their audience, and by integrating with SoundCloud, there will be more holistic engagement metrics to draw upon when quantifying the impact of new content released by an artist. Therefore, a TikTok-SoundCloud partnership won’t make Bandcamp obsolete, it will just act as another potential stream of income that artists can leverage. 

Overall, there are many things to consider about the future of TikTok and the future of the music industry in their own respects, but it has become quite clear how they converged over the course of 2020. Similar to how digital photography followed film photography, and the two have since reached a state of symbiosis in their discipline; the same parallel has happened in music with the Recording Academy’s recent acknowledgement of digital streaming plays along with traditional record sales. Since TikTok is the new kid on the block and changing the way we interact with music, an acquisition of SoundCloud could likely change the trajectory of the industry forever.