As librarians and archivists, we engage constantly with questions relating to licensing, copyright, fair use, and open access, and we can expect to do more of it with the growth in online education and increasing user expectations of immediate access. Simultaneously, we need not look far for examples of the perils involved, as content industries have moved to protect their business models and neutralize the inherent ability of their digital “Read/Only” tokens to become “Read/Write,” to borrow Lawrence Lessig’s terminology, to anyone with a computer, broadband access, and the will to do so.1 In the digital audio economy, as elsewhere, it has become commonplace for the content industry to lump together as piracy the activities of the amateur musician, the remix artist, the audio archivist, and the user of illegal peer-to-peer file sharing networks. Enter various user-driven digital audio services, like MySpace, Grooveshark, NoiseTrade, and SoundCloud, all of which have had their share of struggles with copyright and licensing issues, and one begins to perceive the outlines of an embattled yet vigorous audio remix culture that merits our consideration.
With 38 million registered users, and a string of entrepreneurship awards, SoundCloud has emerged as a leader for the hosting and sharing of original audio. This review will examine SoundCloud’s functionality, its users, the strengths and disadvantages of its anti-piracy measures, as well as how it might enter into library outreach strategies.
What is SoundCloud?
SoundCloud is a social audio platform that allows users to create and share sounds across the web. Launched in 2008 by two Swedes, Eric Wahlforss and Alexander Ljung, SoundCloud provides a secure, collaborative and (in the paying version) customizable platform on which users can upload and share audio, access listener statistics, and receive commentary from the SoundCloud community. Thanks to its embeddable players and integration with social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest, one need not be on the SoundCloud website to engage with its users’ content. The service has grown massively from its first days as a Berlin-based start-up. From the initial 20,000 registered users at the date of its launch, SoundCloud now adds 70,000 users a day and could reach a total of 55 million users by the end of 2013.2 The service estimates that 200 million people interact with SoundCloud content on a monthly basis (it is not necessary to register in order to access content).3 [End Page 499] While still headquartered in Berlin, the company now has additional offices in London and San Francisco.
SoundCloud co-founders Ljung and Wahlforss, currently CEO and CTO respectively, both have backgrounds in audio engineering and electronic music composition. After experiencing frustration with the existing options for sharing audio, the two were motivated to create the service in order to push their own files between computers, as well as to provide a cloud-based hub for Berlin’s community of electronic musicians and DJs. SoundCloud’s signature innovation is the transformation of sound into a visible, interactive object with its waveforms onto which users can append timed comments. The site’s social features include options to like, repost, and share tracks. Its groups feature allows users with specialized interests the opportunity to share tracks and collaborate on sound creation in a dedicated space. Recent invitations for user-submitted content from well known artists like Imogen Heap and 50 Cent have shown how the site can be used to foster community sound making, while also providing a unique opportunity to deepen ties with listeners. SoundCloud places a generous upper limit on file size, meaning that users can host and distribute high fidelity, lossless audio tracks (it should however be noted that the site transcodes all tracks to 128 kbps MP3 files for streaming purposes, but downloads remain in the original format).4 All major audio file formats, including AIFF, WAV, FLAC, OGG...