We share music online. It’s part of getting our music heard by audiences, promoters, funders, and our peers. Recently, SoundCloud, one of the services used by musicians to host and share files digitally, has been in the news because they’ve undergone significant layoffs and there are now questions about the future of the service. But the current trajectory of the company gives composers and musicians an opportunity to re-examine some things. While it may seem important to figure out “What service do I use now?!?”, we’ll make better choices (today and for the future) if we spend a little time first thinking about “Why do I share my music online?”
It’s important to remember that we don’t have to share our music, we don’t have to give it away for free, we don’t even have to make it available at all. This is a choice we have. And while it might seem obvious that making our music available makes sense, it’s worth remembering that sales of vinyl generate more revenue than ad-supported streaming (see page 3). So if we’re distributing our music online, it likely isn’t primarily for sales revenue.
Many of us in contemporary art music and experimental music make and support our own work; we make music as a result of our own personal networks of composers, players, and venues more often than as a result of label or other institutional support. There aren’t relevant charting methods for us. Our revenue/attention generation is too small for an advertising or subscription-based platform to care about our audience.
Those who are now looking for how to share music post-SoundCloud will benefit from first examining their own needs and goals. Knowing why you share music will help you pick a system or platform that works best for you and your audience. In this article, I’ll cover some of the important questions we can ask ourselves as music creators and then connect them to ways we can share music using different services.
Below, I’ve matched some technologies and techniques to different reasons you might be sharing music. Where possible I’ve focused on options that meet the following criteria: 1) offer some potential for generating revenue, 2) are available for audience members to hear on the open web (i.e. they don’t need to subscribe or buy anything to hear what you share). Sadly this isn’t always possible with contemporary tools.
I share music to generate revenue through sales.
SoundCloud was a miserable choice for this in the first place, as there was no meaningful way to get paid by them. If you want to get paid for your work, you might want to examine Bandcamp. This is a service that caters to independent artists who want to connect with their fans and get paid for their recordings. The site provides all the stuff you need to sell things.
I share music to increase my exposure, as a marketing expense.
SoundCloud was pretty fickle for this sort of thing. Aside from luckily getting placed alongside a popular hit—as rapper Rory Fresco did when the SoundCloud algorithm chose his track “Lowkey” to follow Kanye’s “Real Friends”—chances of getting exposure just by being on SoundCloud were very thin. If you want to be a part of that kind of system, getting your music onto Spotify or other streaming services like iTunes will probably give you a similar chance of getting placed alongside a popular track in a curated playlist. Luck generated by SoundCloud’s algorithm or luck through a human curator is still luck.
Distrokid is a simple way to get your music into streaming services. So is CDBaby. The two have different pricing structures, and it’s worth investigating them to see which is best for you. Generally speaking, if you’re very prolific Distrokid will be better. If you only release occasionally, CDBaby may be the better option.
In addition, there’s YouTube. Though it requires you to come up with something for the video aspect, there’s no denying that YouTube is a monster when it comes to music discovery. Make a simple, attractive template for your video and upload there, and maybe you’ll get lucky with a playlist, etc. Either way you’ll have a unique URL, some analytics about your listeners, and maybe make a fraction of a cent if there’s some advertising clicking.
I share music to grow my audience. I market it myself on my website or through distributing links.
If you accept that most people who listen to your music are going to find it because of efforts you take (advertising, getting press, emailing/sharing links, etc.) then Bandcamp is going to be worth investigating. You can upload your tracks, each track will have a unique web address that you can share/promote/advertise, etc. In addition, you can embed your track directly on your website (if you prefer to advertise a web address you own) or elsewhere.
If you are concerned that putting more casual recordings onto Bandcamp will clutter more “serious” album releases that you also have on Bandcamp, try making an album called In Progress or Mixtape or something else that feels right for you. Then, just keep adding your casual tracks to this album as you go. The music “album” is a techno-social construct anyway, existing primarily as an artifact of early 20th-century production methods. For your casual tracks, where you aren’t seeking anything more than an address for others to find your music, one Bandcamp album to which you continually add tracks will do the job handily.
Another service to look into is Octave. This is a paid service, but it’s essentially a more functional version of the SoundCloud embed. If all you need are embed links to put on your own website, this might be your service.
A free service that doesn’t get much use but has many of the same features as Bandcamp is Orfium—individual track URLs, embeddable players, revenue generation. In addition to sales revenue, Orfium has a licensing component which might be useful as another revenue stream. One big advantage for Orfium when it comes to anyone moving from SoundCloud is the “import from SoundCloud” feature.
I share music to build community around my work.
SoundCloud has been hobbling its ability to do this for some time. When it killed off “groups”—the only curated community-building feature that could be used collaboratively by music-makers—SoundCloud essentially gave up community building. There are other platforms, however, that are infinitely better at helping you develop a community around your work. There are the obvious ones: Facebook and Twitter. But also, there’s Tumblr.
I’d like to give a special note that Tumblr is an environment in which a tremendous variety of niche interests are served. A quick aside: If you think that Tumblr is only for teens 1) you’re wrong and 2) what’s wrong with teens in the audience? While the file size upload limits will prevent some longer works from being uploaded directly, you can embed links to any of the other services you try. I would recommend investigating Tumblr as community-building platform: it has passionate users interested in niche/unique things and the posts are visible without requiring someone to log in—they’re public.
Those four reasons for sharing will probably cover many of us. In a Twitter conversation the other night, composer Jay Batzner had a few other reasons, which may be unique to academic uses. I’ll paraphrase them below.
I share music for the analytics, particularly to know where my audience resides geographically.
If the data on listeners is important, the best way to get analytics data on your listeners will be to have your own website with your own analytics package installed. If this is a hassle you don’t wish to undertake, then perhaps the Bandcamp free data will suffice. Also, Orfium is supposedly working on getting analytics built for their platform.
I share music to get comments and in-track feedback, for pedagogical uses.
The comment system at specific points within the waveform on SoundCloud was handy when it wasn’t spam. And that in-track commenting capability is one that isn’t well matched by other services.
However, the collaboration tool Splice has the ability for in-track commenting and also general commenting. Splice doesn’t put music and comments out publicly; it’s designed for people working on a track together to be able comment and share files back and forth before releasing. To use with students, the students would need accounts (which are free) and you would need to give them access to your track. This might be a problem or a benefit, depending on how your class works. Perhaps students will be more engaged with commenting if they know it isn’t tied to their public digital persona. Or perhaps it’ll be a hassle for teachers to grant access to the tracks, etc.
It’s easy to get caught up in tools and questions of “how.” Contemporary marketing practices encourage us to focus on “how” questions because the answer is always some product or another. If we start with “why,” then we can better evaluate the array of options out there for us.
It’s also important to remember that the way we generate revenue, attention, and choose collaborators to further our work may be very, very different from the way the rest of the music industry handles things. As a result, most of the tools we encounter may require us to think a little bit outside the box to make them function for us. Hopefully, as experimenters and finders of new sounds, we can adapt and get what we need from the tools available.