Review SoundCloud relaunches, aiming for audience scale

When it was founded in 2007, SoundCloud was primarily focused on enabling file-sharing of original audio tracks, and basic collaboration among artists. The two co-founders came from music backgrounds; indeed, in early interviews they compared their fledgling platform to a musician's version of Flickr or Vimeo. From the start, SoundCloud's embeddable waveforms differentiated it from MySpace, which was soon to begin its vertiginous fall from authority.

With this week's relaunch, SoundCloud aspires to more than a gleaming redesign, though it definitely brought out the silver polish for this refresh. The new SoundCloud has reshaped its feature set, formalizing an organic expansion into a broad listening platform. It is more than a refreshed site; it is a new product targeted point-blank at the headphone set rather than the mixing board crowd. Have artists been marginalized in the new and enlarged vision? And for the music fans the site hopes to attract, does SoundCloud work as a listening station?

Look and feel


Review SoundCloud relaunches, aiming for audience scale

The icons have been miniaturized to a level of teensiness that looks like a design error.

If there is one iconic SoundCloud emblem, recognized on-site and off, it is the playback waveform. The relaunch has beautified it while keeping the interactive functions. You can still instantly relocate a starting point by clicking in the wave (although I encountered buggy instances of failure). Track stats have been moved from above the track to below it, harmlessly. Comments are still embedded into the waveform with user icons.

But about those comments. The icons have been miniaturized to a level of teensiness that almost looks like a design error. Granted, there were interference problems in the classic design when a track received tons of feedback and new commenters couldn't squeeze in. But the microscopic solution gives the impression of slighting the worth of comments as a social feature. You can't identify commenters at a glance, as you could with the larger icons. On my 1,920 x 1,200 screen, the mouse cursor looks like a giant fat finger trying to squash a lilliputian commenter.

If you do manage to click an icon, the comment itself is now presented in a single horizontal line rather than a floating balloon in the old SoundCloud. Depending on the verbosity of the comment and its position on the waveform, the entire comment might not be visible. The comment date has been removed, too. This presentation makes it unequivocal: comments have been reduced in social stature. Some of SoundCloud's most active participants and best customers (premium members who spend hours each day on the site) will probably regard the commenting reboot as a mucked-up impairment of a crucial site feature.

The new track page introduces a music-discovery feature: related tracks. My experiments revealed a recommendation engine that seemed fearful of leaving home, as some of the related tracks I encountered were ones already in my Favorites collection. Not much discovery to be had in those instances. Similarly, when I visited track pages of musicians new to me (including featured artists), the related suggestions were often from the same artist's collection. Dude -- I've already discovered the artist; broaden my horizons. Recommendation algorithms aren't easy. Pandora's success is backed by years of R&D. Judging by that standard in a first-day test, SoundCloud's "Related" feature is too often futile.

Review SoundCloud relaunches, aiming for audience scale

SoundCloud has long allowed uploaders to group their tracks into "sets," a feature that mimics a live-show set list. The display of sets has been changed consequentially. Abandoning the "list" aspect, all tracks in a set are now bundled into a single waveform, which is presented just like a single track. An extra click (to the set's page) gives back the set list, but the lack of immediate differentiation between tracks and sets is a clear loss for creators promoting collections of tracks, and has got some long-time users howling.

Not as loudly, though, as over the Spotlight issue, which is a sharp punch to the gut for creators. In the old SoundCloud (which, by the way, is still available for an undetermined time as a toggle), Spotlight was a paid option included in the premium subscriptions. Creating a Spotlight shunted visitors to a special view of your Profile page that contained five selected tracks and / or sets. Combined with the old set display, Spotlight was an outstanding way of outlining a musical identity. It has effectively been eliminated, though SoundCloud slyly bridges over the uproar by letting you pin three tracks or sets to the top of your entire music list. Some premium users who paid up for Spotlight are unhappily threatening to quit.

Sharing


Facebook's fingerprints are all over SoundCloud's revised sharing features, for better or worse. Let's start with the most severe pain point for established users: Groups.

Just as Facebook is weak in the grouping department, preferring wide-open social architectures, SoundCloud has seemingly stepped back from what was a fairly powerful, and definitely useful, micro-community feature. User-created groups could be organized around any pillar, and most of them were focused on a musical delineation of some sort -- genre or instrument, typically. They could be moderated or unmoderated. Anyone could submit an uploaded track to one or more groups, increasing exposure on the platform and building kindred relationships.

Facebook's fingerprints are all over SoundCloud's revised sharing features.

Subscribed groups have disappeared from user menus. The groups still exist, it turns out, and are accessible at their same URLs -- direct navigation to them flips you back into old SoundCloud. More distressing than that clash is the removal of the old "Send to group" button on each uploaded track, which elegantly remembered which groups had already received that track. (UPDATE: Both of these items, the menu listing and the button, have been added back to SoundCloud.) The SoundCloud blog exploded with protests about this loss, justifiably. One SoundCloud social manager leaned into the storm with this reply: "Our team are still working on Groups, and are aware of their current shortcomings, so improvements will be on their way." Thus does hope brighten dimmed spirits. Craving more specific information, and also wondering whether SoundCloud rushed the relaunch in order to make a splashy announcement at Le Web, I left several querying voice messages with the company's press contact. Crickets so far.

A new Repost feature takes its cue from the Facebook share and the Twitter retweet. Reposting any track puts it on your page. As in Facebook and Twitter, this appropriation can appear confusing. Just as I sometimes mistake a retweet or a share for an original utterance, a reposted SoundCloud track can be confused with the reposter's original music. Andrew Eales, SoundCloud creator and owner of the "Piano Cloud" group that spans SoundCloud and Facebook, noted the reposting malaise in an inventory of objections: "Clearly there is a lot of potential in the 'repost' idea, but the presentation has not been sufficiently thought through to protect the interests of content providers." A music track has considerably more owned value than a tweet, in other words, and the ownership should always be obvious.

That point made, reposting might be a killer new feature. It cultivates a third audience category sitting between musicians and casual listeners -- curators. Registered users who do not upload original music can build Wall-like profiles with reposted tracks belonging to others. Creators can get into the curation game by mixing original and non-original tracks into sets (not previously possible) and making them public.

Listening


The main legacy feature for SoundCloud's listening audience was Favorites. But the Favorites list could not be sorted or divided into multiple playlists -- it was conspicuously primitive. In the new SoundCloud world Favorites have become Likes (hello again, Facebook), functioning as before. The triple combination of Liking, Reposting and set-building with all tracks you find everywhere makes a dynamic, engaging and rewarding playlist tool. This level of listening customization was sorely missing in the old site, and SoundCloud hit the nail squarely in this department. I find myself Liking and collecting more music, knowing that I can sort it all out for organized listening.

Another clean win among the usability changes for listeners is a collection of keyboard shortcuts that includes start, stop, volume, moving sequentially among tracks and seeking (forward and backward). The key assignments might have been developed by necessity, to manage the new Continuous Play feature that keeps the music humming along as you navigate around the site (a welcome feature that brings the web app to parity with the iPad app). Keyboard shortcuts are universally lauded in the feedback I have seen.

New directory organization is the anchor of SoundCloud exploration for listeners. This guide to musical treasures on SoundCloud has launched in a disappointingly immature state. Deterringly, the Explore button does not appear on the Home page for unregistered users. On the Explore page, one sees genre breakdowns -- classical, urban, electronic, metal, world and so on. You can listen directly from the directory page or link over to the artist page, but don't hope for a genre playlist. A sidebar menu drills down one level to artists included in the genres, but this discovery platform is thinly developed. You don't get a sense of SoundCloud's landscape in any type of music, and you don't glean any general learning about the genre. It's like sipping the ocean through a narrow straw.

Serving two audiences


SoundCloud is challenged to keep two distinct audiences happy: uploaders and listeners. These groups comprise a two-piston engine that drives how the site is used. SoundCloud and other upload platforms need both groups -- one to provide content; the other to consume it. (With some overlap, of course.)

The uploader-plus-listener equation has swung around 180 degrees during SoundCloud's five-year history, as it changed from a musician's club to a popular listening station. Consider that SoundCloud serves 180 million unique visitors per month, hosts at least 20 million registered users (as of May), and ingests 10 hours of music per minute.

Those audience metrics clearly influenced product choices made for the new SoundCloud: the site is doubling down on engagement and growth of its listening population. The site encourages poking around on discovery jaunts to music accompaniment, or simply letting the app run in a browser tab with Continuous Play.

The new SoundCloud launches site enhancements that benefit listeners more than artists. Conversely, points of failure hurt the legacy artist community for which the platform was founded more than the new listening audience. SoundCloud has shifted on its axis.

Wrap-up


As a listening station for fans and casual consumers, the new SoundCloud expresses a smooth fluidity. New social-style endless pages are a navigation improvement, reducing cumbersome page loads. Continuous Play, combined with keyboard shortcuts, make navigating the web app a little like a musical game. The Explore page is fledging, but consumer discovery and listening feel like the primary user scenarios the site is designed to support. The forceful emphasis on sit-back listening over lean-forward collaborating presents a jarring change for this once-geeky musician site whose uploaders are providing the content.

Portions of the musician community are categorically unhappy. SoundCloud has stumbled most in its treatment of facets vital to creators: the neutered Spotlight, the missing groups (groups have been restored; see the update above), the quantum commenting. Time will tell whether SoundCloud buckles down to the dreary post-launch work of fixing bugs and quickly iterating on feedback, or whether the creative community gradually settles for a reduction of decisive features. (UPDATE: SoundCloud responded fast to the issue of groups, or it always planned to include groups but missed the launch date.)

Some may not settle. Peter Owen, a soundtrack composer/producer in the UK, told me, "SoundCloud changed emphasis from a music community site to a music streaming site, and as such has lost much of its relevance to me, a music content provider. So I've not renewed my paid account, stopped uploading for now and am considering using other alternatives."

I relate to SoundCloud primarily as an uploader, but I also enjoy the listening aspects. The new site delivered one quick epiphany: Paul McCartney (or someone on his team) is an uploader of selected tracks from Sir Paul's discography. Who knew? Now I know. Others will make discoveries. And the listeners will flock. Or so SoundCloud clearly hopes.


Brad Hill is the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. His SoundCloud page features original piano recordings.