RECORDED MUSIC WAS once incredibly fragile. Before the
days of digital music, an independent band might press only
a few thousand, or even a few hundred copies of a vinyl
record. Those albums only became more rare over the years
as copies were scratched, broken, or thrown out. Likewise,
master recordings could be damaged or lost, making the
record difficult or impossible to reissue.
But today, thanks to the wonders of digitization, recordings
can be backed up and saved indefinitely. When a formerly
obscure band hits it big, fans can instantly find their early
work, without having to hunt it down in used record stores
or waiting for a reissue, thanks to streaming music services.
The trouble is that, even as music has become more
durable, it has—paradoxically—also become more
ephemeral. Your physical records don’t evaporate if the
store you bought it from closes shop or the record label that
published them goes out of business. If a streaming music
company goes under, a stockpile of important cultural
artifacts could go with it.
Fears that exactly this could happen erupted this week when
a financial statements from popular audio hosting site
SoundCloud surfaced online. The company, which has
become a vital resource for independent musicians and
podcasters, lost $44.19 million dollars in 2014 even as it
increased revenue to $15.37 million, according to the
regulatory document filed with the UK government. The
revelation led to immediate speculation that SoundCloud
could go offline, taking with it the 110 million audio tracks it
It wouldn’t be the first time a massive trove of digital music
disappeared. In 2003, CNET shut down the original version
of music publishing service, which once hosted
750,000 song files. Three years later, the Internet
Underground Music Archive, consisting of over 680,000
songs, went offline as well.
Threat to the Underground
SoundCloud says those fears are overblown. The financial
document in question is now more than a year old, and it
doesn’t reflect the $77 million dollars in funding the
company secured last year. “We’re focusing on enabling
creators to get paid for their creativity,” a spokesperson said
in a provided statement. “And on building a financially
sustainable platform that our community can enjoy for
years to come.”
It’s too early to write the obituary for SoundCloud, but it isn’t
the only audio service struggling to make ends meet. Last
November, Rdio confirmed that it would file for bankruptcy
sell its assets to Pandora.
Now Pandora itself is rumored to be for sale. Spotify,
meanwhile, may be looking for a $500 million cash infusion.
Losing SoundCloud, however, would be a bigger cultural
blow than losing another of the major streaming sites.
While those services all host a similar catalog of music,
SoundCloud has become home to countless unsigned
musicians and independent broadcasters. Although
unsigned artists can upload their music to services like
Apple Music and Spotify, they generally have to pay a
middleman like CD Baby or Tunecore to do so. SoundCloud
enables musicians to publish their work directly and for
free, without the need for a lengthy approval process.
Meanwhile, more established artists can use it to preview
tracks or connect directly with fans.
“If the service goes the way of Grooveshark, it won’t just be
underground artists like Plastician that lose their access to a
wealth of undiscovered talent,” FACT Magazine wrote last
year of the company. “It’ll be the majors losing their access
to the next generation of hitmakers too.”
Saved From Oblivion
Fortunately there are alternatives to SoundCloud, such as
Bandcamp, which a spokesperson told us has been
profitable since 2012, and YouTube, which has become an
increasingly important part of Google’s overall strategy. But
SoundCloud users would have to re-upload all of their work
—if they even still have copies of it. Much of what lives on
SoundCloud today would likely vanish forever.
Of course, someone could end up hosting backups of the
site. An organization called the Archive Team has dedicated
itself to preserving the web, and has already managed to
save many sites from oblivion–sometimes years after the
fact. For example, in 2012 the Internet Underground Music
Archive made a surprise comeback when the organization
uploaded backups of the original site to the Internet Archive.
Archive Team founder Jason Scott says the group is already
looking at SoundCloud, though there are several other sites
the team plans to archive first.
But history tells us that today’s most financially stable
companies and organizations could become tomorrow’s
nostalgic memories. Even the venerable Internet Archive
could one day disappear. That’s why the Archive Team
started a project to backup it up. Perhaps something like
Interplanetary File System, which aims to create a more
distributed way of storing data online, could one day make
the web more resilient to the ebbs and flows of corporate
dollars. But until then we must remember that nothing lasts
forever, not even on the Internet.

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