Spend an evening wandering the sonic fun house that is SoundCloud, an online music- and sound-sharing site that contains some of the world's most active virtual music scenes, and you're likely to land in some strange realms.
Roam through the millions of hours and you'll find, for example, the new single "Millions" by Def Jam Records and Kanye West-affiliated rapper Pusha T; a brief recording of an Estonian thunderstorm; an analog synth improv by Boston composer Keith Fullerton Whitman; a group of the DJ mix that got DJ Shadow booted off the decks at a Miami dance club; and a new hip-hop track recorded in the "trap" subgenre featuring a sampled Homer Simpson barking "d'oh!" in rhythm.
Click a few times and tunnel through aural mazes: Fans of your favorite bands share classic mixes and other hidden sources. Birdwatchers document the tweets and twitters of joy in flight. Hikers record footsteps up the mountain. If the world emits a sound wave, there's a chance it's documented on SoundCloud, a kaleidoscopic mess of mixes, music, nature sounds, experiments, audio documentation and singer-songwriter confessions. If legendary field recorder and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax were researching today, he'd never have to leave his couch — and the stream of sounds flowing through his speakers would arrive from points across the globe endlessly.
Born in Berlin in 2007 as an easy way for electronic musicians to share new tracks with peers, SoundCloud has positively exploded in the last year. It's now not only a ubiquitous presence on most websites that embed music — last week hot rapper Azealia Banks, for example, released her new single "BBD" via the site, and the available SoundCloud embed planted it on hundreds of blogs all over the world — but has evolved into an essential audio hub, a YouTube-esque clearinghouse that on any given day offers a by-the-second update on the earth's utterances.
The site has become an indispensable bridge among artists, peers and fans, the de facto interface that makes sharing new sounds quick and easy. Chances are, if you recently clicked on the image of a sound wave on a Web page to hear a clip, you interacted with SoundCloud. The site has become an essential resource for discovering wildly divergent sounds, way more so than the comparatively tame and major-label-dominated corporate worlds of iTunes and Amazon. The bounty is overwhelming.
The other morning, for example, when I checked my SoundCloud feed, which resembles Instagram's but features waveforms rather than snapshots, I had instant access to President Obama's weekly radio address (via the White House's new official account), a new mixtape of African beats called "Africa in Your Earbuds," and an archival hourlong recording of a 1988 DJ set at the mythic Hacienda club in Manchester, England. I follow tastemakers such as A&R reps and superstar DJs, record labels like Fullerton cassette-punk upstarts Burger and hundreds of others; when any of them upload a track, I know and can listen instantly.
Last month the company pushed toward greater ubiquity with "SoundCloud Next," a new interface that seeks to further disrupt the online sound world. By rebuilding its iPhone and iPad apps from scratch, the platform designed its audio files to be even more sociable — portable, potentially viral and immediately accessible via smartphone, tablet and desktop. The applications also allow a user to record any sound on the fly and immediately upload it. Rap along to the radio and beam it to your account; record Radiohead in concert, beam the set to your account and into your followers' news feeds in minutes.
The aim: to do with online sound what Instagram has done with online sight and Twitter has done with witty link-bait.
So far, so good. In December the company's co-founder, Alexander Ljung, announced that SoundCloud files are accessed by 180 million users a month — about 8% of the world's Internet population. A well-crafted, intuitive new interface allows account holders to share new releases directly to fans, who in turn can share and embed. The site is morphing and evolving with every upload.
This evolution has been fascinating to watch. While in the early days SoundCloud felt like a gaggle of producers constructing the framework of a new building, as it progressed the portal built an ahead-of-the-curve business model: the so-called freemium idea in which free participation is available, but a better and more expansive experience can be had for a price. (This approach has become common across the Web.) In SoundCloud's case, it offered producers a limited amount of server space gratis but more as well as data on listenership and better marketing tools with a premium membership, with rates ranging from 29 to 500 euros a year (about $38-$665).
Artists can link to their for-sale music, but SoundCloud's model is more focused on sharing streams than profiting from downloads. This is one reason why it's become popular with artists and labels, which use the site to tease new music before releasing it to download services such as iTunes and Amazon. SoundCloud pays its bills by selling server space, monetizing the egos and ambition of music makers, labels and would-be tastemakers, who must pay to house their compositions. The more they want to share, the more money they must pay. Users not interested in sharing their music or mixes can browse and listen with a free membership.
Most fascinating has been the evolution of groups within SoundCloud, where fans and purveyors of genre music gather in hubs that resemble real-life music scenes. But where in the latter, networking happens in clubs and bars before and after shows, on SoundCloud, this interaction and sharing of ideas occurs online.
A group called "Pickers and Grinners" features "people recording music on their back porch, at the campground, around a campfire, at an open mic, etc." Start streaming the group and vanish into a realm soundtracked with crickets and the breeze. The thriving "Worldwide Electronic Music" group has 16,422 members who have shared more than 50,000 works; the more exclusive "Minimal/Techno, Tech-house, Deep Ambient, Glitch Producers from Brazil" is self-explanatory: Its 20,000 members have uploaded another 50,000. The "Beck Song Reader" group features artists offering their versions of songs from the artist's new sheet music project.
Such unbridled chaos — hours and hours of streams at your fingertips — can be overwhelming, and SoundCloud's weakness is organization. Random browsing is difficult, and if all you want to do is hear the new Justin Timberlake track or find something that sounds like Springsteen, iTunes, Pandora and Spotify still reign. But for those whose affinity is for discovery, what vinyl hunters call "digging in the crates" to uncover gems, SoundCloud offers a similar opportunity to flip through an ever-expanding, virtual crate.