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The myth of the SoundCloud bumper sticker.

Happy Wednesday! Before I dive into this week's topic, I wanted to share how excited I am that the Wa
The myth of the SoundCloud bumper sticker.
By Cherie Hu • Issue #27 • View online
Happy Wednesday!
Before I dive into this week’s topic, I wanted to share how excited I am that the Water & Music community is nearing 1,000 subscribers. I’m eternally grateful to all of you for following and sharing in this journey (and, if I might add, in this transformative moment in music/tech history writ large), and for lending your perspectives and feedback in the process.
If you’re a new subscriber, I would love to get to know you better—simply reply to this email to introduce yourself!
Today’s letter is inspired by the research I’m doing with NYU Journalism’s Membership Puzzle Project. For those who aren’t already familiar, MPP is a multi-year project studying how news organizations are diversifying their revenue and optimizing for trust, with a focus on membership programs. I joined the team last month to lead analogous research on music, studying what streaming services can (and can’t) teach news about fostering belonging, participation and trust with readers and supporters.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been interviewing people working at some incredible companies in music and media—vinyl subscription clubs, crowdsourced music databases, artist-centric subscription platforms, even one-man daily newsletters self-described as “punk rock in blog form”—to get at the heart of how artists and digital music companies are trying to foster sustainable fan relationships, in a streaming-first world that seems to prioritize hyperactive discovery.
I want to share an excerpt from one of my interviews that I’ve been tossing over and over in my head lately, and which is the impetus behind today’s subject line. I was asking the interviewee where he looks for inspiration when it comes to successful membership and community strategies. His response:
I turn a lot to NPR, PBS and local radio—the way they run their membership drives, and in general how they consistently deliver rich content that people want to see. Whenever I’m driving in Portland [Oregon], I can’t travel a few miles without seeing bumper stickers with the logos of the local radio stations out there. But I’m not putting a SoundCloud sticker on my car.
This got me thinking about the myriad of ways one can gauge the strength of a user base around a particular product or brand, and how a given metric has meaning only in juxtaposition with the other metrics available. The number of plays you rack up on a streaming service means something totally different from the number of tickets you sell on a tour, the number of mentions you have on Twitter or the number of bumper stickers you sell in your hometown. Each of those metrics represents a fundamentally different kind of relationship with your audience and therefore runs on a different scale. If you’re an artist or someone helping an artist with marketing and distro, this is probably nothing new.
This is at the heart of the gap I’ve observed between subscription—which is just a financial transaction, i.e. “here is my money, now give me the content you promised and the content I want”—and membership—which is more of a mindset, a culture of feeling akin to a community and a demonstrated mutual emotional investment, from both creator and consumer, in wanting the core product and voice to continue living in the world.
I’m a Spotify subscriber, but I’m not a Spotify member. In a way, I might be Spotify’s “ideal customer” in the sense of using the service at literally every possible opportunity, but I’m far away from buying into any notion of a Spotify “community.”
Maybe this shouldn’t be Spotify’s goal in the first place. At its heart, the service arguably derives its value from being a content utility for consumers and a data/distribution tool for artists and labels (if you disagree with this statement, holler).
Interestingly, Spotify is taking a number of concrete steps to try to change this. With its Fans First concert initiative and its ongoing RapCaviar tour, the company is investing heavily in becoming a more physical conduit for artist-fan interaction—in translating its online, isolated, fractured user base into offline, unified, loyal fan communities, who then become more vocal ambassadors for the Spotify “brand.” The Line-In crowdsourced song metadata tool is intended to make users feel more invested in Spotify’s future effectiveness as a product, both for the individual users and for the “greater good” of the Spotify ecosystem.
Nonetheless, for now, I think these initiatives are loss leaders against Spotify’s main value to the end user: highly individualistic, private personalization that transcends any pressure from network effects or groupthink.
Now consider SoundCloud, whom emergency investors recently gave a second chance at life. SoundCloud is now trying to do a better job at giving artists the right analytics tools to understand and communicate with their followers on their own terms. At the same time, it’s trying to convince both artists and fans to pay to use the service and actually make the company profitable.
I think SoundCloud is stuck between a rock and a hard place, especially when it comes to persuading the end user/listener to pay. People tend to pay for Spotify because it’s a convenient utility for discovery and context-based listening, with a pretty incredible UX to boot. SoundCloud arguably does not have a superior UX, and does not want to be a utility; in fact, it has explicitly tried to pivot to being an “early-stage community” platform (see its First on SoundCloud campaign) where DIY artists have more control and transparency over their relationships with fans.
Yet, the way it frames its consumer-facing subscription model is nearly identical to Spotify: offering “convenient access to over 170 million tracks” as its selling point, emphasizing utility over community and ultimately creating business incentives that are less creator-centric and more SoundCloud-centric. There’s a fundamental tension there—between what artists/fans want and what SoundCloud wants—that likely diminishes fans’ willingness to pay and buy into its “brand,” even if the platform has undoubtedly facilitated fan activity that propelled artists to the top of the charts.
Hence, the “SoundCloud bumper sticker” is a myth because it doesn’t quite exist—because people aren’t loyal to the SoundCloud "brand” in that way, making bumper sticker sales an inaccurate metric for the platform’s success.
Again, this might partially be a good thing for the music industry.
The Verge’s interview with Charlie Kaplan, CEO of now-defunct social music platform Cymbal.fm, offers a great deep-dive into why social music strategies have been so hard to pull off throughout history. “Social tools create kind of a monoculture” due to network effects, said Kaplan. “The thing that makes Instagram [and Facebook] great is that everybody’s there.” In contrast, there’s no singular streaming service that artists can point to that guarantees reach to all of their existing and potential fans. The industry in general is already so consolidated, and I think the last thing anyone wants is an even more consolidated, monolithic streaming ecosystem.
That being said, if streaming services don’t have monocultural power, it’s about time we think more critically about the role they really play in artists’ careers when it comes to meaningful fan engagement. In other words, if you’re trying to sell the equivalent of a “bumper sticker"—a stamp of allegiance to a deeply personal, creator- and fan-centric identity or vision—today’s streaming services probably won’t get the job done. But you might want to start talking with your local radio station instead.
What are you thoughts? Do you already own a bumper sticker for Spotify, SoundCloud or another streaming service and have I just completely insulted you? If not, what would have to change in order for you to shell out money for that sticker? Let’s chat!

My writing
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Updates
I’m excited to be one of the official Mentors at Primavera Sound this year. I’ll be taking over a handful of group slots—20-minute sessions with three participants each—whose exact times I’ll announce soon.
This will be part of a grander conference trip across Europe that’ll take me to Ibiza, Barcelona, Cannes and maybe a few other cities from mid-May to mid-June. Let me know if you’ll be around and/or have any recommendations for sites to check out in those cities!
Good reads
Why Hasn't the Hip-Hop Boom Pushed More Black Executives to the Top?
Obligatory potato
On Monday, the New York Times Food section ran a lengthy, visually and culinarily engrossing feature about the power of the humble potato, honing in on its origins in the mountains of southern Peru and the innovative yet historically respectful ways the ingredient is incorporated into local cuisine today. Read on and salivate.
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Cherie Hu

Cherie's updates at the intersection of music, technology, creativity, business, people, travel and potatoes.

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