What kind of music comes to mind when you hear the word SoundCloud? The answer to that question probably depends on when you began using the platform, and the way I see it, SoundCloud has gone through four epochs in its near decade-long history — from late naughts electro and the steep rise of EDM to wavey future bass and the current, utter sovereignty of contemporary hip hop.
SoundCloud’s arrival and first phase established a clearcut rivalry in 2008/2009 with the previously independent artist-favored MySpace, playing a significant part in the rapid rise of the now-broad ‘bloghouse’ classification through curated mp3 websites and aggregators like Hype Machine thanks to its user-friendly player embed and share features. The second age of SoundCloud came a couple years later and represented the company’s swift ascent as a go-to platform — especially within the realm of the booming and increasingly democratic electronic dance music space — for unsigned creators, curious discoverers, and established musicians alike. By mid-May of 2012, SoundCloud was boasting 15M active users with a monthly growth rate of 1.5M users, and at this point, the sounds of big room and heavy-hitting dubstep were beginning to incite the same untapped excitement that electro and indie dance had just a few years prior.
What separates the second and third eras, I’d argue, is SoundCloud’s rollout of the ‘Repost’ feature in late 2012, which made available previously unprecedented reach for every user on the platform. Before ‘Repost,’ a track’s play count, and in turn its potential for virality, was largely limited to the user’s own follower count, blog pickup, or chart success on HypeM. After ‘Repost,’ SoundCloud truly became the social community it had set out to be, as now hugely popular artists and established channels could promote fledgling newcomers to their entire audience with one click. But over the next few years after its implementation, a backlash from artists and fans incrementally surged as two problems arose. Firstly, ‘Repost’ became a tool for annoyingly spammy accounts and a financial strategy for pay-to-play channels sacrificing quality for revenue. Secondly, and more importantly, as the ability for songs to become viral exploded, so too did that of genres and sub-genres on the whole, and thus the saturated sounds of future bass and trap flooded feeds leading many emergent artists to take part in a trend rather than create from scratch.
It’s fair to say that the fourth and present age of SoundCloud began in 2015 and crystallized in early 2016, when the platform finished inking deals with all three major labels as well as digital rights agency Merlin Network, who represent over 20,000 indies worldwide. The front of last year also saw the rollout of SoundCloud’s ‘Charts’ feature, which could now accurately and definitively announce the streaming service’s top performers on a weekly basis. Now, coming from an admittedly biased background more geared toward electronic music, I presumed to see the SoundCloud world that I knew reflected in the Top 50. But to my astonishment (and maybe ignorance?), the most played songs on SoundCloud — by HUGE margins — are not from the dance music world at all. Hip Hop has and continues to reign supreme as proven since the very emergence of SoundCloud’s charts. The imbalance between the consumption of singular hip hop and dance music tracks has become so great that as of this morning’s chart, there is not one song from the ‘Dance & EDM’ or ‘Electronic’ categories in the Top 10. Or Top 25. Or literally the entire Top 50. And it isn’t a fluke. This complete absence of dance and electronic music from SoundCloud’s most played songs has occurred on numerous occasions over the past six months.
Screenshot from SoundCloud’s Top 50 Chart for All music genres on 6/8/17
So, what exactly does this mean? The obvious answer is that SoundCloud users on the whole are streaming more hip hop than any other genre on the platform, as of the total 66M plays across the 50 most streamed tracks from just last week, 96% fell under the hip hop designation. Furthermore, in SoundCloud’s official 2016 recap, the titles for Top Album (Coloring Book), Favorite Track (“Panda”), and Most Followed Artist (Lil Uzi Vert) all went to hip hop artists. But this apparent variance could also suggest that the segmentation of genres within dance and electronic music has disseminated its listeners to all four corners of the streaming platform, where thousands of artists are receiving hundreds of thousands of plays each rather than hundreds receiving millions. For instance, both electronic and house were included in SoundCloud’s Top 5 Genres from 2016 behind hip hop. Would the outcome be different if house folded into electronic as one category? We can’t be sure. What we can be certain of, however, is that hip hop rules the roost that is SoundCloud in its current stage, and its dominance has been duly noted from a music fan who has associated the platform with electronic music since its inception.