Getting excited about a new music streaming platform is giving me a shaky nostalgia for the glory days of 2014.
It’s been awhile since we wrote about this sort of thing, and the musical ecosystem seems to have stabilized between several huge companies – Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube for most commercial streaming and SoundCloud for the rest of it.
It may be a bit late in the game for a new streaming platform seeking to break into the space occupied by this quartet, but Audius.co has put itself in the discussion.
Audius, which opened up registrations in their “public beta” stage late last month, is a little different than the score of wannabe challengers as well as the streaming giants. Audius isn’t trying to be the next Spotify. It’s trying to be the next SoundCloud (which is itself is trying to be the next Spotify when it’s not trying to be the next Beatport). And it plans to do so on a distributed, open platform with a business model and approach radically different than any other streaming platform of its kind and caliber.
Backed by $5.5 million in venture capital and a mission statement that sounds like it came from the techno-utopian manifestos of the internet’s early years, Audius’ pitch appears to be a direct reaction to the common gripes about SoundCloud over the years by artists. And make no mistake, this is a service aimed at capturing artists, right at the time that SoundCloud often appears to be taking them for granted.
And – refreshingly for an industry that talks a lot of bullshit and an industry-friendly media that mindlessly repeats it – there’s really no question what they’re doing and who they’re going after. After signing up, the welcome email from Audius invites you to “imagine you controlled SoundCloud instead of these guys” – with a link to the gray-haired board of directors of something called “Temasek”: the Singapore investment group who came up with the emergency funds in 2017 that has kept SoundCloud afloat.
These Audius motherfuckers have spunk, ok? And it’s nice to see an upstart acting like an upstart rather than maturing into another boring, safe “brand.”
Free Forever: How Audius Works.
Audius makes three big promises to artists and listeners:
- HQ Audio: The default streaming bitrate is 320kps, which they say is the “highest quality sound from any free music platform.”
- Free Forever: Unlimited uploads and they’re free forever – “no strings attached.”
- Also Free Everywhere: Audius claims your tracks can never be censored or removed.
So no money, at the best possible quality, and it’ll never come down.
How do they plan to pull that off?
The short answer is “blockchain.” It’s also the most mysterious. Using the Audius platform – uploading, curating, all the stuff you do on a music site – will generate “Loud” tokens backed by a 3rd party stable cryptocurrency. And then all kinds of crypto-ish things will happen, including “decentralized storage” via nodes (hence nothing can truly ever be purged) and the exchange of tokens as a form of payment (“All creator revenue is earned in Loud tokens and paid via the creator revenue sharing system on the Audius blockchain.”)
How this actually works out in the end is beyond me. And while it’s easy to make jazzhands about basing a business on blockchain magic, it’s a bit daft to chuckle off a pie-in-the-sky business model when SoundCloud loses a few hundred million while also charging their content providers a hundred bucks a year for the pleasure.
Strangely, most press after the launch of Audius focused not on the business plan but on the other free part – the notion that things uploaded to the network would stay there, and what this means for copyright infringement. I find this funny as I wrote one of the original reviews of SoundCloud a decade ago, and asked the same question: how was this service going to avoid becoming a nest of piracy? Believe it or not, the major labels would say it did – largely because of tracks being included in DJ mixes and unlicensed remixes. The need to secure major label licenses eventually deformed SoundCloud’s business model and the service as a whole, forcing the company to open a streaming subscription platform that no one signed up for or wanted (the awful SoundCloud Go, which 5 Mag on rollout called “maybe one of the worst music apps ever released” and which is being repurposed mostly as a niche subscription service for DJs streaming music).
So is this the greatest thing to happen to artists or the worst? If you’ve got mixed emotions, you’re not alone there.
Audius is big on decentralization, and slogans like “free the world’s music” are likely to raise the hackles of the industry’s restless pack of lawyers. Yet other phrases like putting artists “in control of their content, listener data and relationships with fans” should elicit the opposite response from content creators who have seen their fame monetized by streaming and social media companies and middlemen who impose a surcharge for passing music through their hands even as they devalue it.
The platform also describes itself as “fully open… developers have the freedom to build whatever they want on Audius.” The beta runs atop the Audius testnet, which launched in August and includes over a dozen decentralized storage and indexing nodes distributed around the world. This will someday result in independently operated “nodes” hosting music rather than Audius.
So is this the greatest thing to happen to artists or the worst? If you’ve got mixed emotions, you’re not alone there. But after the impoverishment of artists and the transfer of billions of dollars in wealth from the music industry to the tech industry, it’d be hard to argue that this is what’s going to finally ruin us. Like, we’re ruined here. We’re corpses. We’re an industry of corpses who think they’re still alive.
Emojis, Genres and Hi Fi Streaming.
Being in “public beta” means anyone can now sign up for Audius and see what it’s about. (You can see 5 Mag on Audius here to follow along.) After you do so, Audius prompts – actually forces – you to follow three people. At which point you will notice this: there aren’t a lot of people here, but the ones who are? They’re pretty huge. Among the advisors and early adopters to the company are deadmau5 and Zed’s Dead (and, though he’s not providing content, Beatport CEO Robb McDaniels). These people might not be your faves, but they almost certainly assure two things: a fair amount of attention being directed toward Audius for the foreseeable future; and a definite pull toward EDM and electronic music in Audius’ future. There may some day be an “Audius rap” but it’s more likely it’ll be “Audius techno.”
There has been some gripes about Audius’ user interface, but I found the design pretty sharp and with a flair that frankly makes SoundCloud look like an artifact of the last century. The upload is straight-forward with some cute quirks – aside from a solid array of genres (where most new streaming sites fail), you can pick a “mood,” from “sophisticated” to “aggressive,” expressed in words and emojis.
It’s a bit daft to chuckle off a pie-in-the-sky business model when SoundCloud loses a few hundred million while charging their content creators a hundred bucks a year for the pleasure.
Audius promised us 320kps streaming and that’s what we get, and it’s all you can eat: I found no limitations on uploading or playing. I’m not sure what they’re using for backend, but Audius is extremely responsive when tracks are played and they sound great. The service supports MP3s, WAVs, FLACs, AIFFs and other audio formats, and Audius really does stream at 320kps/48kHz, serving HLS audio encoded as AAC.
And from there… well, for right now, there isn’t much else to do. That’s part of being in a public beta, too. You’re getting in the ground floor here, but that also has benefits. After asking some questions of their comms about a long upload that failed, one of the founders actually wrote me back to say they found the bug that caused it and dropped a fix on the spot. And they had – it worked. Try getting that kind of response anywhere else.
Getting Ready for Prime Time.
Audius is still a work in progress, and there’s a lot of coloring inside the lines that has yet to be filled in. The userbase at this point is very new and microscopically small. And while the website audius.co is responsive in a mobile browser, there isn’t the almighty app yet and there won’t be until 2020 according to their roadmap.
Audius seem to be about organic growth, though, and amid the wreckage of past failed streamers and zombie Spotify clones littering the landscape, I find it hard to be cynical about Audius just yet. I mean, it’s pretty well known how to grow a userbase quickly in Silicon Valley: you promise a bunch of shit to people who give you a lot of money and then you buy a userbase by spending it and worrying about how you’re going to sustain this whole clusterfuck later. Despite the EDM flash, that seems to be exactly the opposite tack Audius is taking here.
Part of what Audius wants is to nurture new musicians and help them to “grow and monetize, all without the need to graduate off the platform or sign a record deal.” The last part is extremely intriguing. There’s no question that SoundCloud seems to be used less the more popular an artist gets. In fact, we actually had to put our weekly SoundCloud playlist on pause because it’s getting harder and harder to find good full tracks to stream. Full streaming, drawn by the lure of a bigger audience and better royalties, appears to be migrating entirely to Spotify and Apple Music and away from artist-centered platforms. There’s got to be a better way.
There are some commentators who take the piss out of any startup that invokes the word “blockchain,” and others who seem to soil themselves in glee at the same. Attaching a payment mechanism via tokens is ambitious, but ultimately not necessary for Audius to take off. Again: it’s really hard to be overly cynical about this when SoundCloud has managed not just to keep creators on the hook with monthly subscription fees (unlike practically any other platform of its kind) but seems to be nickeling and diming everyone to death with new fees – both via sign-ups for SoundCloud Go and by limiting access to new features initially to tracks from SoundCloud Premier subscribers.
I don’t think Audius has to deliver on making everyone rich to be deemed a success. It just has to suck less than SoundCloud. It’s not there yet but it might be on its way.
Header photo via Audius.co.