Although I wouldn’t recommend asking me if I enjoy reading while 50 pages deep into a sociology textbook, my life wouldn’t be the same without books. They’ve made me laugh, they’ve made me cry, and they’ve taught me to think independently — to critique and celebrate others’ perspectives and ideas.
Until about 600 years ago, however, unless you were a nobleman’s son or a celibate monk, you were flat out of luck. Anyone not belonging to an elite class would have been denied access to the stories and histories that are central to our culture today and remained illiterate and ignorant.
This continued until Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1450 and catalyzed the spread of knowledge, history, and mythology across the western world by making books easily reproducible, no longer requiring the labour of individual scribes. The wisdom of great writers who might only have been known to a select few before were now introduced to the public, allowing people to think about their lives in new ways and produce their own work, inspired by those who came before.
For so long, music was like a book in the 14th century: costly to produce, hard to acquire, and exclusive by nature. For example, in the 1980s and ’90s, most hip-hop and rap music came from either New York or Los Angeles. The infamous east coast/west coast beef generated tons of hype and musical pressure — almost like an evolutionary force, it made beats more inventive, lyrical flows more clever, and rivalries more intense as artists tried to stay ahead of the game.
In order to gain ground in the music scene, you had to have a lot of talent, but more importantly a lot of luck. You had to be in the right place at the right time in order to get noticed by a large record company whose resources would allow you to produce and publicize your music. Becoming a musical idol was a rare thing, and so many talented artists fell through the cracks.
Enter platforms like SoundCloud, which are dedicated to the sharing of music and have changed the game by allowing music creation to be organic. Aspiring artists no longer have to put life on hold to hustle in the hopes of making it. These days, all you have to do to be noticed is put a little effort into a track, upload it, and let people come to you. Musicians like Post Malone and Kygo have found fame by publishing their work on the web. But Toronto has felt the benefits of the SoundCloud age like no other.
SoundCloud and the Toronto sound
Odds are, if you’re up-to-date with contemporary genres like trap and new-school R&B, your musical library contains the likes of NAV, Majid Jordan, and Roy Wood$. These artists, who now have deals with labels like XO and OVO, may seem as though they started out as big names, but most didn’t. NAV, whose musical feature on one of Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat stories made him go viral, started off making tracks at home in Rexdale, posting songs like “Myself” and ‘The Mission” on the internet for fun.
Majid Jordan, an R&B duo comprised of Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman, got their start by making music in Ullman’s dorm room at U of T, publishing songs on SoundCloud under the alias Good People before a friend of Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s main producer, pointed them out. The two didn’t need huge record deals for people to start appreciating their talent — they released quality music, and aficionados pushed them to the top by sharing and retweeting SoundCloud links or throwing their music on a party playlist. The record labels came later.
These artists, who have both been inspired by and inspire the likes of Drake and The Weeknd, have come together to form a sound that is uniquely Torontonian. The organic sharing of feelings and moods has created a sound that is often lonely, spacey, and soulful, filled with gorgeous synths, murky chords ,and crooning melodies capturing the joys and insecurities of a younger generation.
While visiting Shayan Abedi, an artist based in the Greater Toronto Area who goes by the performance name Cyrus, I was struck by the importance of this organic sharing and emotional connection to the Toronto sound. Looking at his ‘studio,’ you might not be impressed. It’s a half-lit basement with a lone table that holds only a MacBook and a microphone. Not glamorous, but as Abedi fiddled with his laptop, I could almost hear the gears turning in his head. This is how music should be — organic, grassroots, and easy for someone with good beats to share with millions.
The future of SoundCloud
Recently, SoundCloud has fallen on hard times. Troubles with the monetization of the service have plagued it for years, resulting in mass layoffs this past summer. In a bid to bring in more money, SoundCloud signed deals with record labels like Universal and Sony to charge a monthly subscription fee in exchange for streaming tracks by more mainstream artists. Monthly subscriptions, though, can be an obstacle to the freedom of use that makes SoundCloud so popular — the question of where to get the money needed to run a service like this invariably comes up.
SoundCloud’s business model must transform, perhaps to one similar to that of YouTube. Click on a video from YouTube’s front page and you’ll likely be faced with an advertisement for cornflakes, basketball shoes, or anything else that might entice a viewer. If you host content that attracts traffic, advertisers will pay for a spot.
This might work just as well with music as it does with video, seeing as SoundCloud boasts a whopping 150 million registered users and 175 million monthly listeners. Spotify, by comparison, has only 100 million registered users. It’s clear that money is there for the taking — while SoundCloud cannot continue to offer music from bigger artists due to its current financial limitations, the numbers show that the creative diversity already on offer should be more than enough to compensate.
Find a business strategy that taps into this immense advertising potential and rewards artists for popular, original content, and you’ve found a goose that lays golden eggs.
Whether SoundCloud can learn from its financial mistakes is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the grassroots approach to making and sharing music works, and it must continue to allow young artists the chance to express themselves.