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SoundCloud's Music Subscription Service Is Finally Here

Like Spotify, Apple and many others, it's $10 a month. The free version is sticking around, but some songs may move behind a pay wall.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Music services that let you hear any song* you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, used to be a pipe dream.

Now they’re business as usual for the music business, which has shifted** its model to subscription services.

If you’re willing to pay $10 a month, plenty of people are willing to rent you unlimited music: Ask Spotify, or Apple, or Google, or even Tidal. Rhapsody has been selling this stuff forever, and now Pandora is talking about an on-demand subscription option.

Here’s one more: SoundCloud, which has been working its way toward a subscription service for several years, has finally launched SoundCloud Go in the U.S. The company says it will open up more countries throughout the year.

Just like its competitors, SoundCloud Go offers ad-free, on-demand music that you can take with you, even when you’re not online. And just like its competitors, SoundCloud Go costs $10 a month.***

So what’s the difference?

If you’re asking that question, you’re probably not going to be a SoundCloud Go customer, because it means you’re not a regular SoundCloud user. If you are a SoundCloud user, you may know that until now the service has been a haven to discover unconventional audio — everything from podcasts (check out Howard Stern interviewing Bill Murray) to lots and lots of EDM and other remixes (¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

That stuff, SoundCloud says, will continue to be available, which is why SoundCloud says it will have 125 million tracks at launch, compared to most services’ 30 million.

And that’s the difference, more or less.****

If you’re a conventional music consumer, the addition of another subscription service isn’t a bad thing, because choice is always good.

And another subscription service is very good, at least optically, for the big music labels, who are trying to push the idea that music is something you pay for on a recurring basis.

SoundCloud will continue to have a free, ad-supported version, but this will be one the labels say they’re comfortable with: Unlike the versions that Spotify and YouTube offer, labels and other music owners will be able to decide what songs are available for free, and which ones go behind the pay wall.

And as Billboard reported last week, SoundCloud will also offer something similar to YouTube’s “Content ID” system that will allow music owners to identify parts of their songs that show up in DJ-created remix tracks, and profit from them if they want to leave the tracks up on the service.

Whether the new service will end up being important to SoundCloud is an open question. The nine-year-old service, which used to describe itself as the “YouTube of audio,” says it has 175 million listeners worldwide*****, but until recently didn’t have formal deals with the big music labels.

That semi-rogue status helped SoundCloud for many years, as it became a playground for adventuresome listeners, as well as creators, as well as a marketing platform for some music owners. But it also limited its business potential — which is likely one of the reasons SoundCloud considered selling to Twitter a couple of years ago.

So the company and its backers always knew they’d have to end up working with the big guys. Now that they have, they’re a lot like everyone else.

* Almost any song. Read on.
** Kicking and screaming. But progress isn’t always pretty.
*** You can pay more, if you want, by ordering the service via Apple’s iOS app, and the credit card connected to your iTunes account. People who subscribe that way will pay $13 a month, because SoundCloud needs to give Apple 30 percent of any in-app subscription fees. If you want to use the service on iOS and pay $10 a month, you’ll need to sign up for the service via SoundCloud’s website.
**** SoundCloud will argue that its service is more social than its rivals’, and that this lets users find music they wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t think this is going to matter much for most people.
***** That sounds like a very big number (Pandora, for example, has 81 million users, almost all of whom are in the U.S.), but SoundCloud won’t break out how many of those users listen via its dedicated app, and how many are people who’ve hit the “play” button on one of its embedded audio tracks.

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