SoundCloud’s subscription streaming service is here (and it needs work)


SoundCloud is finally ready to take on Spotify. After months of teasing, SoundCloud’s subscription music service is debuting today: it's called SoundCloud Go, and in many respects, it's the same as any other streaming service. For $9.99 a month, you get access to songs from popular artists, ad-free streaming, and offline sync. But Go has a hook that no other service can match — a massive library of 125 million songs, most of which are only on SoundCloud. There is a catch, however.

Musicians have been uploading millions and millions of songs to SoundCloud since its launch in 2007. Those songs have always been available for free — and they'll remain that way even after Go’s launch — but now, you’ll be able to play SoundCloud tracks right alongside the big hits you're addicted to. SoundCloud thinks this extensive library is something a lot people are willing to pay for.

"Before, you'd have to use two or three services to get all the tracks into different playlists," SoundCloud CEO Alex Ljung told The Verge. "It feels very different when you can have one playlist with everything you want, whether it's back catalog Drake or a beef track he just recorded."

 Amelia Krales

Though anyone can create a SoundCloud account and upload songs unworthy of your time, some huge artists also use it to publish tracks that you won't find anywhere else. Kanye West, for instance, posted a new song over the weekend that you won't even find on Tidal. It’s his fourth track exclusive to SoundCloud.

But bonus tracks only go so far. What matters for a subscription music service is how many paid tracks are available, and SoundCloud Go appears to have far fewer than its top competitors. SoundCloud is advertising a library of 125 million songs, but at least 110 million of those are free, user-uploaded tracks. While Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and the other big streaming services have around 30 million paid songs, SoundCloud Go appears to include closer to 15 million.

And the gap shows. SoundCloud may have a few exclusive Kanye tracks, but it doesn’t have any of his actual albums. Also missing are Katy Perry, Rihanna, Arcade Fire, Grimes, One Direction, The Beatles, Radiohead, Lady Gaga, The White Stripes, Justin Timberlake, The Black Eyed Peas, and Justin Bieber. (SoundCloud was still adding music to Go during my testing, so it’s possible that some of these artists simply haven’t been added yet. But as of this writing, they’re nowhere to be found. When asked for comment, SoundCloud said it was unable to confirm artists on a case-by-case basis.)

The lack of big hits isn’t Go’s only problem: the service is also really, really difficult to use. Like, I'm continually amazed at just how hard it is to find and play a single song.

SoundCloud Go lives inside of SoundCloud's existing mobile app and desktop site (like many other services, it costs more if you sign up through iOS, so be sure to start elsewhere). In fact, next to nothing has changed for the launch of Go. The only difference is that when you search for a song by a major artist, it'll appear in the results. But even then, only a single result from Go might show up. Mostly, you'll be looking at the same list of remixes and fan accounts that you'd find searching the regular SoundCloud. Another problem is looking for albums instead of single songs. There’s actually no such thing as an album inside SoundCloud Go. When I searched for The Strokes’ Room on Fire, I got 404 songs with "fire" in the title rather than the 11 tracks that make up the album.

If you want to use SoundCloud as a streaming service, you need to be ready to make playlists and explore new music. That's essentially the experience that SoundCloud has always provided, and it's, perhaps, commendable that SoundCloud is staying true to that while launching a paid service. But I've found it painful to use over the past few days that I've been testing it. I just want to listen to the new Kendrick Lamar album; I don't want to have to assemble the album myself, tracking down all the songs and including them in a playlist.

 Amelia Krales

I love the idea of finding new music while listening to paid favorites — and I don't want to understate what a great catalog of up-and-coming finds SoundCloud provides. But I suspect that many people just want to listen to what they already know and love, which might make Go something of a nonstarter. When I asked Ljung about it, he said he doesn't see that as a hurdle but as an opportunity.

"We have what they expect," Ljung said. But "I think what's really cool is this ability to show them something that they may not know already. I think all people like that."

SoundCloud hopes to introduce subscribers to new music using its automated radio stations. A Go subscriber can start a station based on a favorite song, and SoundCloud will automatically create a mix of music that features both major artists and little-known, no-name musicians. If you’re lucky, you might just come upon a gem. If not, you may be reaching for the skip button.

My best experiences with SoundCloud Go involved free music

SoundCloud has been around for almost nine years now, and it's not yet profitable. It began playing ads a bit over a year ago, and it’s also been charging musicians who want additional features, like the ability to upload more tracks. The company might be hoping a successful streaming service will lead toward profitability at a more rapid pace, but the streaming industry is a hard place. Even the biggest names struggle to turn a profit, and — at least at launch — it’s hard to imagine a mass of people signing up for Go.

That's not to say I didn't have any good experiences while testing SoundCloud Go. One time, when I found that the service didn’t have a song I was looking for, I started up a radio station from a related result. The next song it played was a fun, electronic pop track that I'd never have heard otherwise — it just happened to be totally free.

Photography by Amelia Krales.

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