SoundCloud tackles what it calls the ‘Zero Plays problem’ with AI-Powered ‘First Fans’ feature
For new musical artists, breaking into the streaming business is becoming more difficult every day.
The problem, simply, is volume. As of last count, there were an estimated 120,000 new tracks being uploaded to the major streaming services every day. With that much audio content out there, bringing attention to a single new song can be just about impossible for an independent artist.
The problem has become so acute that, according to data from Luminate, around 42% of all the tracks uploaded to streaming services (about 67 million songs) have had fewer than 10 plays. And nearly a quarter – 24%, or about 38 million tracks – have had no plays at all.
And with the arrival of mass-market AI music tools that boast of their ability to create millions of original songs, the problem could get much worse in the coming months and years.
Music streaming service SoundCloud has decided to tackle this problem on its own platform, with a trial of a new feature it calls “First Fans.”
With First Fans, SoundCloud’s autoplay algorithm, which serves up song suggestions to subscribers, will assess a newly-uploaded track and recommend it to around 100 users with relevant music preferences.
SoundCloud stresses that this doesn’t guarantee each new song 100 listens – the algorithm can suggest a track, but it can’t make a user play it, or compel them to listen to it to the end.
The company is confident that the song will be put in front of real listeners, and not bots, because the tracks will be surfaced to users based on their user activity and listening history
“This naturally disfavors bot accounts, which typically don’t have this type of data available,” SoundCloud said in a statement.
To make it happen, the autoplay algorithm will use AI technology developed by Musiio, a Singapore-based company that SoundCloud acquired last year. Musiio says it has developed AI that can “listen” to music at scale.
Musiio co-founder Hazel Savage told MBW in 2020 that the technology, “processes whole audio files” in order to “train the AI to look for patterns.”
SoundCloud is currently testing First Fans with a select group of artists on the platform, and if it proves successful, it will roll the technology out more broadly, starting with artists subscribed to Next Pro, its premium-tier service for creators.
“With 120,000 tracks being released across music platforms per day, it would take a curator 330 years to listen to just one day’s worth of music uploads. So many amazing songs never even stand a chance at being heard,” SoundCloud Chief Content Officer Tracy Chan wrote in a blog post.
The combination of SoundCloud’s “huge listener base” with Musiio’s technology “helps us understand what’s going on musically within your tracks using technology, and lets us match your music with listeners who we think will like it,” Chan explained.
“With 120,000 tracks being released across music platforms per day, it would take a curator 330 years to listen to just one day’s worth of music uploads. So many amazing songs never even stand a chance at being heard.”
Tracy Chan, SoundCloud
Over the years, SoundCloud has expanded from its original role as a music-hosting and streaming platform to being an artist services company that offers its premium-tier subscribers tracking tools, listening reports and even unlimited distribution to rival streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, TikTok and others.
The company last year launched a service for particularly successful independent artists, giving them the option to “sign” with SoundCloud, with the company paying advances and investing in artist marketing in much the same way a traditional record label would.
Also last year, the company launched SoundCloud for Artists, a marketing and distribution service for musicians that it described as an “all-in-one platform for artists to connect with fans and accelerate their careers.”
SoundCloud was among the pioneers of “user-centric” payment models for music streaming services. Under its “Fan-Powered Royalties” system, money from each individual subscriber’s monthly payment is distributed only among the artists they listened to.
That differs from the pro-rata model used by Spotify and others, in which subscriber revenue is pooled together, and then shared on the basis of artist market share across the entire platform.
The system means SoundCloud has the granular data to determine exactly who an artist’s biggest listeners are, and on the basis of that, last year it rolled out a tool called Fans, which allows artists to connect directly with their superfans.
As of last year, about 135,000 artists on the SoundCloud platform were being paid through Fan-Powered Royalties. So far, Warner Music Group and Merlin have signed up to FPR.
Last month, Bloomberg reported that Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music rights holder, is in talks with SoundCloud about changing the way artists are paid for streams.
No details were available about just how such a new payment model would work, but the two companies are reportedly aiming to have negotiations completed by the end of the year.
As of 2021, SoundCloud had around 130 million registered users, and around 30 million music creators had a SoundCloud account.Music Business Worldwide