In 2013, I started a job as an A&R at a major label. Thrilling and terrifying in equal measure, I dove in with abandon. I spent late nights digging on SoundCloud. I went to multiple shows each week. I hung out at studios. I met this person who introduced me to that person who introduced me to another person, all in the hope that one of these people could lead me to that elusive carrot: a hit.
In the process, I discovered a copycat business that typically conflates “creativity” with “looking at the Billboard charts to see who produced ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’ and calling him for my artist.”
Music became information. Songs became chess pieces, strategic building blocks in the treacherous quest to conquer radio and sell millions of records. People around me seemed enthusiastic about music; they spoke of it with love and passion. The reality of the business commodified that passion. At some levels, music is no different from iron, wheat, or oil.
I’d been lucky enough to turn a passion into a profession, only to have my fire stomped out.
When I left the label, my musical perspective was completely clouded. I’d lost track of what I love and forgot why I even wanted to work in the music business in the first place. I’d been lucky enough to turn a passion into a profession, only to have my fire stomped out.
My experience provided new insight on what many modern music fans experience: the repetitiveness of radio, the empty cookie-cutter nature of much pop music, and the overwhelming, paralyzing level of choice the Internet provides. It’s easy to throw your hands in the air and say, “Fuck this! I’m listening to Stevie Wonder instead!” That attitude isn’t wrong, but it’s a sort of cynicism that can cloud your vision to the fact that this may be music’s most thrilling era.
As I figured out the next step in my working life, I committed myself to curing my musical malady.
Spotify played a huge role in this prescription. Over the years, much of my CD collection has been thrown out or lost. I had a hard drive full of music, but no easy way to search and organize it. Spotify (and you can throw any number of streaming services in here; Spotify was just first on the scene for me) allowed me to keep track of my listening. Playlists concretized music in time, serving as chronological and emotional markers.
Spotify opened easy, infinite access to my all-time favorites. I set a rule for myself: every day, I had to listen to 20-30 minutes of music that had nothing to do with work, my friends, or discovery. Just my personal greatest hits. This new diet helped me re-calibrate my compass and remember why I’d been crazy enough to chase the dream of becoming Rick Rubin in the first place.
My rule reset my taste barometer. Things I loved—new and old—reminded me what was important to me in a song, an album, and an artist. In letting the deluge of available music wash over you, it can be easy to lower your standards, or to lose your sense of good and bad, no matter how subjective that is. While classics and favorites could reinforce cynicism about the state of modern music, my daily palette cleansing refreshed my brain to be ready, to catch and obsess over the great.
Though it’s easy for some to grieve about the overall quality of music in 2015, it’s a lazy critique that ignores the young artists trying to create lasting works and connecting with one another through digital means. Though much maligned for its newfound corporate ways, SoundCloud remains a paragon of the Internet’s power to break boundaries and allow creative communities to blossom. Deep dives into its dark corners gave me new hope for an upcoming generation.
In the past few years collectives like Soulection and TeamSESH have exemplified SoundCloud’s potential to create communities that defy geography and are often self-contained, self-organizing, garnering enough digital fans for their budding popularity to make real world ripples.
Soulection used a group of affiliated and official producers (Ta-Ku, Kaytranada, Sango, Esta, and Lakim, among many others) and the curation of co-founder Joe Kay’s Soulection radio show to define a sound and aesthetic. Four years after its inception, Soulection throws a showcase called the Sound of Tomorrow that travels the globe and has a show on Beats 1 Radio. Their rise was powered by SoundCloud’s sharing tools and the possibilities it opened up for digital crate-diggers.
Cross-U.S. hip-hop crew TeamSESH turned a decay-caked aesthetic and a love of grim, heavy metal-inspired sonics into a sprawling online community that packs venues and buys plenty of merchandise. Last November, I saw Bones (the de facto general of the group) and affiliates Chris Travis and XavierWulf perform at Los Angeles’ Low End Theory, a party closely tied with the rise of the L.A. beats sub-genre. TeamSESH turned the crowd into a whirling mosh pit, a flurry of fists and flying sweat. One fan came up to Bones after the show and told him that he was in California for two days, heard about the show, split off from his family and took a two-hour train from San Diego to see TeamSESH perform.
SoundCloud provides a window into underground communities in motion, showing experiments that succeed and fail, but ultimately thrill nonetheless as they showcase young creators seeking the future in the fringes.
While our own Joe Price effectively pointed out the metamorphosis of SoundCloud from “community” to “service,” I’d argue that the change doesn’t gut what initially made the platform so thrilling to me. SoundCloud evolved the process of digital partnership and collaboration pre-figured by artists in the early 2000s. A formative example: Little Brother rapper Phonte and producer Nicolay teamed up via email to form The Foreign Exchange, a group that grew from internet beginnings to be nominated for a Grammy. Soundcloud provides a window into underground communities in motion, showing experiments that succeed and fail, but ultimately thrill nonetheless as they showcase young creators seeking the future in the fringes.
Through observation, exploration, and conscious listening, I turned myself from a seller back to a buyer: now I approach every song hoping it’s going to blow me away, ready to move on if it doesn’t. If my method sounds like a lot of work for a hobby, simplify it. Find a playlist, podcast, or friend that you trust. Sign up for concert or events newsletters (even if you don’t live in a city, you can learn about up-and-coming acts). Take a break. Then dive back in. Remember that music is supposed to bring joy, not present a chore.