Why Saving SoundCloud is Saving History

For all of the fetishization of big data, inclusivity, and an aversion to repeating the mistakes of the past, few are standing up for SoundCloud or mourning the loss of Vine.

These ephemeral apps may seem like insignificant losses in a rapid technological revolution, with the greatest casualties being mere memes. However, issues like collective memory and black history are at stake, with a larger question of who decides what history is in an era where private corporations control unprecedented cultural archives.

A demographic breakdown of age alone explains some of this, for which there is no blame: millennials have been chewing up and spitting out apps for less than two decades while much of the population never had any need for these services for most of their lives. So for the older and more unplugged among us, Vine and SoundCloud require a brief explanation.

Vine was a video app where users could upload, edit, and publish clips up to six seconds long, which would repeat over and over again in a loop. Highly intertextual, Vine struck a chord with millennial youth culture—particularly among teenagers of color—and became a bastion for new forms of slang and humor, more precisely known as memes. Phrases born in obscurity on Vine soon found their way to common parlance, from “on fleek” (Peaches Monroe) to “what are those!” (Young Busco/A-RODney King). After an acquisition by Twitter in 2012 for $30 million, Vine closed up shop in fall of 2016 after Twitter announced it would discontinue the app, leaving millions of videos documenting youth culture in purgatory.

Now, the public and Silicon Valley financiers have a chance to avoid this mistake of the past. SoundCloud, a music streaming app whose name has become synonymous with its own genre of rap music, is on the brink of financial ruin. Or at least it was, with calamity temporarily averted by hip-hop phenom Chance The Rapper leading a relatively opaque coalition of investors to raise over $100 million for the company, which had to layoff half of its staff in July because of budgetary shortfalls.

Despite Chance championing independence from record labels in hit songs such as “No Problem,” many venture capital firms and analysts have remained skeptical of SoundCloud’s financial future. To faithfully quote Carmine Lupertazzi Jr. of David Chase’s The Sopranos sic erat scriptum, SoundCloud is “at the precipice of an enormous crossroads.”

“SoundCloud Rap,” as it has come to be known—recently cemented in a New York Times deep dive by Jon Caramanica—is at the avant-garde of hip-hop worldwide. Before, innovation took place in various rap scenes that were defined geographically, with artists like Lil Wayne rising from the studio and concert infrastructure of New Orleans and superstars like Future rising to the pinnacle of the Atlanta scene. While some geographic hotbeds remain on SoundCloud, with icons like Lil Pump and Smokepurpp hailing from Miami, the focal point for the innovation is now the app and its various influential playlists and equivalent of retweets.

A hit song contending for song of the summer, “Flex Like Ouu,” by Lil Pump, has over 32 million streams on SoundCloud without a cent having to go to a major record label or the behemoths of the music streaming business: Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal.

While SoundCloud boasts tracks from established artists ranging to remixes by casual DJs, its rap scene has come to become its most influential cultural component, with reduced production levels, provocative and at times aggressive lyrics, and, perilously, with little to no attention to copyright law.

Small-time DJs taking samples from popular songs may not seem like a menace to the music industry, but when enough of them are thrown together on a platform hemorrhaging cash like SoundCloud, the prospects of savior coming in the form of a multi-million-dollar acquisition become bleak.

All of this could be chalked up to the risks associated with capitalism and a global market economy were it not for one important detail: SoundCloud and Vine are not just services—they are archives.

Just as historians today want to be able to peruse record sales of little-known artists at the time or journal entries from creative bohemians in the golden age of their genre, historians of the future will want to be able to examine the origin of slang on Vine and the progression of musical careers and taste on SoundCloud. Without overlooking the concern of artistic creation being erased from existence just because of budget snafus, there is no guarantee we will be able to learn from the culture of our era if the archive is dependent on the financial interests of young and fledgling corporations.

We would never trust the Smithsonian in the hands of startup founders fresh out of their garage, so why would we trust them with the archive of youth culture?

While calling for a public bailout of unsuccessful smartphone apps is not the answer, some form of public accountability must be worked into companies that archive public creation. From Facebook to startups we may not have even heard of yet, there is a duty across the spectrum for an archival and almost fiduciary duty on behalf of someone at these companies—or a third party to whom they export their data—to ensure something can be learned from our collective creation and consciousness after its viral rush fades away.

There may be a great satisfaction in ephemerality today with setting a time for a Snapchat message to disappear or an unflattering profile picture to be deleted, but art and culture do not deserve the same fate.

Jake Lahut