There may have been a lot of pent-up demand for The Roots' new album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, which was released May 19. But drummer Questlove attributed its stratospheric rise on the iTunes charts to the social service Twitter.
— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) May 19, 2014
It's no secret that the chatter on Twitter helps artists with sales and promotion. Music was the top topic discussed on the social network in 2013 — above sports, politics, or anything else.
It's no surprise then that Twitter is reportedly interested in buying SoundCloud, a site for hosting audio content.
But the connection between Twitter and SoundCloud is not as straightforward as it may seem. Indeed, if Twitter is intent to merely hawk music, then the prospective deal would be a little disappointing. What Twitter seems to be really going for is much more interesting: an in-house service that will allow Twitter users to disseminate and share all kinds of audio.
Twitter already tried its hand at becoming a source for discovering new music — and it didn't work. In 2012, the company bought the app We Are Hunted — which searches the internet to surface the most popular new music — in a bid to bring music discovery in-house. With all the music data Twitter sees, it seemed to make sense at the time.
But it turned out that users weren't less interested in using a separate Twitter app to look for new music than in talking about music on Twitter. After a year, Twitter shut down its #Music app.
Since then, Twitter has pivoted to incorporating music services that ultimately complement its identity as a social network. Earlier this year, it announced a partnership with 300, a new music company that finds and signs bands through its exclusive access to Twitter data. The idea is that using all the tweets of up-and-coming bands, 300 can pinpoint those bands with an "it" factor. In exchange, 300 is providing Twitter with data and software that can be used by its millions of users, whether they be musicians, labels, or other industry players.
Further discouraging the idea that Twitter is considering buying SoundCloud for its musical content is the fact that SoundCloud doesn't have any deals with major record labels. Right now, SoundCloud is a lot like YouTube was pre-Google — legitimate and popular, but very Wild West. It's hard to argue that the platform is anything other than the easiest and best place to host audio.
That's why it makes more sense to think of the SoundCloud acquisition as a play to introduce an audio format to Twitter, much as the company did with Vine, picture-hosting, and even link-shortening. It's all about offering users more features, while retaining the control to monetize those features.
When you broaden the scope to mobile, it's worth noting that there aren't any mobile-first audio platforms — as there are for videos and photos — other than SoundCloud.
Furthermore, while music is definitely a huge part of any foray into audio — tapping into a growing trend of artists connecting directly with fans — podcasts are another part of the equation that could prove very profitable to SoundCloud and Twitter. It's already possible to record directly to SoundCloud's app, making it easy to see how a mobile app (free or at low cost) and a social network could combine to give podcasting a big break-out moment.
In the beginning, Twitter seemed unsure about how to approach music. In the last couple of years, however, it's become clear that Twitter is now more interested in facilitating content than becoming an end-user service for music discovery. A SoundCloud acquisition would be about trying to control all audio that flows across the service, not just music.