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SoundCloud for sale: will Spotify tame the wild west of underground electronic music?

Artists react to the news that their subcultural music streaming service may be heading for a commercial future.

Reports that the music streaming service Spotify is in “advanced talks” to buy Berlin-based start-up SoundCloud initially sound exciting. Spotify has recently raised £695m in debt financing, meaning it can add to its resources without accepting a lower valuation. This frees up a lot of money and resources for the company to expand its offering – which, presumably, is where SoundCloud comes in.

There’s an immediate and obvious reason why Spotify wants to absorb SoundCloud – its audience. While Spotify caters to a more mainstream audience (Justin Bieber, Drake and Ed Sheeran count among the platform’s most-played artists), SoundCloud has fostered a more subcultural ethos.

The early days of the site were dominated by bedroom producers and at-home enthusiasts, encouraged by free downloads and illegally snaffled samples – a user base that Spotify could significantly benefit from.

Spotify also spends around 80 per cent of its revenue on licensing fees; SoundCloud’s focus on original content could bring overall costs down, potentially helping Spotify prepare for an IPO.

On SoundCloud’s part, the benefit isn’t just financial – the deal could potentially help with the site’s numerous licensing issues. Unlicensed mixes are frequently taken down from the site, and its copyright detection systems are less than perfect, with musicians frequently complaining about original mixes taken down from the site because of mistaken copyright claims.

Spotify, on the other hand, has the aforementioned rolling licensing deal with three major music companies – Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment. It could also be argued that the deal is less of a choice and more of an inevitability for SoundCloud – the company is losing revenue at such a rate that a deal with Spotify could literally be make or break.

Moscoman, a musician who posts mixes on SoundCloud and also founded his own label, has mixed feelings about the deal. “On the one hand, it’s a fundamental source of underground electronic music and in that respect can be the wild, wild west of low-scale music plays,” he says. “But on the other hand, it does generate millions of clicks and plays, most of which don’t generate any actual revenue.”

As an artist using the service, he believes he could ultimately benefit from the change. “As a music lover? I’d prefer it if they just let it be, because there isn’t a better platform to host and push new music in this way. But as a musician, looking at making music not only for myself but for my artists, they should start paying us for the traffic. Spotify could be a good carrier for that.”

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear