In the Berlin startup scene, it’s not hard to see who’s the daddy. While a few firms such as ResearchGate are world-beaters in their niches, nobody has the brand recognition and popular appeal of SoundCloud.
With a huge front-end revamp currently in private beta, the YouTube of sound is bracing itself for a fresh push. I caught up with co-founder and product dev chief Eric Wahlforss to discuss SoundCloud’s direction and what it’s like being an ambassador for Berlin.
Meyer: What’s the main goal in the ‘Next’ revamp — to make SoundCloud prettier?
Wahlforss: Especially if you’re a consumer or curator, rather than a creator, it’s a better experience. ‘Prettier’ is one aspect — that’s definitely something we’re proud about – but we’ve learned a great deal from designing for mobile and tablets in the past two years and we’ve brought that back into the browser. SoundCloud is a web app. Chrome launched around the time we launched SoundCloud publicly [four years ago] and it set the pace for the whole industry. With Next we’re leveraging all of that stuff.
It’s a bit more social than before, right?
SoundCloud has always been a social sound-sharing platform, but it certainly becomes a lot more lightweight, easier and faster to use. We removed a couple of things and made it more direct. That started when we started designing for mobile and tablets — we realised that because of the screen size and use cases you need to think about [requiring] the fewest taps possible.
SoundCloud is a social form very similar to something like YouTube or Flickr — we try and integrate wherever it makes sense. We have a very strong integration with Facebook’s Timeline. There’s some controversy around some of those integrations now, but those are specifically around watching and reading. That’s maybe not working so well, but for sound it works really well.
It sounds like you’re going more down the consumption route there. How do you see the split between consumers and creators evolving for SoundCloud?
People like to express who they are through what they listen to — there have been services like Last.fm that paved the way for that, so there’s a much larger community of people who are comfortable with being transparent about their listening behaviour. We see that as strengthening the bond between listeners and creators.
I think that’s where our strength is — maybe, as we grow, the percentages might shift around a bit, but the creators will continue to be the core. We have platform integration with GarageBand and Ableton Live, and we have an app that just launched now, Tabletop, that has a mini version of SoundCloud built into it, so if you share something the music is part of that microcommunity.
What we’ve done with Next is broaden out into the curator space. There are two new features. Reposting — that in itself is hugely powerful. We’ve not rolled it out to a large audience yet, but we’re already seeing strong network effects. That’s going to be a huge amplifier. The other thing we’re doing is we have something called sets, and in the new [version] you can add any sound from any other user.
That goes into playlisting a bit. Do you see Spotify as a rival there?
I see SoundCloud as fundamentally a different service than something like Spotify. We’re all about creators – we maintain a direct relationship between creators and listeners. The other thing about SoundCloud is it’s about all kinds of sounds. Our fastest growing segment is actually non-music.
You mean podcasts and sound library stuff?
Sound, for me, breaks down to three things: the human voice and music – arguably the most powerful kind of sounds we have – and field recordings, noises. And all the combinations of the three. For us, the human voice as a form of expression is the thing that’s growing the fastest. We have a ton of popular radio programs and podcasts, and also artists like Snoop Dogg, who is sharing music, but also sharing half-done music and voice notes.
Where is SoundCloud going to be in two years’ time?
There are some cool things we’re working on that I can’t talk about in detail. A very strong trend is mobile, another is tablet. TV is a wildcard. When you go into your car or your home, we’d like the sound experience to be completely seamless – the vision is very much being able to carry your sound with you everywhere.
I bet the drop in data roaming costs will help you there.
That’s maybe the single biggest factor right now. Smartphones are very capable, but the single biggest factors in preventing mobile use are roaming fees and data network performance.
Are you looking at staying independent, and who do you see as competition right now?
We don’t have any direct competition at the moment. There’s YouTube, Spotify et cetera, but we don’t have anything that’s quite like what we do, in a significant sense. It’s a good position to be in.
On the independence question, we don’t have any plans to do any exit or IPO in the near future. We’re still very much focused on growing our platform and community. As a company, it feels like we’re just at the beginning of things – it’s only the last year or so that things have really shown scale.
When you go out to the Valley, do you feel like an ambassador for Berlin?
Yes, I would say so. Every day people are asking me about Berlin. I see a lot more interest in moving here than two to three years ago. We do somehow represent the scene a bit as well. Berlin for me is a little bit of a counterculture, underground, rough-entrepreneurial, half-finished, tabula-rasa situation. A bit like Silicon Valley in the Sixties where you had hippie meets tech – here it’s more like punk meets tech. A lot of those parameters come into play at SoundCloud. We’re almost like a microcosm of Berlin.
But is Berlin living up to that hype?
It’s really hard to say. Personally, for me it’s enough – if I get excited about three or four things, it feels like there’s a lot going on. There could be a ton of things happening, but if it’s not interesting it goes into the background. I was in London and thinking about that. I can say there are a few cool things in London but also here.
The only place where it’s clear we’re not there yet is the Bay Area. There they have a whole different type of infrastructure, a whole different level of financing. Here, to a large extent, the capital is still missing, but the good thing is London is close by. You can even find U.S. venture capital in the meantime.