SoundCloud and its Place on the Web: An interview with founder and CEO Alexander Ljung
Originally published on blogs.independent.co.uk, 2nd May 2013. Saved from oblivion after the Independent wiped their blog archive due to a hack.
I was recently fortunate enough to get the chance to sit down with Alexander Ljung, founder and CEO of SoundCloud. For those of you not familiar, SoundCloud is the web’s largest online audio distribution platform with over 30 million registered users, hosting content that reaches more than 180 million people per month. To put that figure into perspective, that’s 8% of the entire internet population, and those users collectively record and upload more than ten hours of sounds every minute.
Over the past few years the company has grown from a small Berlin-based startup into one of the world’s leading online audio distribution platforms with a truly global footprint.
With over 170 members of staff, comprising of 30 different nationalities, SoundCloud is both growing and innovating at a rapid pace. It’s no surprise then that Alexander spends a great deal of time traveling from country to country, attending conferences, meetings, announcements, and visiting SoundCloud’s various offices as part of his general duties as CEO. His ‘all jet, no lag’ lifestyle, as he puts it, is a hectic one, and despite stepping off a transatlantic flight just minutes earlier, he was more than happy to answer all of my questions in detail. Starting with the topic of sound and the changing part it plays in our increasingly connected lifestyles.
The importance of sound and its place on the web
To start off we spoke about sound’s place on the web. Specifically how different forms of sound have traditionally been pigeon-holed based on their different forms, and how this helped inspire the founders to create the SoundCloud service we have today.
“For every single human in the entire world hearing stuff is a key part of how we experience life. It’s one of the senses and therefore deeply fundamental, we totally take it for granted and it hasn’t been developed enough online, there’s huge amounts of things to do there and I’m convinced that the sound platform that we’re building is going to end up overtaking YouTube in size because video is hard to create and much more expensive to create.
It’s weird that you have to subscribe to a podcast, you have to sync it, you have to download it, all of this stuff, when a more normal way of consuming it is just streaming it online and syncing it offline if you need to.
There’s also the listening side. It’s the only content form that you can enjoy in parallel, while doing other things. Video is very immersive, but it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. However, when you’re listening to things, you’re kind of participating and creating it in your head.
It’s been as surprising for us, as for the rest of the world, that there’s always been these distinctions between different kinds of audio and how to think about them, usually based on things that aren’t relevant, like how they’re being delivered, or where you listen to them. Just podcasting as an example, it’s a delivery format, it’s not about the content itself.
I think what we’ve been trying to do is really break down all of that and think about listening in general. Some days I want to listen to 50 Cent, and somedays I want to listen to a comedy show, and somedays I want to hear a news event. Another day I want to hear Aljazeera gathering citizen journalism from people in Egypt and what their thoughts are right now.
So generally we think all of that fits into one platform, and as a user, you kind of want the same thing no matter what you’re listening to, in terms of how you would listen to it. So we’ve been trying to fit all of that into one platform and it seems to be working really well. I think that was one of the things that Google has picked up on really well with video. It serves them well on YouTube.”
The future of Podcasting
One of my main interests in SoundCloud has always been its potential to become the central hub for all podcasts and spoken word content on the internet. I’ve written in the past about how SoundCloud is primed to become the audio equivalent of YouTube, and how strange it is that Google has not pursued a similar solution for audio.
After talking with Alexander, it’s clear he shares the same opinion about Google’s glaringly obvious missing service.
“I totally agree. It’s always funny when you see people using, basically hacking, YouTube for audio only, no matter if it’s music or interviews. It just shows that there is huge demand for it.
I’m a really big fan of what YouTube are doing and I constantly feel that, even though they are massive, they don’t get quite the recognition they deserve. I mean, they have completely transformed video in a way. They are the world’s leading video network and they just keep growing and growing. I think they’ve had a big impact on how people think about video. We’ve always been inspired by that, and we’re trying to do something similar with all forms of audio.
When podcasting first got started, I think there were two unfortunate things that happened. One was that it got called podcasting and that it was all about the delivery format, which made the transition slower into having it embeddable, interactive, social, sharable to Facebook and all that stuff. The second thing is that people often replicated radio formats, in sort of a one-to-one format, to a podcast, which meant “Oh, it has to be like an hour long show”. To produce an hour long piece of content is a lot of work, so I think that’s been a little bit inhibiting for people, and it’s also a huge ask for the listener to listen to a full hour of talk.
What we’ve seen is that there’s also a lot more experimentation now with shorter formats. So, instead of doing a one hour thing once a week, have more frequent updates and shorter formats. I think there’s room for people to create in shorter formats.”
You’ve been beta testing a selection of podcasting features for spoken word content, including RSS feed functionality and iTunes Podcast links. Are there any plans to roll these features out for all SoundCloud users in the near future?
“We’ve done the beta program and a lot of people have it enabled. We also have the opposite, which is an RSS importer, for people who are producing huge amounts of stuff, and both of those are still in beta at the moment. There is a lot of demand for it, but we wanted to test it with a bunch of people first. RSS is sometimes a little bit of a tricky format. It’s easy to make an ugly feed, but if we do it, then we want it to be packaged nicely.”
SoundCloud do plan to release these podcasting and RSS features across the platform, but the date for roll out is yet to be decided. We’ll just have to wait patiently it seems.
Since this interview took place, SoundCloud have restructured their pricing. Simplifying the pricing options and reducing the unlimited plan from an eye watering €500 per year down to a considerably more palatable €99 per year. With the average length of a podcast episode substantially longer than that of the average music track, SoundCloud’s new ‘Pro’ and ‘Pro Unlimited’ price plans make the platform a very tempting and affordable destination for budding podcasters to host for their content.
Alexander had the following to say with regards to pricing and the challenges the company have to face when trying to cater towards such a varied and eclectic mix of content creators:
“One of the big opportunities for us, and one of the challenges at the same time, is that there is such a vast range of people using SoundCloud for really different things. I like the example of when I go into my stream one day and there’s like a new post by Frank Ocean, and then there’s an update from President Obama, and then there’s my cousin recording his kids, and then there’s Bruce Springsteen! They’re really, really different people who are all trying to do the same thing, they’re trying to connect with different people through sound, but they all work in different ways.”
When looking at the premium accounts, we’re always looking at how to try and make them as flexible as possible for all users, and it’s something we’re discussing more as the audio side of it grows, with news, comedy and all general podcasting and everything.
As that has grown really fast, we’re starting to look more at “Does that really fit with the model we have, and is there something we can do around it?”.“
Inspired by the Internet
When talking about SoundCloud’s international footprint, it‘s clear that they see themselves as a company with no geographical limitations. Despite their offices being scattered across several different countries and continents, the internet enables all of SoundCloud’s employees to coexist in one location.
Geographical barriers are more of a superficial limitation, because the services and platform they offer exists within a virtual space. Alexander explained how this organisation set up came to be and detailed a few of its many benefits.
“Unintentionally from the beginning, and it’s then become an intentional thing, is that we’re trying to think of SoundCloud like it’s one global company. Eric my co-founder and I were joking that we don’t really live in any country, we live on the internet, and there are no countries there that exist. It’s just one world and that works really well. I’ll email with somebody in who’s in Moscow and somebody who’s in Tokyo, or somebody who’s in New York. It doesn’t really matter where they are for that, so we try to think of it as global, both in terms of how people use it, but also where we are
Even now we have offices in Bulgaria, Berlin, London and San Francisco. None of that is split into: “Oh, this team is working on this market, or this team is working on this geography”. It’s actually quite split. We try to avoid the thing of like: “OK, here’s the US team and here’s the UK team”.”
A great example of this location independent model is SoundCloud’s flexible office policy, which Alexander took the time to explain in more detail.
“Anybody in the company can pick up their laptop and go to a different office at any point they want”. “It’s really cool because a) It gets people to get to know each other and tons of study show that if you meet in person then remote working afterwards is a lot easier, but also the people who work in San Francisco, or London come to Berlin and get some of that Berlin flavour, which is quite important for the culture at SoundCloud.
Obviously it’s a great thing to go to the [Silicon] Valley and soak up everything there, get to meet with Facebook and all of these companies. It’s really good, especially for younger engineers to go over there, sit down, and talk to the people building Facebook and realise that “Wow, actually, we’re smarter than these guys at some things and their smarter than us at some things”, but it’s not this unequal thing.”
Following in the footsteps of Silicon Valley
There’s definitely a much richer sharing culture within Silicon Valley compared to the various European technology hubs. Startups and entrepreneurs seem less comfortable with openly sharing ideas, and are more interested in protecting any potential intellectual property. Do you see this attitude changing as Europe’s tech economy matures?
“I think it’s getting better in Europe over all, I mean I don’t often see this thing which was common before like “Hey, here’s an NDA, sign it and then I’ll tell you about my idea”, which is complete nonsense. I think in San Francisco they have more of an opinion of ‘share it openly’ and I think that there are two reasons to it, one is that the idea isn’t really worth that much without execution behind it, so it’s much more about doing it, and being the one always talking about it means that everybody starts associating you with that idea, so you start getting mindshare, that adds up.
And also, I forget who said this but, somebody said once that the best thing you can do is tell your competitors about your product and ask for feedback, because they will have thought about it so much that they won’t be able to help themselves but to say all the things they think, and you get some really good feedback.”
European startup hubs, such as London, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Tel Aviv, have grown significantly in recent years. People like to talk about how London or Berlin could become the next Silicon Valley. Do you think it’s wise to try and replicate Silicon Valley within the UK or Europe?
“I don’t think there’s any point in trying to do that, because it’s just a very different ecosystem there, especially down in Silicon Valley and a little bit less up in the city, but it’s just like, there’s nothing else but tech. There’s a big university that only produces people for the tech world, there’s all these companies that will acquire other tech companies. There’s lawyers, accountants, everything, and all set up around that thing. So it’s like this bubble, for better or worse, and that’s not going to happen in London or Berlin or New York, or anywhere else, where there’s much more diversity and much more going on.
However, as the world gets more global, it becomes much less important to have to be in Silicon Valley. A couple of years ago all the VCs there would be like “OK, if you want to raise money from us, then you have to move your company here” and that’s not happening anymore. They realise that you can just as well be in London, or be in Berlin, or be in other places as well.
I still think you need to have a strong connection to the bay area, that’s why we have the office there. Being able to go and meet with people face-to-face on different sides of the world is totally worth it. I think for us we really want to keep trying to do this idea of a global company, you know, over time we’ll probably have some more offices where it makes sense, but we don’t have any plans for it yet.
We want to keep Berlin as the heart of it so that’s probably always going to be the largest office, it’s by far the largest one now. We will be growing all the other offices as well. Bulgaria is a bit more engineering focused, London is a little bit more partnership focused, and San Francisco is kind of a mix of stuff.”
Competition? Bring it!
Going back to what we spoke about earlier, regarding Google’s lack of an audio service, does it concern you that another company such as Google, or possibly a new startup, might see how well you’re doing and try to build a competing audio platform of their own?
Would you be worried or would you just say bring it on?
“I’d say, basically bring it. But try and say it in a more humble way! The thing is technology moves so fast, so you can never taken anything for granted. You always have to have a healthy dose of paranoia, that’s good, but I’m not more worried about a larger company, than necessarily somebody in a garage right now coming up with something awesome. I think that it’s sort of an equal level. I do feel much more confident about what we’re doing these days than before, because of the scale that we’ve reached. We reach 180 million people per month. It doesn’t mean you can take anything for granted because of that, but it means that there’s at least a little bit of resistance for everybody to go somewhere else.
It seems like you really benefit a lot from being really focused on what you’re doing and I think an example of that with YouTube again is that people do use it for audio only, but it’s not a good experience. For instance, if you use it on you phone, you search for a piece of music, press play and switch off the screen and then the sound stops, which says something about focusing on the user experience. That’s why I think it’s challenging for them to fold audio and music into that, so they would have to start with something completely different and really start from scratch with it. So I’m not too concerned about it.
Also, we work really closely with Google, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and what’s cool about a lot of the companies is that they first look at how you can make the products fit together to create a better user experience by combining the two, rather than like other industries where people are usually a bit more greedy about things and they’ll be like “OK, we’re going to build everything”, so I’m not too concerned about it. I mean, obviously we’re paying attention to what everybody’s doing, but I don’t think that will happen. And if it will, then yeah, bring it.”
The magic of SoundCloud
When it comes to SoundCloud, what is it that you’re most excited about right now?
“For me it can change quite a lot quite quickly, because it’s usually based on how I’m using it at the time, and what’s happening at the time. What I think is really cool at the moment is the combination of it being so easy to use, and now reaching such a scale, that all of a sudden it feels like anything new that’s happening in the music world and audio world is happening instantly on SoundCloud, right when it’s going on.
Using music as an example it’s like everything that is sort of up and coming feels like it’s coming through SoundCloud. You see it more and more like, you see something start happening and you’re like “Ah, this is really good!” and then it starts breaking into the more mainstream things. When I was at the Grammy’s it was like ok, Mumford & Sons, Frank Ocean, Fun, all of those are on SoundCloud and have been getting a lot of traction for what they’ve been doing there.
Even overall genres, like how new genres in electronic music and hip-hop for example are being developed in collaboration by people on SoundCloud so it’s becoming a place where all of the new things get born and sort of start getting surfaced, so that I think feels really magical.”