Is SoundCloud The Next YouTube? [Interview]

One of the talking points of Mary Meeker’s presentation at Web 2.0 Summit
yesterday was the future of sound. Meeker claimed that sound would soon be bigger than video on the Web. Specifically, she name-checked Spotify, Siri and SoundCloud. Siri is already a part of Apple, but the other two startups are independent. One of them could well be the next YouTube, if sound ends up having as big an impact on the Web as video. But that’s a very big if…

Immediately after Meeker’s presentation, I sat down with SoundCloud‘s young co-founder and CEO Alexander Ljung. I wanted to find out just how Ljung and the SoundCloud team plan to take their service to the mainstream.

Why did Mary Meeker say that sound would be bigger than video on the Web? Alex Ljung told me there are two reasons: the increasing penetration of smartphones that have microphones; and audio being something that can be consumed “in parallel” with other activities (unlike video) – for example, listening to SoundCloud in your car.

SoundCloud’s Exponential Growth

Ljung described SoundCloud as “a platform to enable anybody to create and share sounds.” The service was built in Ljung’s native Germany and launched at the end of 2008.

SoundCloud had “steady exponential growth from the start,” Ljung said, citing about 7.5 million users now. About 5 million of those signed up in the past 12 months.

At last month’s Facebook F8 event, SoundCloud launched its latest big feature: deep integration into Facebook’s new design. It has also been busy partnering with other services, such as integration into a music-making desktop app called Cakewalk.

But How Will SoundCloud Go Really Big?

Despite SoundCloud’s impressive growth, it will need to find a way to bring in many more millions of users in order to go mainstream.

SoundCloud’s vision is certainly big. “Sound is more than just music,” said Ljung. Although, music was where the initial traction came from on SoundCloud – musicians uploading demos, mashups and even entire albums.

I pointed out that the biggest audio publishing trend so far on the Web – podcasting – hasn’t gone mainstream. At least not at the scale of online video. So, I asked Ljung how SoundCloud plans to get more people to upload and consume audio on the Web.

He replied that podcasting is a specific delivery format and it “somehow set the rules” that podcasts should be relatively long and professionally created. Which created “too high of a barrier” for many people.

However, the proliferation of smartphones, with their high quality microphones and recording apps (like SoundCloud), has led to an increase of short-form audio. It’s opened up online audio to more casual users.

Consumption & Sharing of Audio

SoundCloud never wanted to be just another podcasting platform, but (in Ljung’s words) to be “sound sharing the way it should’ve been.” SoundCloud users can – and do – upload any form of audio to the Web, from music demos to 1-2 minute soliloques and even snippets of phone conversations.

To get to the level of YouTube, though, there will need to be a huge increase in consumption of SoundCloud content. The Facebook partnership, along with integration into other discovery platforms, is going to be crucial. But Ljung stressed that the SoundCloud platform itself already encourages its users to interact with content.

Each sound recording has a visual timeline bar and people can leave comments anywhere on the timeline. For example, at the 1:05 mark of a five minute recording, there may be a particularly striking piece of audio which attracted a lot of comments. So you might want to only listen to that specific part of the recording.

Only time will tell whether SoundCloud can really make it big, but its exponential growth so far has been impressive. And it’s a great product. I use it regularly to listen to music, although I haven’t yet fully explored its other use cases. Have you used SoundCloud? Let us know in our comments whether you think it will go to the next level.

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