SoundCloud's Massive Refresh Is A Big Deal For Web Audio

SoundCloud is different now. After months of testing the next iteration of its Web app in private beta, the fast-growing audio service relaunched Tuesday morning. The result is a stickier, more social experience that bolsters SoundCloud's position as the YouTube of audio.

The most striking change is how SoundCloud looks. It sports a cleaner, more app-like interface with a vastly simplified navigation. Instead of five top-level navigation buttons, it now has just two, flanked by a much more prominent search box. 

Beyond Looks: How SoundCloud Works Now

It's a huge visual refresh, but the aesthetics are practically a footnote to what's really new here. The entire service has been reengineered to fundamentally change the way people interact with it. Audio now plays back continuously as you browse the site, even as you jump from page to page. When one track ends, the next one in that user's audio stream begins. SoundCloud is also going live with a feature called "sets," which are basically user-curated playlists that exist in a single waveform. 

Another key feature - new even to beta testers like myself - is the Explore tab. It's here that SoundCloud hopes to connect users with the content creators who are collectively publishing 10 hours of music, remixes, radio shows and audio commentary to SoundCloud every minute.

It's this lean-back, no-clicks-required listening experience that the company hopes will keep people engaged, spending their work days with SoundCloud instead of something like Pandora or Spotify. So far, it appears to be working. Since launching the private beta of this redesign in May, SoundCloud has seen a 30% increase in engagement. 

"This will be the biggest update we've ever done in terms of core metrics," says SoundCloud cofounder and CTO Eric Wahlforss. In addition to the juicy 10 hours-per-minute audio upload stat, the company now boasts a reach of 180 million users. That's overall reach, not registered users, a metric Wahlforss says the company focusing less on these days. Wahlforss won't talk about revenue or the number of paying, premium subscribers, but he says the freemium model is working out.  

The site's massive overhaul coincides with the company's other big strategic initiative: courting radio programs and other audio content providers beyond the musicians, DJs and remix artists who have populated the site from day one. This summer, SoundCloud hired public radio vet Jim Colgan to oversee content relationships, and the platform is increasingly beloved by journalists. The company stops short of using the term "radio" in its marketing efforts, but you can see how SoundCloud could slowly carve out a key role in that medium's future. 

SoundCloud Grows Into a Truly Social Platform

Continuous playback is nice (and some might say, now a fairly standard feature on music sites), but it's not enough to keep people tuned in. There has to be some intelligence behind what content is playing and why. To achieve that, SoundCloud is becoming more social, leveraging Facebook user data to connect users with the most appropriate sound creators and building in some Twitter-style interactive features of its own.

Starting with the sign-up screen, the Facebook integration is tighter. When you authenticate using your Facbeook account, SoundCloud scans your likes and tries to figure out which record labels, radio programs, musicians and everyday users you might want to follow. Again, this is fairly standard stuff for a social service (and the lack of a Twitter friend-finder is surprising), but it's a significant step toward SoundCloud becoming not just an audio-hosting service, but a sound discovery engine as well.

"The better we know you, the better the stuff we can play for you," says Wahlforss. "I think the future is very much going in that direction: A highly personalized continuous playback experience powered by smart algorithms on the one hand and great curators on the other."

It makes sense. The more people you follow, the more relevant audio will playback and the longer you'll keep SoundCloud.com running in one of your browser tabs.

It's not just about integrations with existing social services: SoundCloud is slowly positioning itself as a social network in its own right. The site has long encouraged collaboration and interactivity through standard "likes" as well as time-based comments that can be posted at any point in an audio file's waveform.

Today, it takes things up a notch by adding a "repost" button that lets users share each other's sounds as they would on Twitter or Tumblr. That's great for discovery and user engagement and thus good for SoundCloud's longterm prospects. It's also potentially huge for sound creators, whose bedroom-produced remixes might - just maybe - get reshared by Snoop Dogg.