We dropped by SoundCloud’s Berlin offices to have a chat with the company’s Head of Internal Communications David Noël. Among talks of social media, Spotify and iTunes, we dove into more personal topics like dropping out of school and collecting sneakers.
If you’ve ever listened to music online, you’re likely familiar with SoundCloud – the audio streaming platform has quickly grown into one of the de facto sharing sites of the millennial age. At the nucleus of SoundCloud is a community of artists and listeners comprising around 8% of the internet; terabytes of sound are uploaded, shared and enjoyed every minute. Regardless of the expression: laughter, music, speeches and conversations bring individuals closer to one another, and SoundCloud’s endeavour to act as both a voice and an earpiece is very much ongoing. Sound is a universal connector, and surely few people understand this better than SoundCloud’s David Noël.
What is your background? What were you doing before SoundCloud?
Well, I dropped out of college. I’ve always loved learning but institutionalized studies were a struggle for me. After that I moved from Belgium to Germany to work in a record store, selling indie, hardcore and punk rock records. Associated with that store was this record label that I then became an A&R manager for, scouting the market for bands that we could sign. From there I became a tour manager through my connection with the label.
Later, I came back to work a more regular job at a marketing agency. Through one of our clients, I met a guy who had founded a start-up. This was in 2006. At the time YouTube and Myspace had begun to establish themselves, so there was this ongoing shift in how you built companies on the web. This guy in Cologne and two other founders wanted to replicate the value of physical records on the web. That’s a grand vision but they went on to assemble this company, and I became their first employee. This was pre-product, pre-market-fit. We sat down, and discussed how to break this big idea down into manageable steps. We tried to do this for three years but eventually we failed. That was a tough lesson.
It was during my time with that company that I moved to Berlin. Around the time that the company folded, I met SoundCloud co-founders Alexander Ljung and and Eric Wahlforss here in Berlin. They had just released SoundCloud in a private Beta version. Using the product, I was really fascinated by how they were capable of building such a great product with a team of just three or four people. Start-up people hang out together, they have breakfast together, they tell stories. Through that process I learned a lot more about Alex, Eric, and other key members early on.
It was an amazing product. It was beautifully designed, beautifully executed. It solved a real problem in the market place that hadn’t been solved before. Users loved it. Everyone who had access to it loved it. Of the first ten thousand people, many were in Berlin. You would talk to them, and this was the hottest thing at the time. That was the end of 2008, and I joined in 2009. They had six people. I was the seventh employee. We had 50,000 users at the time.
You mentioned you were one of the first users. Was the focus on providing services for artists rather than listeners at the time?
If you look at the web during that time, there was no simple, easy, and beautiful way for musicians to share music on the web. What you had were clunky services that forced you to wait 90 seconds to upload something. There were tons of ads. It wasn’t a smooth experience. Then you had Myspace which was predominately a social network. It wasn’t principally designed as a place for creators. It just happened to become a place where bands and musicians could present their tracks. What was missing in the marketplace was a great product for people to simply share music.
We thought about how to turn sound into a social object. How would it look and feel? The answer was to make sound more interactive. The visual manifestation was the wave form. Surfing the web used to be a very passive experience. You would press a play button, and something would happen. By turning sound into a social object, you were suddenly looking at something. It became a place where people could have conversations.
What were the key strengths at that point?
Because of the way it was designed, SoundCloud also became a place where creators could build audiences and communities around themselves. You had the follow-following model, timed comments, and portable tracks. You could share them on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Creators could publish whenever they wanted, and interact with the audience. Every creator wants an audience. When you share stuff, you want as many people as possible to listen to it.
The way SoundCloud was designed was not only compelling for creators to use as a tool, but also compelling for listeners who want to connect with creators. Surprisingly enough, creators are some of the most engaged listeners. Drake is one of the biggest artists on SoundCloud, and he has a separate account for promoting other creators to his [OVO] followership.
Drake didn’t even release album in 2014 but he did release a lot of singles, many of them through SoundCloud.
Yeah, it’s great when you realize that you can publish at your own pace. It’s cool because it changes the creative process. It changes how you create music, and the fact that you can distribute it seamlessly across networks is a powerful thing.
In terms of your day-to-day around the office, what do you do, and how do you interact with co-founders Alex and Eric?
We now have over 300 people across four office locations, which means we have to take care that we continue to grow in a healthy way. We have to ensure that we achieve all of these big and bold goals but still remain connected with each other. I ensure that we communicate with each other, and that everybody’s informed about what our key priorities are. I ensure that we connect in an open environment, so that we can come together to ask questions. We have all hands meetings where everyone comes together to listen in on what the company is doing. We have executives on Q&A panels where people can ask questions and challenge decisions. That’s an interesting new role that I took on about a year ago.
Surfing the web used to be a very passive experience. You would press a play button, and something would happen. By turning sound into a social object, you were suddenly looking at something. It became a place where people could have conversations.
Did you have anything to do with the design of the headquarter’s space, perhaps to make interactions more transparent?
The themed meeting rooms were my idea. We had four offices across the world – London, San Francisco, New York, and Berlin – and we wanted a way to connect them. At the same time, we had to do something very functional in naming our meeting rooms. We had a chance to make it unique, which we took by naming them after neighbourhoods in the cities where we have offices. We then teamed up with photographers, who are friends of ours in those cities, to go and capture some of those places’s particularities. We have those photographs in our meeting rooms. Then we also hung up photos of the colleagues who work there to create a greater sense of community.
If you had to make any comparisons between SoundCloud and FM radio, which would be the first one you’d want to make?
The cool thing about radio is that it is ubiquitous. In a way SoundCloud is as well, and it has the potential to become even bigger. We already reach millions of people around the world. The difference is that you can curate your own listening experience with SoundCloud. It puts you in control. You can create a package that is curated to your own tastes, and you can take it anywhere. Billions of people listen to FM radio. Those are the people we are ultimately trying to reach.
You share a lot of different content on your Twitter feed. What are your criteria for what you share on Twitter?
The use of social media comes with a responsibility. Because it is so easy to share and to create content, you want to ensure that there is truth to it. I made myself the promise that I wouldn’t use Twitter to complain, or post rants. Complaining is like fast food. It’s instant, it’s cheap, and it’s validating for the moment. But it’s not sustainable, and it’s not nourishing. I want to send a signal that it comes from a positive place. I also know that people might connect what comes from a personal stance to my professional position. Because of my responsibility and because of my own values, I want to ensure that people feel like they can trust me. I want to use the advantages of social media to help drive positive change.
Yeah, I noticed that your approach was kind of like, “I find this to be relevant. I’m going to put it out there. You guys do what you want with it.”
This goes back to my belief in how communities are formed. You use those tools in a non-judgemental way. You put something out there, and hope that it creates some sort of positive conversation around the topic. If you put it out in a neutral way, it’s much easier for people to come out and voice their own opinions. That’s how communities are formed and nourished.
Is SoundCloud then a similarly non-judgemental tool?
The internet is a neutral place. A platform on the internet should operate accordingly. We wanted SoundCloud to be a level playing field for any creator. This should be an open place for you to share your creations, and I think we succeeded at that. The tool’s functionality allows communities to form, which is an interesting dynamic. You have people connecting over different topics. The debate could be over a song title, or something more global.
Seeing SoundCloud used during the Arab Spring was rewarding because it represented the core principle of the web at play. That being said, we want to make sure that whenever something is against the law in any particular country we act on it. Freedom of speech is the underlying principle of our platform but whenever people or groups break the rules, we act on it to protect the overall good.
How do you decide which takedown requests to honor?
As a platform we have guidelines, and those guidelines are very specific about the things you can and can’t post. We’ve always worked with people, not against them. It’s important for us to look at these issues case by case. We have a team that looks at each one individually.
How was the choice made to monetize Soundcloud? What changes will that bring?
On SoundCloud is our new partner program for creators. It is a continuation of our commitment to the world’s creative community. For over six years, SoundCloud has shaped creative culture around the sharing, creation and collaboration of music & audio. We wanted to build on that by creating a new economy to reward and grow the careers of creators in new ways, whether they’re uploading their first track or planning their worldwide release. We launched in the US last year and will be rolling the program out worldwide in time.
On SoundCloud Partners have the opportunity to make money on the platform (e.g. through advertising placed against the tracks they have chosen to make available to SoundCloud users), get unlimited storage, premium stats and account management support. We’re proud and happy to be able to support a growing number of creators through the On SoundCloud program.
You recently posted a track that you had made with an app to your SoundCloud profile. Could you tell us a little more about your own creative efforts?
Yeah, I used this new app called Auxy that one my good friends, Hendrik, built. Hendrik actually used to work here, helping other companies connect their apps with SoundCloud. When he left, he decided to create his own app. It’s a simple beat-making app.
I used to play quite seriously in a Hardcore band in the late ’90s. We toured and recorded but that was a long time ago. Now I mostly just strum the guitar at home, and sometimes record it. I don’t consider myself much of a songwriter but I do put it up on SoundCloud. If you frame it in the right way, people will ask to use it.
SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes and others seem to have the monopoly on accessing music through digital means. Do you think that will cause innovation to taper off?
We live in an amazing time for music. There’s more music than ever before because it’s so much easier to make. Production tools cost very little which enables you to make music at a very early age. If you’re serious about it, and progress through your art, you can do everything from production to publication yourself. As a band, fifteen years ago, we would have loved to have SoundCloud. We used to record tapes, and the quality usually sucked. Then you had to package and post them, and hope somebody would actually listen to them. Then they had to write us, saying we could perform a gig. This took months. Now you upload it once, email it, and ask if you can perform at a show.
I think we’re still in the early days. This change was initiated five years ago. I think the next ten years will be amazing for creators and listeners alike.
Can you make any predictions about the future of streaming?
In the future people will make music, and in the future people will love music. Our job is to make sure you connect with the artists as fast and seamlessly as possible. In the modern world that’s all about accessibility, portability, and mobility. SoundCloud will figure it out. Others will as well.
What kind of conversation goes on between SoundCloud and record labels?
We’ve always been in conversation with people at all levels of the industry. We went and worked with music promotion companies, independent labels, direct artists, artist managers, major labels – the whole spectrum. Today the most impactful thing we can do is offer them this tool.
We want to grow, and bring in more artists and more labels. We want to get to the point that we can offer artists the opportunity to put an ad on their page, so that every time someone watches the ad, that artist is paid directly. We want to reward creators for their content.
I noticed coming in that you are wearing Diadoras. Are you into sneakers?
Yeah, I’m a big fan of the Stan Smith. Adidas was kind enough to send me a pair recently. They have green detailing on them. Some friends at Nike sent us the Air Max Infrared. I saw them on this guy at a conference, and I asked him where he got them. So later, I met a guy from Nike, and asked him to point me to a store where I could buy them. He told me that he’d send me a pair.
That’s a nice perk.
Yeah. Not all of my shoes are free though: I recently bought a pair of black Air Max Theas. There are a lot of Air Max that I like. They look good in photos, but when I try them on they’re too flashy.