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SoundCloud strikes a chord in San Francisco

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SoundCloud Vice President Henrik Lenberg, left, and Manolo Espinosa, SoundCloud head of audio, display the company’s mobile applications at their San Francisco office. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • SoundCloud Vice President Henrik Lenberg, left, and Manolo Espinosa, SoundCloud head of audio, display the company’s mobile applications at their San Francisco office.

Like an early YouTube for sound, the website SoundCloud seems poised to become part of the core infrastructure of the social Internet. So Brian Zisk of the SF MusicTech Summit believes it was all but inevitable that the company would open up shop in San Francisco.

“If you want to be at ground zero, there’s nowhere better than this,” said Zisk, whose  seasonal event returns Oct. 9. “We could wake up one morning and find out Facebook bought SoundCloud for a billion dollars.”

The Berlin-based startup with an office in San Francisco is flush with cash, aggressively hiring developers and sporting an exploding user base, making it the company to watch in a crowded field. In September, it located its first U.S. office in the Mission district to tap the rich local pool of programming talent lining up to work at the company.

SoundCloud’s visitors go to its website to quickly and painlessly upload and share audio, from a quick song sketch to a polished symphony. Its easy-to-use applications for iOS- and Android-based devices have been downloaded more than 5 million times, and the Menlo Park venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led an investment round totaling a reported $50 million in January.

The company’s journey from a Berlin cafe to the Mission shows just how indispensable The City has become to companies looking to plant a flag in the world of online social media. While Berlin has a world-class techno scene, SoundCloud Vice President Henrik Lenberg said its technology scene was still developing.

“SoundCloud was born out of the frustrations that there were no tools available at the time for creators, so we decided to change that,” wrote co-founder Alexander Ljung, a musician like Lenberg and Ljung’s partner Eric Wahlforss.

Ljung and Wahlforss launched the site in October 2008, and from the beginning they thought of an “open platform” with a programming architecture that allowed others to freely build upon it. Ljung said they were “both being hugely influenced by the social Web,” and it “created an intersection that allowed us to think about sound as a solid platform.”

In November 2009, they launched the SoundCloud app for the iPhone. Apps for Android and the iPad helped drive growth to 10 million users as of January, when Kleiner Perkins invested. As of press time, the company stands at 13 million users and is rapidly growing.

Meanwhile they’re on a partnership tear, forming bonds with virtually every audio technology player, from Cupertino-based Apple, creator of GarageBand, to ProTools producer Avid Technology, which has offices in Daly City and Mountain View. They have almost 300 such partners. The goal is an “export as SoundCloud” function on every program or app.

“For us it’s about telling everyone in this industry that we are an open platform and want to build these partnerships,” Lenberg said. “If we work together on this, it’s much better.”

From the Huffington Post to the Foo Fighters, SoundCloud has also convinced countless major mainstream U.S. media producers to jump to the platform. SoundCloud’s head of audio, Manolo Espinosa, said the company is first trying to fill obvious needs, like handling Web audio for National Public Radio and Public Radio International.

“There’s an amazing amount of audio content out there that is not recorded,” Espinosa added. “I see those as gaps that we can fill.”

Boots on the ground in the Bay Area help.

“That’s why folks come and relocate to the Bay Area,” Zisk said. “If you really have the goods, folks can find you and evaluate you and make real concrete changes and decisions.”

Big users tuning into company’s audio app

From your baby’s first words to transcontinental marriage proposals to the latest Deadmau5 musical experiment, SoundCloud hosts an astonishingly rich world of audio.

The Foo Fighters and Bruce Springsteen premiered new albums via SoundCloud. Snoop Dogg uses it to share rough sketches. Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John are using it as the sharing backbone of a music collective and label called Ingrid. Comedian John Oliver uses the service to power his audio comedy show “The Bugle.”

But SoundCloud also is millions of amateur electronic musicians, rappers, singer-songwriters and vocalists. Major artists tap SoundCloud’s amateurs for ideas and inspiration, but becoming a rock star is no longer the only goal.

Plenty of hobbyists use the service like an audio version of photo-sharing site Instagram, as a great way to get instant and positive feedback on a sonic snapshot.

Beyond music, an auditory universe is being captured. National Geographic uses it to preserve disappearing languages. Others have uploaded sounds of bats in a mating swarm.

SoundCloud envisions a world where everyone records and shares audio effortlessly.

“You will find that everybody says, ‘I wish I would have recorded my daughter’s voice or my father’s voice,’” said Manolo Espinosa, SoundCloud head of audio. “My daughter can tell great stories by talking. It may not be a huge impact for you, but for me it’s huge, for my mom it’s huge.”

Timeline of SoundCloud

  • October 2008: SoundCloud opens
  • Nov. 11, 2009: SoundCloud iPhone app debuts
  • May 18, 2010: SoundCloud announces reaching 1 million users
  • Dec. 21, 2010: Android app launches
  • June 15, 2011: 5 million registered users
  • Oct. 27, 2011: iPad app and mobile refreshes for iOS, Droid
  • Jan. 23, 2012: 10 million users
  • Today: More than 13 million users