Wednesday 7 November 2012, 13:45 | By Andy Malt
Q&A: Inge Andre Sandvik, Soundrop
One of the original apps available on Spotify when the streaming service launched its third party developer platform in December 2011, Soundrop is a service that allows users to come together in virtual ‘rooms’ to play music to each other.
By entering a range of genre-specific spaces, or private areas, users can add tracks to collaborative playlists, which can then be voted higher up the queue by the other people currently listening. Everyone present can also discuss what they are listening too via the app.
With over 300 million tracks played through the app this year, in June Soundrop became the first third party app on Spotify to receive venture capital funding, receiving a $3 million cash injection from original Spotify investor Northzone. And last month the app was relaunched with a new design and more features.
Following the relaunch CMU’s Andy Malt spoke to co-founder and CEO Inge Andre Sandvik about his route into streaming music, the development of Soundrop, and its future.
AM: Tell us a little about your background and how you came found Soundrop.
IAS: I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I founded 1881 Mobilsøk, which became one of the most popular mobile services in Norway and was subsequently bought by Telenor. I also helped build Numo Finder, a mobile directory service, which won the GSMA mobile innovation award. Soundrop is my third VC-funded start-up.
Before joining Soundrop, I was in the nine-to-five world working for Opera Software. I ran the Opera Mobile Store, which generates tens of millions of downloads every month. And my mobile background is just as important as my entrepreneurial experience. We’re building Soundrop to be a telco-grade platform. It has to handle streaming music, millions of chat messages, playlist re-ordering and keep everything in sync for all Soundrop users in real-time. Although the front-end might be simple, what goes on in the cloud can be quite advanced.
AM: Where did the idea for Soundrop come from?
IAS: The birth of the Soundrop concept was in 2009 when I had a chat with my friend Gustav Söderström, who had just joined Spotify. I was fascinated by the huge potential that Spotify had and started to envision how social music and sharing could be brought to a new level. But the timing was not ideal. Neither the platform nor the market were mature enough, and I was already focused on another start-up that had just won the GSMA innovation award and was busy bringing that to the market.
But early in 2011 my old ideas about social music started to come together again. I met two very talented developers via my former CTO – my co-founders Ali Sabil and Johann Prieur – who had both worked at [Norwegian tech firm] Tandberg and who had just won Oslo Startup Weekend with a mobile jukebox concept that was built using Spotify’s platform. I quickly saw the potential to finally bring the social music experience to life and so we started a process of defining the product vision and developing prototypes.
We quickly agreed that we wanted to create a product that allowed people to instantly discover and experience music with friends. During that stage, we were lucky to recruit the eminent engineering talent of Ole André Vadla Ravnås, a former colleague of Sabil’s and Prieur’s from Tandberg, and together we started to build what is now known as Soundrop.
AM: Was it always intended to be a Spotify app? Do you see yourselves going beyond the Spotify platform?
IAS: At its core, Soundrop is content-agnostic. We can take in almost any content source. Currently, though, we use Spotify. That’s not a technical limitation, Spotify has been a very powerful and efficient platform for us to work with. And from the business perspective, we see a lot of benefits to working very closely with Spotify to help both of us enhance our respective platforms and product experiences, and provide a great tool for our partners.
AM: Earlier this year Soundrop became the first Spotify app to receive VC funding, how has that changed things for you?
IAS: When we brought in Northzone, we did it for a variety of reasons. First, they understand the music space very well. They invested in Spotify, X5 Music and others, so they know the issues we were going to face. Their support has really helped us reach for the full vision of what Soundrop can be, which is something much larger than exists today.
AM: Over 300 million tracks have been streamed through Soundrop this year, what is the key to its success?
IAS: The central key is the social element. That anyone can vote or add a song, and chat with others in a room, means not only is it a great tool for discovering music, but also for discovering other people with similar tastes in music. At the same time, we provide a great way for artists to connect with fans through Spotify. Artists can hold listening events, like Kendrick Lamar recently did. More than 100,000 unique listeners were in his room, with more than 4200 at any one second during his live chat.
We want Soundrop to be a social destination. Rather than simply sharing a list of tracks you have collated on your own, you can invite your friends in to help you build the ultimate playlist. And you can meet like-minded music fans. And you can hop from room to room discovering great new music or reconnecting with a lost classic. The listening experience is far more engaging and dynamic in a Soundrop room than with a static playlist.
You could say it all boils down to the ‘fan experience’. That’s why we make Soundrop, not for ourselves but for the people who use it. They reward us with their time each day. It’s very humbling.
AM: How important is human curation in music discovery, do any automated systems do it particularly well?
IAS: When you download Spotify, suddenly you have all the music in the world at your fingertips. But what should you listen to? We believe the easiest way to discover music is through other people, but simply connecting one users music preferences to their ‘social graph’ is a poor method for making music discovery social. 90% of what my social graph listens to is irrelevant for me.
Human curation – having everyone help curate playlists, adding in new artists and new tracks – is essential to music discovery At the same time we wanted to make Soundrop truly social, so people can discuss the artists and the songs in real-time. Combining those forces is stronger than any predictive algorithm. And it adds a measure of serendipity as well.
AM: Tell us a bit about the recent changes to Soundrop, what drove those updates?
IAS: Soundrop was always very strong at handling real-time interactions. Keeping the playlist in sync, allowing people to chat while sending out millions of music streams all at once, voting, etc, all of that needs to be managed, but we were already good at that real-time aspect.
But at the same time, Soundrop rooms have a history. Millions of people have visited the dubstep room since we opened it. There are people who’ve added songs that have gone on to be very popular. There are certain artists who’ve been very popular. We want to showcase all the asynchronous data we have and use that to make discoverability even better. In many ways, we’ve made Soundrop a much “deeper” service than it was before.
AM: How do you see Soundrop developing in the future?
IAS: There are many opportunities for Soundrop. This most recent update was all about strengthening the social and asynchronous side of our story. You’ll see that continue. You’ll also see our mobile story come back to life. Soundrop is more than an app in Spotify, it’s also a massively-scalable social music platform. That story will become more apparent in the future.
AM: Talking of mobile, why were your existing mobile apps recently withdrawn?
IAS: Coming from a mobile background as I do, I believe mobile is essential to Soundrop and we will have mobile apps on the major platforms as well as a mobile web experience so anyone can use it, regardless of what phone you have.
Though, with the recent launch, we moved to a new platform that will allow us to present many more exciting experiences to our fans, but this new platform was unfortunately incompatible with our existing mobile apps. Rather than piece something together in a patchwork, we wanted to create new mobile apps with a much better Soundrop experience. That work is underway and we can’t wait to share it with our fans.
AM: Have there been any unexpected ways in which people use Soundrop since you launched it?
IAS: All the time. I’m consistently amazed not only in how our fans use the app, but also what they get out of Soundrop. For instance, Soundrop fans have met in our rooms and traveled to festivals together. Fans have come together to start Facebook groups around certain genres of music. I’m just waiting for the first Soundrop baby!
Again, everything we do is for our fans. So it’s important for us to give them a tool that adapts to their needs, not the other way around. Want to painstakingly curate the best playlist and discuss the merits with others? We can help there. Want to listen in the background while an artist DJs their own room? We can accommodate. Whatever you want to do around social listening, chances are someone has tried it on our platform and that’s what gratifies me the most.
AM: How do you personally use Soundrop?
IAS: You can often find me in the chill out room. I’m probably more passive than our most active fans, but I like a bit of banter now and again. It’s always great to hear from fans to find out what we’re doing well and what we can do better.
I typically prefer genre rooms rather than private rooms. I want to hear what everyone else is listening to and for me it’s a great way to discover music. In fact, Soundrop’s rooms are where I discover 90% of my new music. 5% comes from listening to music in public places and 5% comes from friends making recommendations. Soundrop is the tool I use most – by far – to discover music.