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Interview: Katie McMahon talks about SoundHound's future at SF MusicTech Summit

SoundHound's VP of Marketing, Katie McMahon, and Walden Venture Capital's Larry Marcus demonstrate the sing/hum query.
SoundHound's VP of Marketing, Katie McMahon, and Walden Venture Capital's Larry Marcus demonstrate the sing/hum query.
Kara E. Murphy

This past Tuesday, SF MusicTech Summit held its fifteenth event at Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco's Japantown. As a veteran attendee of every single one of these conferences, I've covered, in depth, most of the recurring themes that continuously resonate in the music technology space. While insights from leading industry artists, venture capitalists, technologists, and business development professionals are undoubtedly valuable, I wanted to focus my attention on something new and revolutionary.

SoundHound, based in Santa Clara, is a leading innovator in Sound Recognition and Search technologies. Their popular application, which boasts over 200 million users to date, offers up a variety of useful features including music charts, in-depth artist profiles, discographies, lyrics, and the ability to automatically drop songs into a Spotify playlist - thanks to a recent deep-integration partnership with the prominent streaming service.

Much like Shazam, SoundHound can identify a song playing in the background and return information about the artist, track title, and album. Where it differentiates itself from any other technology company in the world comes in the form of its voice recognition feature.

Have you ever tried to search for a song that is stuck in your head, with Google or a comparable search engine, only to feel completely helpless without the artist’s name or lyrics available – nothing to verbalize or translate into text to get your answer? The sing/hum query was invented to solve this all-too-common problem. All a user has to do is press the dominant, multi-functional orange button in the app, hum or sing the song stuck in their head, stop the Listening feature once the humming is sufficiently completely (based on user judgment), and watch a list of possible song matches populate the app. No other technology in the world can take something that is stuck in your head and turn it into something sensible.

During the Product Launches, Announcements & Demos segment of SF MusicTech Summit, SoundHound's VP of Sales & Marketing, Katie McMahon, introduced the recently-released version 6.0 of SoundHound. It primarily boasts a major design overhaul of the application's interface. After a brief run-through of its new look and feel, she brought up Larry Marcus, the renowned investor at Walden Venture Capital and member of SoundHound’s Board, to demonstrate the capabilities of the sing/hum query.

He did a remarkable job humming “Frankenstein” by The Edgar Winter Group and, surely enough, the track was clearly identified. Once a track is displayed, it can be listened to, shared, and added to a Spotify playlist - all in-app. After demonstrating how efficient Directed Voice search is, for when you already know the artist's name, song title, or both, it was confirmed that SoundHound also boasts the fastest voice search feature of any platform around.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Katie, in between meetings, and ask her a few questions about what's next for SoundHound:

Congratulations on the new release and also surpassing 200 million users. Where is SoundHound headed next, now that you’ve made so much progress in the voice recognition space?

Thank you for recognizing our mobile user base. Crossing the 200 million mark is non-trivial, given we did this without spending to acquire users. One day, an analyst or journalist may be able to report the number of apps that reached even 100 million users, let alone over 200 million, without spend. I suspect that number of apps will be very small.

Over 200 million downloads speaks to how much of our efforts focus on user delight as well as smart partnerships. We’ve been able to get the user base in a way that then allows us to build on monetization. Phase 1 was build a user base, then Phase 2, add monetization - and, along the way, continue to innovate, always.

Where we are with the music product is taking it from just discovery and orange button search to a rich, immersive experience. So that includes every gateway of search. The discovery is second-to-none, and now we’re adding the ability to play and consume. So we can have you play that song inside of Spotify, or if you want to launch an iTunes radio station, you have that ability too. We were the first partner to offer deeply integrated iTunes radio which is non-trivial to have that access and bring that to market.

SoundHound in the music sphere - search, discovery, and onward consumption – nails that vertical. What we are always aiming for is to shape-shift how you interact with connected devices. That’s the connecting theme for our technologies. Next on the horizon is voice search…. voice technology is where we think enormous strides in user delight can be made - but it is non-trivial due to how complicated the technology is to get right. So that’s the nod to the future where we will be part of your day, many times a day, and not just in the music sphere.

It goes without saying that you’re working on is incredible. Kudos to your for not resting on your laurels and continuing to explore different options.

Music recognition is out there and it’s ultimately going to be a saturated market. As I mentioned before, we have to have the most delightful user experience to keep you loving SoundHound. Otherwise you can get flitty and bugger-off, especially when it gets built in on OS levels. The experience is what is going to hold you in.

Do you have any new data or interesting developments you can share?

The insights we see based on what music users are reacting to are always interesting. For example, new artist Nico & Vinz has completely bubbled up. They were not even in the Top 100 earlier this year and within weeks, they shot from #57 to #24 last month, and this week they are inside the Top 10 most SoundHounded songs – they've come up out of nowhere in some ways and are clearly resonating with people.

That’s a nice segue over to a new development. As you know, in cinema, when you get to the theater early, you see a pre-show for 20 minutes before the movie starts. So we have just launched a partnership with Screenvision, a leader in the cinema advertising space.

Their experience is advertising and entertainment and we’re making that “SoundHoundable.” We already know people are using SoundHound in cinema so this is making it a connected experience, which is great value-add to the advertiser ad cut.

Nico & Vinz is the first one we did. Levi’s has bought into that as well - it’s in cinema. We’re also in car with Hyundai. Hyundai is going to ship with SoundHound installed in the dashboard. We continue to ship pre-installed on HTC One devices and we will be doing interesting things "in venue" going forward. That’s all I can say about that last part for now.

At this point, no other technology can take what’s stuck in your head and then turn it into something that’s audible and playable. How would you adapt if Google or some other behemoth were to develop something similar and bring it to market?

We wouldn’t have to adapt because we constantly think of that scenario. We’re trained to think "what would happen if Google did it." This brings you back to creating the most joyful experience for the user, so bring it on.

Ultimately, it’s a great validation in our technology that music recognition is getting built in. We’ve built and created something very valuable and made a trained user behavior. Very few companies have the opportunity to make a user behavior happen.

Are you pursuing any type of partnership with a mobile OS company?

That’s a smart question because, ultimately, how deeply the technology can be built in removes points of friction. If I didn’t have to fire up the app, that’s one click removed right there. So, yes, we’re always thinking along those lines.

SoundHound is free and available for download on iTunes, Google Play, Windows Phone, and Blackberry World.