Anyone who has ever set foot in the SoundCloud headquarters in Berlin has experienced a serious case of office envy. “Where can I apply?” is probably the first question that SoundClouders get from visitors. For a mere mortal it might not be so easy to make it through the hurdles though. At SoundCloud there is one really obvious thing: people are into music. Not just music in general, they have very specific music tastes and an exceptional eye for new talent.
Ben Southam is one of the SoundClouders, who happens to have lots of talent and a huge passion for music. He is co-creator and lead performer of the (probably) first musical ever written at SoundCloud HQ. His play, Lukas, will premiere at the Factory on November 22nd. We took this opportunity to ask him about life as a SoundClouder, motivation for musical writing, and managing large-scale side projects next to one’s daily job. Purely out of passion.
YOU AND MUSIC HAVE QUITE A HISTORY. HOW DID IT ALL START?
I fell in love with music early on. When I was 12 years old I joined the choir at my school in Liverpool and discovered that music wasn’t only about the difficult times trying to learn a piece, but also about the group experience and friendships you make. That motivated me to move to London and study music. London is a great place to do that. Long story short: I did a bunch of music with a bunch of people. In the meantime I had the opportunity to perform at great venues, like the Royal Albert Hall, the O2 or the Wembley Arena.
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO BERLIN?
It’s hard to find a proper job with a music degree. Video games have always been among my main interests, so my ultimate career goal was to do music composition for video games. After finishing my studies in London, I got an opportunity to work for Nintendo in Frankfurt – so I came.
It was a great experience, however, I didn’t get much creative fulfillment in Frankfurt. It felt like I knew everybody after 5 seconds, there just wasn’t enough room to grow. I’ve heard that the English-language creative scene was really big in Berlin, so I was tempted to change. There was an opening at SoundCloud and I knew it was the right opportunity for me. Berlin seems a lot more fitting. I love that people are so open to new things and the city itself has so much to offer.
HOW DID SOUNDCLOUD BROADEN YOUR MUSICAL HORIZONS?
I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember, but I still managed to increase my knowledge of artists and genres by 500% since I joined the company. I’m lucky enough to have met a lot of cool musicians too. I’m currently working alongside the internalization team. We’re supporting lots of emerging talents through a program called “On SoundCloud”, so it’s easy to discover new artists here.
TELL US A SECRET. IS EVERY SINGLE TEAM MEMBER AT SOUNDCLOUD A FAN OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC?
It might be surprising, but a lot of people don’t like electronic music at all. In fact, there are lots of different tastes present at the company. For example I didn’t know much about rockabilly until I joined the company.
DO YOU FIND THE OPPORTUNITY TO CHAT ABOUT MUSIC OVER THE WATERCOOLER, OR JAM TOGETHER WITH YOUR COLLEAGUES?
Definitely! It’s really refreshing to be around people, who know what they are talking about and it’s always easy to break the ice with music-related topics.
WHAT GAVE YOU THE MOTIVATION FOR WRITING THE MUSICAL, LUKAS?
At the end of our summer offsite we had a music contest, called the Battle of the Bands. I was psyched to participate, so I teamed up with a friend, and in the end we won. It was a nudge in the right direction.
Me and my co-writers already started working on the musical, but only for own entertainment. We weren’t really planning to do anything special with it. Then my colleagues came to me and said “Hey Ben, you should do more stuff with music”. And then I replied: “Oh, as it happens, I actually am. I’m writing a musical and it’s called Lukas”.
WRITING A MUSICAL IS STILL VERY UNCONVENTIONAL, EVEN FOR A TRAINED MUSICIAN… WHY A MUSICAL?
I’ve never really been a big fan of plain theater. Adding music to plays always makes them a lot more interesting. I’ve always wanted to write a musical, I was just looking for the right people to do it with.
WHO ARE YOUR PARTNERS?
Tom Hanley and Nicole Ratjen. Tom is a colleague and good friend from SoundCloud. We work closely and often have conversations beyond just regular work stuff. I met Nicole at an improvisational comedy group that I play music for. The musical is basically a group effort. Nicole wrote the majority of the script, while Tom and I worked together on the lyrics and music. We spent a lot of time writing at SoundCloud. We’d come on the weekends and use the music studio and the meeting rooms. We were singing when no one was listening.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE STORYLINE FOR LUKAS?
We had one guiding principle for the plot, to write about something that we can be truly honest about. The story deals with the idea of being an expat, leaving your family, following your heart and your passion.
Lukas is a story of a guy, who takes life as it is and just allows things to happen. He has to make a difficult decision that he’s not comfortable with. Throughout the story he gets a lot of external influences and eventually makes his decision based on these.
DID YOU WRITE ABOUT YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES?
I would say the story is based on our shared experiences. I feel that Lukas is in many ways a mixture of me, Nicole and Tom. We’re all expats and have slightly different takes on a very similar end goal. We all ended up in Berlin one way or another.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS AFTER THE PREMIERE?
For me personally, the next step is to see how I can make the most of the good connections I made within SoundCloud and the wider Factory community, and what else I can do with music.
Nicole, Tom and I make a great team, so it would be nice to collaborate on new projects or do a “Lukas version 2” with a bigger cast. At the moment we’re limited in terms of time, cast and budget. If people like the musical, we get good press or simply good comments, then we would definitely develop the project further.