Hark Sounds Off: 1 Billion Listens, and a Quietly Profitable Company

11/7/11Follow @curtwoodward

Updated 11/11 with clarification
What does 1 billion sound like? At Seattle startup Hark, it’s this clip of Harry Potter deploying the “expelliarmus” spell to disarm an enemy.

Expelliarmus!

That little incantation marked the 1 billionth play of a sound bite on Hark, which has amassed a huge catalog of snippets, speeches, and quotes on its YouTube-for-audio site.

That’s a pretty big sonic load since the end of 2008, when Hark (formerly called Entertonement) switched on its public website. The company has cataloged a fun rundown of facts and figures on its blog today to commemorate the 1 billion listens mark. Here’s one that really tells the tale for me: Hark’s gone from this initial test sound of a crow caw to serious clips like President Obama’s entire 2009 address to Congress about health care policy.

Hark relies on both crowdsourced sounds and professional clips to build its library of sounds. It wasn’t always that way, but after seeing a flood of fan uploads of clips from the movie “The Hangover,” Hark went to the studio and cut a deal to get official sound uploads to feed that demand.

Those partnerships have grown, positioning Hark among a group of Seattle tech companies that are working with Hollywood to help the entertainment industry harness digital content.

Hark splits ad revenues with studios on those official sections of the site, and has upgraded from just audio snippets into pages that also feature photos, cast information, and other content. Hark also has partnered with public radio’s StoryCorps project, hosting pages where users were encouraged to upload their own stories tied to the “National Day of Listening.” [The partnership with StoryCorps has been clarified from the original version.]

David Aronchick

All of this has made Hark into a quietly profitable company—CEO David Aronchick says Hark moved into the black in the fourth quarter of 2010, and has sustained that performance this year.

He declined to discuss revenues, but said Hark hasn’t needed to raise venture capital since its $4.5 million round from Redpoint Ventures in 2007.

“I’m not anticipating needing to take any money, even to do growth,” Aronchick says. ”We’re just having a bang-up quarter.”

I’ve always wondered how sustainable audio-only could be as a standalone media site, given the additional power of video (along with the fact that people already post sounds without videos to YouTube). Aronchick says there’s no need to choose between the two.

“I think what you’ll see and what you have seen to date is the platform for every modality,” he says. “You would never say that text goes away because there’s pictures, or audio goes away because there’s video. Each unit has its place.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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