June 25, 2019
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SoFar Sounds house concerts raises $25M, but bands get just $100

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Tired of noisy music venues where you can hardly see the stage? SoFar Sounds puts on concerts in people’s living rooms where fans pay $15 to $30 to sit silently on the floor and truly listen. Nearly 1 million guests have attended SoFar’s more than 20,000 gigs. Having attended a half dozen of the shows, I can say they’re blissful…unless you’re a musician to pay a living. In some cases, SoFar pays just $100 per band for a 25 minute set, which can work out to just $8 per musician per hour or less. Hosts get nothing, and SoFar keeps the rest, which can range from $1100 to $1600 or more per gig — many times what each performer takes home. The argument was that bands got exposure, and it was a tiny startup far from profitability.

Today, SoFar Sounds announced it’s raised a $25 million round led by Battery Ventures and Union Square Ventures, building on the previous $6 million it’d scored from Octopus Ventures and Virgin Group. The goal is expansion — to become the de facto way emerging artists play outside of traditional venues. It’s already throwing 600 shows per month across 430 cities around the world, and over 40 of the 25,000 bands who’ve played its gigs have gone on to be nominated for or win Grammys. The startup has enriched culture by offering an alternative to late night, dark and dirty club shows that don’t appeal to hard-working professionals or older listeners.

But it’s also entrenching a long-standing problem: the underpayment of musicians. With streaming replacing higher priced CDs, musicians depend on live performances to earn a living. SoFar is now institutionalizing that they should be paid less than what gas and dinner costs a band. And if SoFar suck in attendees that might otherwise attend normal venues or independently organized house shows, it could make it tougher for artists to get paid enough there too. That doesn’t seem fair given how small SoFar’s overhead is.

By comparison, SoFar makes Uber look downright generous. A source who’s worked with SoFar tells me the company keeps a lean team of full-time employees who focus on reserving venues, booking artists, and promotion. All the volunteers who actually put on the shows aren’t paid, and neither are the venue hosts, though at least SoFar pays for insurance. The startup has previously declined to pay first-time SoFar performers, instead providing them a “high-quality” video recording of their gig. When it does pay $100 per act, that often amounts to a tiny shred of the total ticket sales.

“SoFar, however, seems to be just fine with leaving out the most integral part: paying the musicians” writes musician Joshua McClain. “This is where they willingly step onto the same stage as companies like Uber or Lyft — savvy middle-men tech start-ups, with powerful marketing muscle, not-so-delicately wedging themselves in-between the customer and merchant (audience and musician in this case). In this model, everything but the service-provider is put first: growth, profitability, share-holders, marketers, convenience, and audience members — all at the cost of the hardworking people that actually provide the service.” He’s urged people to #BoycottSoFarSounds

A deeply reported KQED expose by Emma Silvers found many bands were disappointed with the payouts, and didn’t even know SoFar was a for-profit company. “I think they talk a lot about supporting local artists, but what they’re actually doing is perpetuating the idea that it’s okay for musicians to get paid shit,” Oakland singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney told KQED.

SoFar CEO Jim Lucchese, who previously ran Spotify’s Creator division after selling it his music data startup The Echo Nest and has played SoFar shows himself, declares that “$100 buck for a showcase slot is definitely fair” but admits that “I don’t think playing a SoFar right now is the right move for every type of artist.” He stresses that some SoFar shows, especially in international markets, are pay-what-you-want and artists keep “the majority of the money”. The rare sponsored shows with outside corporate funding like one for the Bohemian Rhapsody film premier can see artists earn up to $1500, but these are a tiny fraction of SoFar’s concerts.

Otherwise, Lucchese says “the ability to convert fans is one of the most magical things about SoFar” referencing how artists rely on asking attendees to buy their merchandise or tickets for their full-shows and follow them on social media to earn money. He claims that if you pull out what SoFar pays for venue insurance, performing rights organizations, and its full-time labor, “a little over half the take goes to the artists.” Unfortunately that makes it sound like SoFar’s few costs of operation are the musicians’ concern. As McClain wrote, “First off, your profitability isn’t my problem.”

Now that it has ample funding, I hope to see SoFar double down on paying artists a fair rate for their time and expenses. Luckily, Lucchese says that’s part of the plan for the funding. Beyond building tools to help local teams organize more shows to meet rampant demand, he says “Am I satisfied that this is the only revenue we make artists right now? Abslutely not. We want to invest more on the artist side.” That includes better ways for bands to connect with attendees and turn them into monetizable fans. Even just a better followup email with Instagram handles and upcoming tour dates could help.

We don’t expect most craftspeople to work for “exposure”. Interjecting a middleman like SoFar shouldn’t change that. The company has a chance to increase live music listening worldwide. But it must treat artists as partners, not just some raw material they can burn through even if there’s always another act desperate for attention. Otherwise musicians and the empathetic fans who follow them might leave SoFar’s living rooms empty.

How I Podcast: Criminal/This Is Love’s Lauren Spohrer

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The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs.

We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:

Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale
Jesse Thorn of Bullseye
Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild
My own podcast, RiYL

In the crowded world of true-crime podcasts, Criminal has managed to stand out, garnering the critical acclaim of sources ranging from The Atlantic to Entertainment Weekly. Launched in 2014 by Lauren Spohrer, Eric Mennel and host Phoebe Judge, the Chapel Hill-based series takes a deep and complex dive into its subject matter, painting a rich picture of the case files it studies. 

On Valentine’s Day 2018, Spohrer, Judge and fellow Criminal producer Nadia Wilson launched the first season of This Is Love, a series focused on “sacrifice, obsession, and the ways in which we bet everything on each other.” Co-creator and co-producer Spohrer joins us to highlight the rig the team uses to gather recordings on the road. 

We’re just returning home from a whirlwind reporting trip for This Is Love. We were in Italy for 10 days and recorded eight stories, moving quickly by train and car through small towns. It was the most ambitious reporting trip we’ve done, and we were lucky we met such extraordinarily kind people and discovered Pocket Coffee.

We like to prepare for the worst-case scenario, so we brought three recording kits with us and each carried one (me, Phoebe, and Senior Producer Nadia Wilson). We stocked up on AA batteries at Costco before we left.

We recorded the interviews with a Marantz PMD 661 recorder and an Audio Technica AT8035 microphone with a Rode pistol grip and a Rode WS7 Deluxe Wind Shield. We use Sony MDR-7506 headphones both for recording and for mixing. A lot of the interviews were recorded standing up, one in a fish market before the sun came up. Phoebe always records herself and the guest with the same mic. Italy is loud, and we didn’t fight that. We do plenty of interviews in pristinely silent studios. It was a nice change to let the world creep into the sound.

Back when we started Criminal, we recorded Phoebe’s narration with the Audio Technica AT8035 in my bedroom closet with a bunch of blankets draped over her head. These days, we have a partnership with our local NPR affiliate, North Carolina Public Radio, and we use their studio to record Phoebe’s narration for both This Is Love and Criminal. They’ve got a Neumann TLM 103 microphone. We added a mic preamp (Great River ME-1NV) and a Stedman Proscreen PS101. The studio is set up to record into Adobe Audition. We upload those files to Dropbox, and then download them at home to edit and mix in Pro Tools.

When we’re touring, (we’re doing 16 live shows this fall, come see us!), we produce live shows with a program called Soundboard and a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 USB Audio Interface.

Other tools: we pitch story ideas via email and Slack, use a shared Google Calendar to stay organized and transcribe our raw tape with Trint. Scripts are written and fact-checked collaboratively using Google Docs. We mix in Pro Tools, and when we’re happy with a mix, we send sessions to Rob Byers, Michael Rafael and/or Johnny Vince Evans to be mastered.

Hotstar, Disney’s Indian streaming service, sets new global record for live viewership

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Indian video streaming giant Hotstar, owned by Disney, today set a new global benchmark for the number of people an OTT service can draw to a live event.

Some 18.6 million users simultaneously tuned into Hotstar’s website and app to watch the deciding game of the 12th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament. The streaming giant, which competes with Netflix and Amazon in India, broke its own “global best” 10.3 million concurrent views milestone that it had set last year.

Hotstar topped the 10 million concurrent viewership mark a number of times during this year’s 51-day IPL season. More than 12.7 million viewers huddled to watch an earlier game in the tournament (between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians), a spokesperson for the four-year-old service said. In mid-April, Hotstar said that the cricket series had already garnered 267 million overall viewership, creating a new record for the streamer. (Last year’s IPL had clocked 202 million over viewership.)

Fans of Mumbai Indians celebrate their team’s victory against Chennai Super Kings in IPL cricket tournament in India.

These figures coming out of India, the fastest growing internet market, are astounding, to say the least. In comparison, a 2012 live-stream of skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumping from near-space to the Earth’s surface, remains the most concurrently viewed video on YouTube. It amassed about 8 million concurrent viewers. The live viewership of the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was also a blip in comparison.

As Netflix and Amazon scramble to find the right content strategy to lure Indians, Hotstar and its local parent firm Star India have aggressively focused on securing broadcast and streaming rights to various cricket series. Cricket is almost followed like a religion in India.

In 2017, Star India, then owned by 21st Century Fox, secured rights to broadcast and stream IPL cricket tournament for five years for a sum of roughly $2.5 billion. Facebook had also participated in the bidding, offering north of $600 million for streaming. (Star India was part of 21st Century Fox’s business that Disney acquired for $71.3 billion earlier this year.)

That bet has largely paid off. Hotstar said last month that its service has amassed 300 million monthly active users, up from 150 million it had reported last year. In comparison, both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have less than 30 million subscribers in India, according to industry estimates.

In the last two years, Hotstar has expanded to three international markets — the U.S., Canada, and most recently, the UK — to chase new audiences. The streaming service is hoping to attract Indians living overseas and anyone else who is interested in Bollywood movies and cricket, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The streaming service plans to enter Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Middle East, Australia, and New Zealand in the next few quarters, Dasgupta said.

That’s not to say that Hotstar has a clear path ahead. According to several estimates, the streaming service typically sees a sharp decline in its user base after the conclusion of an IPL season. Despite the massive engagement it generates, it remains operationally unprofitable, people familiar with Hotstar’s finances said.

The ad-supported streaming service offers about 80 percent of its content catalog — which includes titles produced by Star India, and shows and movies syndicated from international partners HBO, ABC, and Showtime among others — for no cost to users. One of the most watched international shows on the platform, “Game of Thrones,” will be ending soon, too.

The upcoming World Cup cricket tournament, which Hotstar will stream in India, should help it avoid the major headache for sometime. In the meanwhile, the service is aggressively expanding its original shows slate in the nation. One of the shows is a remake of BBC/NBC’s popular “The Office.”

How I podcast: Start With This/Welcome to Night Vale’s Jeffrey Cranor

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The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs.

We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:

Jesse Thorn of Bullseye
Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild
My own podcast, RiYL

Launched in 2012, Welcome to Night Vale quickly grew into one of the most popular narrative podcasts in the medium’s history. Centered on the strange goings-on of a desert town, the series has spawned its own mini-empire, including tours, books and and upcoming television adaptation. Co-creators Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink have also launched a series of independent shows under the Night Vale Presents banner, including Alice Isn’t Dead, The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) and I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats.

Their latest series, Start With This, is designed to motivate writers, featuring discussions on method and tips for getting the creative juices flowing. Each episode gives the listener writing assignments designed to be shared through its membership forum on Patreon

This week, on How I Podcast, Cranor shares his home and portable recording rigs. 

In my home, I have a large closet I converted to a recording space. I did this by cleaning out all of the junk we had been storing there over the years and then sticking up some acoustic foam. But I travel a lot for work, and I can’t always bring the closet with me to various Hampton Inns.

A couple years ago I bought a Tascam DR-40 portable recorder — perfect for packing on tours and vacations. The Tascam solved most any issue I would run into podcast-wise while I was away from NY. The only items I ever really needed to record were brief monologues (ads, show intros, credits, etc). So if a Bombas ad came in, I could just throw a blanket over my head to prevent hotel echo, and then record the spot on the Tascam, looking, I’m sure, like the world’s least-spooky ghost.

This winter, my writing partner Joseph Fink and I both ended up in Los Angeles for a few weeks. We also have a brand new podcast called Start With This, wherein we talk to each other for half an hour about creativity and storytelling, and then give writing assignments to listeners.

So, I picked up a couple of Shure-48s (cheaper than 58s, and for talking only, just as good) and a Yamaha MG-06 Stereo Mixer. This was about $200 total, which was the most I’ve ever spent at once on podcasting equipment. The mixer’s light and easy to pack, and the Shure mics are rock solid.

At home I have an MXL 770 on an extendable arm and it’s great, but there’s something so physically liberating about having just a Shure mic on an XLR cable. Recording these SWT episodes on the road using handhelds really loosened up the feel of the conversations. I might actually change my set up when I get back home to NY.

Sextech company scorned by CES scores $2M and an apology

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Lora DiCarlo, a startup coupling robotics and sexual health, has $2 million to shove in the Consumer Electronics Show’s face.

The same day the company was set to announce their fundraise, The Consumer Technology Association, the event producer behind CES, decided to re-award the Bend, Oregon-based Lora DiCarlo with the innovation award it had revoked from the company ahead of this year’s big event.

“We appreciate this gesture from the CTA, who have taken an important step in the right direction to remove the stigma and embarrassment around female sexuality,” Lora DiCarlo founder and chief executive officer Lora Haddock (pictured) told TechCrunch. “We hope we can continue to be a catalyst for meaningful changes that makes CES and the consumer tech industry inclusive for all.”

In January, the CTA nullified the award it had granted the business, which is building a hands-free device that uses biomimicry and robotics to help people achieve a blended orgasm by simultaneously stimulating the G spot and the clitoris. Called Osé, the device uses micro-robotic technology to mimic the sensation of a human mouth, tongue and fingers in order to produce a blended orgasm for people with vaginas.

Lora DiCarlo’s debut product, Osé, set to release this fall. The company says the device is currently undergoing changes and may look different upon release.

“CTA did not handle this award properly,” CTA senior vice president of marketing and communications Jean Foster said in a statement released today. “This prompted some important conversations internally and with external advisors and we look forward to taking these learnings to continue to improve the show.”

Lora DiCarlo had applied for the CES Innovation Award back in September. In early October, the CTA notified the company of its award. Fast-forward to October 31, 2018 and CES Projects senior manager Brandon Moffett informed the company they had been disqualified. The press storm that followed only boosted Lora DiCarlo’s reputation, put Haddock at the top of the speakers’ circuit and proved, once again, that sexuality is still taboo at CES and that the gadget show has failed to adapt to the times.

In its original letter to Lora DiCarlo, obtained by TechCrunch, the CTA called the startup’s product “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with the CTA’s image” and that it did “not fit into any of [its] existing product categories and should not have been accepted” to the awards program. CTA later apologized for the mishap before ultimately re-awarding the prize.

At the request of the CTA, Haddock and her team have been working with the organization to create a more inclusive show and better incorporate both sextech companies and women’s health businesses.

“We were a catalyst to a huge, resounding amount of support from a very large community of people who have been quietly thinking this is something that needs to happen,” Haddock told TechCrunch. “For us, it was all about timing.”

Lora DiCarlo plans to use its infusion of funding, provided by new and existing investors led by the Oregon Opportunity Zone Limited Partnership, to hire ahead of the release of its first product. Pre-orders for the Osé, which will retail for $290, will open this summer with an expected official release this fall.

Haddock said four other devices are in the pipeline, one specifically for clitoral stimulation, another for clitoral and vaginal stimulation, one for anywhere on the body and the other, she said, is a different approach to the way people with vulvas masturbate.

“We are aiming for that hands-free, human experience,” Haddock said. “We wanted to make something really interesting and very different and beautiful.”

Next year, Haddock says they plan to integrate their products with virtual reality, a step that will require a larger boost of capital.

Haddock and her employees don’t plan to quiet down any time soon. With their newfound fame, the team will continue supporting the expanding sextech industry and gender equity within tech generally.

“We’ve realized our social mission is so important,” Haddock said. “Gender equality, at its source, is about sex. We absolutely demonize sex and sexuality … When you talk about removing sexual stigmas, you are also talking about removing gender stigmas and creating gender equity.”

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