Jared Gutstadt of Audio Up on the New Podcasting Revolution: Were Making Movies for Your Ears
Jared Gutstadt already established enough entrepreneurial chops for one lifetime by founding the highly successful Jingle Punks, a company that provides original music for ads, TV, film and videogames, back in 2008, at which time he developed the whimsical persona of “Jingle Jared.” After selling that firm in 2005, he bode his time for five years before coming back last year as the CEO-founder of Audio Up, a production team that focuses largely on narrative audio podcasts built around original song scores instead of licensing existing music.
VARIETY: You’ve reinvented your career in the last couple years. But be honest — do you ever miss being “Jingle Jared”?
GUTSTADT: It was a bit of a personality crisis for me, toward the very end of Jingle Punks. My friend who works in television said, “Jared, don’t be sad, but in November or December, much like graduating from college… You’re going to feel sad and you won’t know why.” He was like, “It’s because this ready-made, fun, clownish thing you’ve done over the last 12 years of being everybody’s favorite dinner guest is going to end, and you’re going to actually have to come back, reinvented possibly, as an adult.” [Laughs.] It’s funny, on my old calls or at meetings, I would always wear a hat, because that was my thing. These days, if I put a hat on, it’s just for style. But if people call me Jingle Jared still, I look at that as a badge of honor. It’s not like I’m like changing my name from Puff Daddy to Diddy or something; it’s just really a career change. And I purposely went with a trade that didn’t have the word J in it.
No alliteration to be found, going into podcasting.
There’s none. [Laughs.] But it was a good run.
How long has Audio Up been up now?
A year and a half. (Before that) basically I was still on contract, because there’s this boring thing called an earn-out. So I wanted to wait until I was out of Dodge before I started anything new, and the earn-out ended Dec. 31, 2019. That’s when I started my business plan, and two months later we had raised most of our seed capital to get going. Then the pandemic hit and we’ve been really, really busy. It’s been an incredible series of circumstances in terms of what has occurred in the world of music in this short time we’ve been in the business, and in the world of media, and how the convergence of podcasting and audio have allowed me to really have this second phase of the second act of my music career. It looks much different, but the upside is far greater than anything I was able to accomplish in 12 years at Jingle Punks. It’s been a mixed blessing, the shakeup in the world.
How did the pandemic almost exactly coinciding with your startup change how you imagined things would go?
Because I’d been on a marathon, I said to myself that maybe after I raised the first a little bit of money, then I’ll take a vacation. And then, unfortunately, COVID hit — at which point every star that I could ever imagine working with became suddenly available, from my first projects being with Miranda Lambert, 24Kgoldn, Machine Gun Kelly, Iann Dior. These are people that normally would have been touring, or maybe giving us the Hollywood shuffle where it’s like, “Keep chasing me for a year and eventually you’ll catch me.” In the time where people were trying to think about ways to keep their clients busy outside of your 10 millionth livestream of an acoustic performance in someone’s bedroom, these musical podcasts came along. And they made sense, when we got a chance to pitch them to artists. It was another creator platform, with acting and storytelling. So it really kick-started our business. I know that it was a horrible, unfortunate time for many parts of the business, and we don’t want to glamorize the fact that there was a bit of a silver lining on the cloud here. But for us, we just figured out how to be as adaptive as possible.
And the vacation never happened, because we picked up steam, and instead of making three or four of these in a leisurely clip during our first year, we ended up putting about a dozen musicals into production, all of which were created vertically in our business. So we would write the music, we would perform the music, we would record it in our studios at the Audio Chateau, and then record all the acting here. Now I’m saying I am going to take a vacation this summer, just with a year and a half delay.
When you were starting the company at the beginning of 2020, did you feel like everybody knew that podcasts were a good bet to make, or was it a tough pitch?
No, for me, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a very tight relationship throughout even my previous era with a lot of different media companies. And I saw that television in a strange way was hitting the end of the road, like peak screen. I don’t mean the end of the road in terms of the whole business; I mean the ability to build an entrepreneurial venture within television, once all of the sort of corners were sort of rolled up by the ABCs, the Discoveries and the History Channels of the world. There was not a ton of room left for the type of entrepreneurs that you saw with the Brent Montgomerys and the Ben Silvermans. I thought three years ago that audio media would be the next major media shift. And by audio media, I mean, anything that fits into Apple Music, Spotify Music, Amazon Music, Audible. And that can be an audio book, a podcast, a song, instructions for how to set up your Ikea desk — it could be really anything.
I’ve said that the entertainment that I’ll bring to people in the audio realm will have a music component to it — not always, not 100%, but when it makes sense. Opportunistically, if we find other things that make sense in the world of audio, we will convert on that. There were already conversations prior to Audio starting where places like Sony were really going heavy into podcasting — but not music podcasts, because they couldn’t figure out yet how (existing) copyrights that their artists have (factor in). But I really looked at the model of some really interesting vertically integrated businesses like Pixar and Tyler Perry, and for us, being able to operate like a fully functioning studio during and hopefully after COVID is something that really set us apart.
So what makes Audio Up unique is creating entirely original music for these podcasts, and having the music publishing stay in-house.
You know, if a Hollywood producer goes, “I’m going to make a musical,” they still have to hire somebody at a great expense to make music for that, and that might mean they hire the Lopezes or anybody with a Broadway pedigree or the guys who do “La La Land” — you still have to pay for that. And after working for many years at creating music for musicals and music for TV and film, I thought, how do we complete the other side of the coin there? We start with the songs and then we build the stories around them. So instead of script writers and producers hiring musicians as tradespeople to make the musical, we (start with) the music side and we’re building the script writing from either within our walls or forging relationships with the screenwriters that are available us in Hollywood or New York or off-Broadway.
Is there any measure of success that you have for how well this has gone in the last year and a half?
There are always two or three measures. One is how much are people talking, in terms of buzzworthiness. And not a lot of people have a ton of knowledge yet of what goes into a podcast, but I find myself having to explain it less and less every day. The first few times I met with celebrities and I said, “We’re going to make a podcast,” they’re like, “Yeah, but I don’t want to do a talk show.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s not what we do. We’re making a movie for your ears.”
That’s one measure of it. And in regards to profile, I’m very happy with how quickly we’ve been able to tell our story. Financially is probably the part that every business owner or entrepreneur wants to be able to tote, and we’ve been able to generate money during a very difficult time for this business, and fast.
But for me, the real measure is: Have we been able to do stuff that hasn’t been done before? Launching “Prom in Hell” a few weeks ago, it became the No. 1 music podcast across all platforms, across Apple, across Spotify, and became the first podcast to ever have music on New Music Friday. To me, that’s a pencils-down moment where I go: Okay, we’ve tried a few of these things and it’s working.
And then Machine Gun Kelly working with us on “Halloween in Hell” to have a song that we wrote for that project that he opted to hold for himself, “Love Race,” which is now on the Billboard charts. That is really what I said I wanted to do, pointing to how TikTok becomes the genesis of like an “Old Town Road.” Do we have our “Old Town Road” yet? No, but are labels or publishers think about how it becomes a launch point, or even film and television studios being curious about how this becomes film and television IP of the future. I would definitely say that that’s the biggest measure for us. Because revenue’s important, and (telling your) story is important. But the idea of being market makers and being able to be innovative with how music gets discovered… I’m very bullish that in the same way that music videos or digital streaming was met by skepticism by labels, I think the people who embrace these new tools and technologies and modes of discovery I think are going to be really big winners of the next version of the music business.
And just seeing what can be done with smart speakers, with smart cars, smart environments of the future, and what’s happening with cell phone technology with your phone becoming less of a screen and more of a preference chip for people, I do believe that there will be a massive groundswell for people to create audio content. I think that we’re seeing the very, very beginning of an old new medium, which is radio for the Internet, and the podcast, which has been around for over a decade now, really coming into a 2.0 phase right now.
You mention smartphones becoming less about screens. Are you saying that maybe people are tired of watching stuff all the time and that the audio-only experience has benefits something with visuals doesn’t?
I do believe that. I come from a visual background. I started my career as a television editor. And I also learned from or followed the lead of some great people, like Bob Pittman, who I never used to understand why they went from MTV to radio — I actually found myself wondering that aloud during the first few years I worked with them. I realized that the ubiquity of audio is, on its surface, less sexy. It’s not a movie; it’s not “Fast and the Furious,” it’s its own thing. And most of what people consider audio is music. And the second thing that people think of is audiobook, which is really not sexy. But it’s ever evolving.
So I believe that during COVID we experienced a peak screen moment that I don’t think we go back to. Yes, there are going to be billions of people around the world, billions, who love their Netflix, their Amazon TV and their terrestrial television as well as cable. But, you do find people saying that they’ve hit the end of the road with, you know, people joking: “I’ve watched everything on Netflix.” And as much as that box continues to refill, there’s also, I think, a level of engagement that comes from audio, whether it’s listening to your favorite pop song or an audiobook that makes you smart or something like Masterclass with the video off, which is starting to become more and more embedded in people’s daily lives. It’s a thread that I’m pulling, but I believe that we are burning out on screens.
And if you look at what’s happened, the Chinese cell phone markets have always been a few years ahead of us, and they had great digital video and great photos before we did on their phones. And now one of the most popular applications for your ever-shrinking cell phone in China is Himalaya, which is a $16 billion valued company that’s a combination of a podcast business with Clubhouse. I find that fascinating. And I don’t if it’s just our industry in particular, but the Zooms have really made me not excited about more screen time after screen time after screen time. Even the way my kids are being educated on Zoom and stuff like that, I don’t know if there’s a term for it, but for me it’s screen burnout.
Let’s talk about the musical aspects for a minute. Are you still looking at it as primarily something where you’re creating original copyrights that you have a hand in?
Absolutely. I think the fun of this business is that really, for the first time, I have a ton of clarity as to why I’m writing music. I have my base of pretty standard business stuff during the day — phone calls, raising money, pitching new projects. But every night here, we’re firing up incredible musical ideas that I wake up in the morning thinking about, and then we sprinkle them across one of anywhere from 12 to 15 different musicals that we’re working on at the same time.
Jingle Punks had me plus 16 other composers, but this go-round we are really collaborating with our screenwriters as much as we are with other musicians. So we find ourselves having meetings where we’re talking about this upcoming “Ingleside Inn” thing, which is a mid-century romp in Palm Springs starring Jason Alexander. And we decided we really want to lean into Latin culture and Afropop type of stuff that would lend itself well to it, if this becomes a Broadway play… So we’re writing music, then talking to different mainstream, Latin artists saying, what do you think of the song? And that’s where our A&R process grows out of. Instead of saying, “Hey, record this song because we think it’s absolutely incredible and it’s going to change your career,” we say “Record this song because it’s going to be in a really cool property starring Jason Alexander,” or “Record this rock song because it’s going to be this really great time travel thing with Hero the Band, and Anthony Anderson’s in it and Trippy Red is in it.” That’s a long way of saying, yes, I am making music again. And this time it’s for a very specific purpose for our content, as opposed to the composing on “The Voice” or writing a theme song for a baseball team.
You have a hit single now with Machine Gun Kelly’s “Love Race.” What happened there?
How it came about was, again, we hired him for “Halloween in Hell.” It was very Roger Corman-esque: Hey, we’ve got to get these stars in this horror that we’re doing. The plot is “The Voice” meets “Hunger Games.” They wake up on Halloween and they’re in hell and they have to sing or die. And so everybody was going to do one or two songs: Machine Gun Kelly, Iann Dior, Dana Dentata of 24KGoldn. What happened was, toward the end of production, the second song I was doing with Machine Gun Kelly, he was recording it as a good option for the finale, and then he said, “I don’t think this one works for this project.” And I was like, “Oh man, he hates the song! We blew it.” And then a few months later, he re-emerges and says, “Check out this mix, what do you think of this? Can you send me some stems?” And then A&R at Interscope hit me and the rest sort of rolled out as it was.
But that was a precursor to what would happen next. Because by us being able to point to how we are a publishing company as well a label within Audio Up, I was able to point to the third iteration of that project, which is “Prom in Hell,” and go to Jxdn and Nessa (Barrett) and say, “Hey, I know you guys are coming off a hit. Why don’t you let me write your next song? We’ll put it in the podcast and we’ll make one of these songs your next single.” They raised an eyebrow to that and said, “We’ll see.” But we were able to point to the success for something else that is coming from our world (“Love Race”). And it made it easier for the Jxdns and Nessas to understand the vision of what we’re doing.
And now, as we’re having a moment where that song is out there, as well as all the songs from “Prom in Hell,” which did very well across playlists, on Spotify, Apple, Pandora, etc., we’re widening our net and interests to all sorts of genres beyond just alternative and the power-pop, power-punk thing. We have our upcoming second season of (the Nashville-set, country-soundtracked) “Make It Up as We Go.” We did season one with Miranda Lambert. And we have “Ingleside Inn,” which is like “Love Boat” in the desert.
And then one of the ones that I’m really excited about is “Egosystem,” which is kind of a flip of “Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” but in the hip-hop space. It’s about a rapper who’s in a coma. And the whole thing is going to be done with some of the biggest names in hip-hop. I can’t really say right now who they are, but as big as it gets, in terms of writers and producers. We are in the process of casting. We finished the eight scripts and we finished the album. Every time someone has seen it, they go, “Oh, this is like the internet version of ‘Hamilton’ or the podcast version of something like ‘Hustle and Flow.’” You know, I’m always on my toes trying to compare the projects to other things, but they really are just their own standalone ideas.
Who’s coming up with these ideas, conceptually?
Much like a Tyler Perry vertically integrated thing or like Pixar, it’s almost like we’re a three-headed monster. With my titles, whether it’s “Make It Up as We Go” or “Halloween in Hell” and “Prom in Hell” or “Egosystem” and “Uncle Drank,” which is coming up this summer, those are internally generated, usually loglined by me with scripts by others from my team. I went through the process of writing scripts for “Bear and a Banjo” (a project in 2019 with Poo Bear, T Bone Burnett and Dennis Quaid, before the official start of Audio Up), and I didn’t love the amount of time it took to do that, even though it was a very well-regarded project. So Jimmy Jellinek, our chief creative officer, oversees that with that side of the business.
And then shifting over into other people’s projects that come to us, “Ingleside” is an example. It was in development for years as a TV show with Lance Bass from ‘N Sync. And at a cocktail party, he pitched me, and I said, “I love this — what happened [with it being put into turnaround]?” Television development can take five years. We ended up doing it in six months, getting this thing to green light, from restarting the whole scripting process to optioning the book, and then writing all new music. That was a six-to-eight month process, as opposed to a five-year process in TV.
And then the third category is work for hire. Not all ideas have to generate from in-house. We can use our capabilities as a production studio and music studio to service other people.
You’ve mentioned Pixar and film studios a lot. Does that feel to you like what you’re doing at Audio Up?
Yeah, I’m a student of history. Actually, I feel like the time frame I should have been born in is vaudeville. I would have been outside selling sheet music offstage as well as going into performance. I do think of the MGM studio model. It’s weird, because MGM invested in us, and they’re a mature, different business now. But Jimmy Jelinek, who is my chief creative officer, talks about how in the old days the studios would go, “We’re making a wrestlin’ picture!” on a Monday and “Get me pages by Wednesday” and “Give me all the songs by Friday,” and they’d be shooting the next Monday. That’s kind of the best analogy to what we’re doing here. There was no greenlight process in the early days of the film studios. They followed instinct. They were like, “Westerns are big! Dancing is big! Put music on the screen because all of us own publishing companies!” The utility of music in our world has just become the big why for why we’re in business. … But I love reading about DreamWorks or Pixar, or even reading interviews with Francis Ford Coppola when he ran American Zoetrope in the early days. … We know what our next five years look like. We just have to make it come to life.
This has all been so ambitious. Did you have a lot of mad money left from being Jingle Jared that you were able to put into this? Or did you find a ton of investors right off?
The answer is both. When I started it, I didn’t want to lose any momentum, so I did, to a degree, fund the first three to four months of the company. But MGM, Primary Wave, Rich (Greenfield) at LightShed and a few other people really helped us get off the ground with the first portion of the business. It’s pretty well-documented out there that MGM was really our white knight to a degree. They came in with a really great thesis of how we were going to partner with them, with great flexibility to work with them and create titles for them and vice versa. So it was a blend of both.
How do you publicize narrative podcasts in the style that you make them? It feels like entertainment media isn’t sure yet where they fit in.
Press is good. It doesn’t always move the needle (commercially) as much as it moves the needle for us with optics of our business growing and people getting excited about partnering with us. The things that that really help are when we can align a few different things at once. With “Prom in Hell,” I knew on that Monday that we were going to have a shot of going top 10, at least in the music category, based on the fact that our RSS feed had already had a few shows launch off of it — we’d had “Halloween in Hell” and “Valentine’s Day in Hell” — and this already had like 20, 30,000 subscribers already, people listening to the trailer before the first episode went up. And then we did swaps with some big shows, our friends who do “Here Comes the Break,” which is the guys who do “27 Club” and “Disgracedland.” We ended up doing a media tradeout, where they read our promos and we read theirs, and it was good for them and good for us. It’s a new-fashioned media, the same way that on Instagram, people go like for like, share for share, but we’re doing it in this hyper-intellectual, intelligent, NPR universe where sometimes our chutzpah or our bravado could be a bit of a turn-off to some of the other people participating in the space.
You know, we’re very competitive. We want audience. We want things to sit at the top, because in this business of podcasting, the middle is not a great place to be, and the bottom is certainly not at all a great place to be. Whereas in television, if you’re in the middle or the bottom, you’re still making a great living. If you have a show on some down-the-dial network, they’re getting paid. In podcasts, if you’re not in the top 10 in some category, it is hard to get those CPM dollars and brand dollars to really help fund your business.
The third thing is having alignment with the labels. The fact that “Prom in Hell” was having support from the music side and it being on New Music Friday, I just saw how Spotify and Apple caring a little bit more, putting some editorial oomph into it, featuring it on the front page of their platforms. Those three different things — the promo swaps, the alignment with other media, the support of the DSPs — if you can get two out of those three things, plus some press each time, you’re doing great.
What’s the next goal or frontier for you?
I’m excited just to put out some good records this summer. We have “Uncle Drank”… You know, I signed Lil Dickie and discovered him early on and put him into the world of Jingle Punks. We’re doing the same thing in the world of country with a fake character named Uncle Drank. He’s the moron who invented bro-country and has songs like “The Third Wife’s a Charm.” That’s coming out this summer as part of a podcast through Warner Records and Audio Up. And then I’m really excited about the records I made with Hero the Band for “Sonic Leap.” I’m just excited to be working across different genres. I’m in the studio right now with someone that I think is going to be the Mexican Drake, who was brought to me by one of the big management companies out of Canada. I love meeting people day one when their profile is brand new and being able to find unique ways to prop up my ambitions as a songwriter and find unique ways to market people.
This interview is for Variety‘s mogul issue. Do you feel good with that term?
I’m still humble, but I’ll take it. If you guys insist, you can call me a mogul.
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