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Like a musical, but different

bearandbanjo (YouTube)

Podcast studio and media company Audio Up was founded in 2020 by musician Jared Gutstadt, who had sold his last company - which produced music for TV shows and commercials - back in 2015. Audio Up recently made headlines because the company had raised $10 million from investors. On top of that, Gutstadt was awarded the title of Podcast Producer of the Year by Adweek.

At the company's launch, media giant MGM invested a sum of $4.5 million. Audio Up creates podcasts with people such as Stephen King, James Ellroy, Michael Cohen, Anthony Anderson and Jason Alexander. You're probably thinking Audio Up is similar to Dutch podcast studios like Dag en Nacht Media and Tonny Media. What is so special about it? Read on and you'll find out. For starters, Audio Up is less focused on creating talk show-like podcasts and more interested in narrative productions, which are far costlier to make.

Jingle Jared
One thing of note is the personal vision that "Jingle Jared" discussed in his 2013 TED Talk. He says that he follows a golden rule known as WWWAD. It stands for "What would Weird Al do?" He is referring to Weird Al Yankovich, the imitator of many famous artists (including Michael Jackson and Nirvana, to name a few) who is a big source of inspiration for Gutstadt. Weird Al was once told by producers that he would never make it in the music industry, so he decided to go down an entirely different path. There is a reason why he named one of his albums: Dare to Be Stupid. With his company that produced jingles and theme songs, Gutstadt wanted to sell songs at TV trade shows, but he couldn't afford any of the expensive sponsorship packages. They then decided to stick their logo on urinals, which brought in new business left and right. Oh yes, he also acquired Yahoo as a client by asking Coolio to produce a rap track for their CEO, who thought the music at Yahoo was a disaster.

Jared Gutstadt, the creative mind behind the theme tune of the TV show Pawn Stars, has a vision for Audio Up that goes far beyond merely conquering the world of podcasts. He wants to bring sponsors, artists and publishers together around a strong narrative (in many cases about music). This core idea is best explained by looking at "Bear and a Banjo," the podcast - narrated by actor Dennis Quaid - that started it all. In this podcast, written by Gutstadt, we follow two musical friends as they travel through the history of music and sing about it. In Bear and a Banjo, Gutstadt sings together with Poo Bear, the writer of several of Justin Bieber's hits and the famous song Despasito. The duo also sang the music during South by Southwest and a medical company bought up all available advertising space for a fixed sum (this is linked to a song about developing mental health issues). They also sold the podcast to distribution partner I Heart Radio and the album rights to a record company. They released a new track after each episode of the podcast. On his website, Gutstadt says about his master plan: "I want to create a Marvel-like universe of musicals where the records themselves become the story foundation. Just like comics form the basis for the Marvel movies, I want these stories to be the foundation." Bear and a Banjo consists of a book, a tour, video productions and an album.

Gutstadt shares more insight into his vision in Variety. "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."

Many podcasts
For example, Machine Gun Kelly recorded a song for the podcast "Halloween in Hell." In Variety: "Do we have our 'Old Town Road' yet? No, but 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."

Uncle Drank
Another great example is Uncle Drank, an eight-part podcast written by Gutstadt himself that starts actor Gary Busey in the role of Uncle Drank. It is the story of a musician who started with nothing, scored a huge hit, made it big and then lost it all again. The story is told by Uncle's fictitious friend (voiced by Billy Zane) and, as before, an album has been released.

Good story
Let's take a closer look at the ingredients: Audio Up always begins with a good story; that requires a script, a narrator, actors and musicians who can write and perform the music. Audio Up owns the rights to this music. Then it is time to start selling: the advertising space has to be sold, the podcast has to be distributed and then you are basically ready to go. The podcast mainly serves as the foundation with which to build an audience. Next, you bring in a tour organiser, a record company and a film producer to complete the story. In essence, it is what J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, is doing; the only difference is that you are closer to your audience. Using a narrative podcast as the foundation for everything else offers myriad opportunities: the members of band X talking about their big break (and releasing an album, a book and a theatre tour about that), people who connect important events in their lives to music or a comedian talking about the process of creating their latest stage show.

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