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Insider: August 5, 2021 — Quake raises additional funds, HBO Max’s App-Exclusive Audio, An Independent Music Label?

Uhhh… So, this is unsettling. And not to mention presumably in violation of likeness clauses, or something of the like?

Quake Media raises additional $3.5 million.Axios reported on Tuesday that the subscription podcast company (no, not that one) has raised another funding round that would add to the $2.5 million they had already secured last summer, bringing the startup’s total funding up to $6 million.

If you need a refresher: Quake specializes in talk programming within the political category — having signed talent like Soledad O’Brien, Gretchen Carlson, Andrew Gillum, Laura Ingraham, and Mike Huckabee — though the company has ambitions to eventually expand into other areas like sports. As noted when I first wrote about Quake in summer 2019, the startup was founded by former political operative Doug Rosenberg, and its existing investors include WndrCo, the investment firm co-founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg. This new money seems to largely come from technology types, including Cameo CEO Steven Galanis.

The state of Quake’s business, almost a year in, remains unclear. Executives have only told Axios that the app sees “close to a 90% retention rate on monthly churn after free trial expires,” with no mention of the general size of the user base. The service is priced at $2.99 per month.

How Long Gone is going on tour, signs with indie music label? I don’t think I’ve discussed How Long Gone — which has been described, alternately, as a culture podcast, a podcast about brands, a bro-cast, a vibe-cast, and so on — in this newsletter, partly because I’m surprised at myself for slinking back to it so frequently. (As much as I fashion myself as a champion of hipster Middle America, maybe I’m actually a coastal elite bro? Whatever.)

In any case, the show announced something pretty interesting yesterday. First of all, they’re going on tour in the fall, adding yet another data point to the trend that live podcast shows are back in full swing. (On a broader note, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw had a great column yesterday looking at the full-swing-return of live music, which is another big picture point worth clocking.) Who knows how long this might return might last, given the growing concern of the Delta variant — and not to mention the other variants encroaching from the wings — but for now, here we are.

Secondly, How Long Gone seems to have signed a deal with Jagjaguwar, the independent music label that’s home to acts like Big Red Machine, Sharon Van Etten, and Moses Sumney. The deal apparently includes the production of an album containing How Long Gone interviews, and I imagine the label will also be assisting in booking musical acts that will be joining the podcast during its live circuit. So that’s something to watch.

For greater context: How Long Gone’s principal interestingness as a podcast is its prominence as an Anchor power user. (The show appears top-of-page on the app site.) They also have a spin-off, How Long Gone Radio, a music curation program that makes use of Anchor’s mixed music-talk format feature. 

HBO Max is expanding its audio activities, and in addition to commissioning more of the typical companion and marketing-oriented projects, the video streaming service is also investing in original scripted audio works.

Well, work, as in just one, for now There’s only that has been announced so far — Batman: The Audio Adventures, which will star Jeffrey Wright as the Caped Crusader along with Rosario Dawson and John Leguizamo. This development shouldn’t come as a surprise. To begin with, there have been reports that HBO Max had intended to feature podcasts on its app as far back as 2019, and the existence of HBO Max’s audio Batman project in particular was first reported by the Hollywood Reporter back in February. Interestingly enough, it’s worth noting that there are two Batman projects flying around the podcast universe; the other is Batman Unburied, which comes out of the multi-year partnership between Spotify and Warner Bros/DC.

So, not exactly an undifferentiated affair, but there is one curious detail worth noting: when HBO Max’s Batman podcast goes live sometime in the fall, it won’t be widely distributed through normal RSS feeds or the universe of existing podcast apps, instead being available only for consumption on the HBO Max app itself… despite the fact that app is, you know, video-first, and doesn’t seem particularly ready for primetime, audio-wise.

As Ashley Carman at The Verge points out:

The app in its current form is clearly designed for video functionality, and right now, listening to a podcast in the app, like the Chernobyl companion show, requires users to search for it manually — there’s no dedicated podcast landing page. Also, locking your phone shuts off the podcast, and when open, the video player just keeps a static image on-screen advertising the ability to listen to the show on other podcast apps. It’s clearly not a fully built-out podcast experience. The team says it plans to allow for locked phone listening at some point, but didn’t commit to a date when that rollout might happen.

I don’t know, man. I’m no business wiz, but this seems like an awkward, ham-fisted attempt at diversification. The most charitable reading is to view the Batman project as a pure data-generating, educational endeavor for HBO Max as it seeks to mirror Netflix’s efforts at pushing into alternative lines of businesses, driven in large part by the imperatives of its new corporate overlords. Which may well be productive for the video streaming service, but for consumers — aside from Batman die-hards, and speaking separate from the actual quality of the show itself — this gambit feels like it has a high probability of being a waste of time.

The Longform Podcast joins the Vox Media Podcast Network. In the new arrangement, Vox Media will take over responsibilities for ad sales, marketing, and distribution, while the podcast itself will continue to be produced by Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer.

I should say: contrary to a few comments and write-ups I’ve seen floating around about this, I’m told this isn’t an acquisition. Longform will continue to be owned by Linsky (who, as part of Pineapple Street, works for Audacy) and Lammer (who’s still off doing a universe of other independent projects).

My understanding is that it’s basically the same deal as the partnership that Vox Media had previously struck with Gastropod, which, again, remains independently-owned. Also: pretty curious that Vox Media is going out and striking more of these deals with independent shows. Could be interesting.