Written by Sarah Perez

Amazon’s Audible expands its original programming with new comedy series

Over the past few years, Amazon -owned Audible has been expanded beyond audiobooks to include more original content, like the short-form audio programming offered through Audible Channels, for example. Today, the company announced a new partnership for original comedy projects, in collaboration with Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video. The first production from this effort is “Heads Will Roll,” a program created, produced by and starring Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne.

The production itself is a workplace comedy about an evil queen in search of peace and quiet. It will also feature performances by Meryl Streep, Tim Gunn, Peter Dinklage, Andrea Martin, Carol Kane, Audra McDonald, Aidy Bryant, Alex Moffat, Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, Steve Higgins, Bob the Drag Queen, Esther Perel and “Queer Eye’s” Fab Five.

Following “Heads Will Roll,” the next production will be “63rd Man,” from senior SNL writer Bryan Tucker and Zack Phillips. WWE Superstar John Cena will star as Billy Foster, a college football star who’s just barely not good enough to play in the pros.

The two new shows will join Audible’s collection of original content which today includes programming in areas like journalism, literature, theater, romance, sci-fi and fantasy and kids. Last year, Audible announced plans to partner with Reese Witherspoon’s media empire, Hello Sunshine, on original content in addition to the Reese Book Club on Audible, but those originals haven’t yet arrived, it seems.

Though its operates as a separate business unit from Amazon, the retailer leverages Audible’s programming to serve as another perk for Amazon Prime subscribers. Audible Channels, for example, are available to Prime members for free.

In addition, Audible content now ties into Amazon’s Alexa business, too. In addition to offering Audible’s audiobooks and originals on its Amazon Echo devices, the company recently launched choose-your-own-adventure stories on Alexa.

The launch dates for the new comedy series have not yet been announced.

SoundCloud adds a music distribution service to its premium subscriptions

Last year, Spotify took a stake in music distribution service DistroKid. Apple acquired Platoon. And today, SoundCloud announced it’s adding its own music distribution tools to its premium accounts aimed at artists, SoundCloud Pro and SoundCloud Pro Unlimited. With SoundCloud Premier distribution, artists can upload their tracks to all major music services, including Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Tencent, YouTube Music and even Instagram, directly from SoundCloud.

The service, which is now launching into beta, is available at no extra cost to existing premium account holders.

The company notes this is the first distribution tool built directly into a streaming platform, but that’s not likely to remain the case for long. When Spotify invested in DistroKid in October 2018, it said that it would soon roll out a tool that would allow musicians to upload their tracks to the service through the Spotify for Artists platform. And Apple’s acquisition of Platoon seems to indicate the company wants to go in a similar direction in terms of offering more tools and services to artists.

However, SoundCloud touts the benefits of its own Premier distribution service as a means of centralizing artist payouts, from all music services – itself included. Via SoundCloud Premier, artists can monetize their music through a revenue-sharing program. With the distribution service, artists can now publish their tracks more broadly – and SoundCloud says it doesn’t take a cut of the payouts from the other services.

In addition, the company highlights the tool’s feature set, noting how it allows artists to make changes and correct mistakes on the fly, rather than having to go through customer service as on some other distribution services. It even offers to help artists currently using alternatives like DistroKid or TuneCore to switch over, so they don’t lose their stats.

The ew distribution tool is rolling out to eligible Pro ($6/mo) and Pro Unlimited ($12/mo) subscribers who are 18 years of age or older, creators of original music, have zero copyright strikes, and at least 1,000 monetizable track plays, the company says.

Creators will be notified by email and in-product notifications when the tool becomes available to them.

SoundCloud had once aimed to compete on the same playing field as streaming music giants like Apple Music and Spotify, but may be waking up to the fact that it can offer more value by investing in tools that artists need.

It wouldn’t be the first company to make this sort of shift either. In the video space, Vimeo once aimed to compete with YouTube, before changing its focus entirely to become a hub for tools for video creators. That pivot has paid off for Vimeo – this month, parent company IAC noted Vimeo saw a 28 percent increase in revenue during the past quarter.

SoundCloud, however, has progressed slowly, including on monetization and other changes – allowing competitors to catch up or surpass its own offerings. That could be the case with music distribution, too, as Spotify’s soon-to-launch tools could outdo SoundCloud’s in the near future.

HiHello raises $2.5 million to finally fix contact management

HiHello, the latest startup to take aim at business cards with its own digital alternative, has raised a $2.5 million seed round to continue its efforts in building a better contact management solution designed for the mobile era. The new financing was led by August Capital, K9 Ventures and TenOneTen Ventures, and will see Villi Iltchev from August Capital joining the HiHello board as a result.

The round closed last year, but hadn’t been announced.

The now six-month-old startup was dreamed up by K9 Ventures founder Manu Kumar, along with co-founder and Caltech and Columbia alum Hari Ravi. Notably, Kumar has been trying to solve the problem of contact management for years, having co-founded and sold his startup CardMunch to LinkedIn — a decision he later regretted, saying last year he was “still peeved” at LinkedIn for ruining and eventually killing the product. (LinkedIn later pawned off its ashes to Evernote.)

With HiHello, Kumar is giving contact management and business networking another shot. Version 1 of the app offered a simple solution that lets users exchange contact information by way of scanning a QR code with their phone’s native camera app, or by sharing information using SMS or email. The mobile app lets you create custom profiles in order to share with another person either your work contact information, personal details or any other custom profiles you want.

As HiHello enters its next phase, the company aims to pick up some of the better ideas from past apps in this space — like Plaxo, Bump and even CardMunch — while also overcoming their limitations.

For example, Bump had once required that both people have the app installed in order to work. HiHello today already works if only one person has the app. But it will roll out a more elegant solution for when two HiHello users are present. A “Nearby” screen in the app will allow people to share contact information with one another based on a dual opt-in system.

From Plaxo, HiHello will adopt the idea of automatically updating contact information for everyone who has the user in their address book when information is changed.

The startup is taking a different approach to privacy than Plaxo did, saying it won’t spam or sell user data, nor will it ask permission to access your contacts. Instead, HiHello will act as an address book provider whose database of contacts you can add to your device. This keeps it isolated and separate from other address sources, and ensures it won’t “mess up” your own contacts in the process.

“There will be a base level of features that are available for free, but our goal is to build a sustainable (and profitable) company that delivers value to customers,” says Kumar. “The full functionality will come with paid subscription to HiHello. We’re never going to sell users data or rely on advertising and such. We’re not ready to talk about pricing and other details just yet, as we’re still in build mode.”

Kumar says he doesn’t want to make the same mistake he did with CardMunch. Instead, he wants the company to be sustainable, “so that we never have to sell HiHello to an acquirer who will then proceed to ruin the service and kill it.”

Yep, that LinkedIn deal still stings, it seems… Hopefully HiHello will meet a better fate.