How LA-Based Super Hi-Fi Hopes to Change Streaming Audio Using AI

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

How LA-Based Super Hi-Fi Hopes to Change Streaming Audio Using AI
  • Super Hi-Fi's AI transports the skills of a trained radio DJ to digital music playlists. Spotify's former head of research Tristan Jehan recently joined as an advisor
  • Founded in 2018 by veterans of the digital music business, the company's customers include iHeartMedia, Sonos, Peloton and Octave Music Group
  • Its leaders envision a new audio listening experience — where everyone has a personalized, curated playlist, with artful, AI-generated sequences and layers of music, voice clips (e.g. news and podcasts), and branded messaging that drives new revenues to the music industry

Before the beat from "Baby Got Back" that underpins Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" fades to silence at the song's end, a sound clip pops up, right on rhythm and with a similar energy, telling the listener what streaming service they're listening to. A new track seamlessly takes the baton from the Minaj song before the brief branded message concludes, and continues the upbeat mood as a music bed for a rapid sequence of audio clips – first a voice imploring listeners to get hyped, then a word from Kanye about his interview with Beyoncé, a snippet from that interview, and another in-the-spirit advert – before blending into the intro of the next song, Kanye's "Stronger": all of it interwoven as if it were a single track produced in a recording studio.


It is the automation of this art, once the preserve of skilled radio DJs, that Super Hi-Fi is bringing to the digital music industry. In doing so, the L.A.-based company thinks it can help music services and artists make more money, and give listeners a new and improved way of experiencing audio.

Super Hi-Fi's customers include iHeartMedia,

Founded in 2018 by a group of digital music business veterans, with customers that include iHeartMedia and Sonos, SHF recently announced that Tristan Jehan – a pioneer of applying AI and machine learning to music, most recently as head of Spotify's research team – has joined the company as an advisor.

Streaming, which has been powered in part by Jehan's work on recommendation algorithms, may have saved the music industry from piracy-fueled devastation, but Super Hi-Fi's founders believe companies like Spotify, Apple and Amazon have missed the mark in some important ways.

"We think digital services forgot that the primary user interface is your eardrums, not your eyeballs," Zack Zalon, Super Hi-Fi's chief executive, told dot.LA.

As a result, a listener cannot readily distinguish one service from another, he said. Visual branding can help, but especially as smart speakers grow more popular, listeners will have an increasingly difficult time knowing whether they are tuned in to Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora or any other service.

Zalon and Brendon Cassidy, another co-founder and Super Hi-Fi's chief technology officer, both built digital radio services for CBS, AOL, Yahoo and Cricket Wireless. They contrast the uniformity of streaming services to broadcast radio stations. Two stations in the same city, focusing on the same type of music, still tend to have their own personality, they say.

"It's not just the music," Zalon said. "It's the space between the songs that the radio stations are filling and (thereby) connecting with listeners in an emotional way."

Beyond differentiating the source of the sound, SHF believes that using the space between songs — as radio stations do — can transform the listening experience. Leaving aside stitching in voice clips and layering in all other kinds of audio, they say that even sequencing songs together is fraught with issues.

The two most common types of transitions that digital services use between songs are crossfading and brief pauses.

Pauses create dead air, which iHeartMedia's chief product officer Chris Williams told dot.LA is the "enemy of radio," because it takes listeners out of their flow and puts them in a position to make a decision: namely, whether to keep listening or not. "I want to minimize that," Williams said.

As for crossfading – which Zalon said tends to be applied uniformly across tracks, such as a six-second blend of the end of one song with the start of the next, irrespective of the songs' particulars – it doesn't always work. Williams said crossfading can be done without jarring the user or disrespecting the songs about 50% of the time, and ever less so as longer song lead-ins give way to snappy intros aimed at grabbing listeners' attention from the first note.

"Crossfades create crashes," he said.

A radio DJ, by contrast, is trained to avoid these issues.

"The techniques of trained radio DJs are pretty complicated," Zalon said. "Super Hi-Fi is AI that has all the skills of a trained radio DJ."

This AI is designed to help customers like iHeart provide listeners with custom playlists that artfully blend one song with the next – no matter which song it is – and incorporate additional sonic elements like branded logos, interview clips, voice segments and more to eliminate dead air while respecting the artistry of the underlying songs, and to potentially drive streaming revenues back up to or beyond the levels that CDs generated in their peak.

How Does It Work?

As Super Hi-Fi's first customer, iHeartMedia helped the company fine tune its AI model and algorithms.

"Their pool of some of the world's best music programmers and on-air DJs became in a way like our QA partners," Zalon said.

By now Super Hi-Fi has "fingerprinted" iHeart's entire music catalog – tens of millions of tracks, Williams said – to identify the songs' underlying characteristics: features like volume, rhythm, mood, vocal texture, tempo and more. Lots more.

"The data we have on the music takes up more file space than the music itself," Zalon said.

Super Hi-Fi's AI has also fingerprinted each of iHeart's 700 styles of sonic logo; there's a country version of the "You are listening to iHeart…", a hip-hop version, a reggae version, and so on.

So, too, with any audio file that any customer may want to include in a playlist.

"The real power of the AI is to understand all the content with enough depth to make pretty much any output decision that any service might want," Zalon said.

Results have been good for iHeart. Williams reported that since they've rolled out Super Hi-Fi across their streaming services, the company has seen listening durations double.

"That increases ad impressions," he said. "There are clear business upside reasons beyond aesthetically creating a better experience...and [achieving] clear differentiation [from competitors]."

The Next Song

After having recently reeled in Sonos and its new streaming service as a customer, Super Hi-Fi has its sights set on bigger streaming fish. Jehan may help them get to Spotify, and they'll also look to Apple Music.

Chief business officer John Bolton told dot.LA that Spotify's expansion into podcasts makes them a prime candidate to benefit from Super Hi-Fi's service. He pointed to their "Your Daily Drive" product – a mix of music they know listeners like and relevant news – and said he could see that sort of playlist growing to include podcast snippets, the weather, and various other forms of audio, all tailored to the listener's preferences and location.

"If we see this happen at scale you'll start to see listening experiences become something very different," said Bolton, who helped found Super Hi-Fi after leaving ByteDance, which acquired his social media-meets-music startup Flipagram.

Streaming platforms may well be working on their own blended-audio AI solutions, but Williams says iHeart has benefited by getting in with Super Hi-Fi early.

"Two years from now everyone should have this solution or some version but we'll have already taken this to the next step, so it gives me the opportunity to get ahead," he said.

Music lawyer Ed Buggé, partner at L.A.-based entertainment law firm Hertz Lichtenstein & Young, thinks Super Hi-Fi "could be an attractive target for digital streaming platforms (DSPs) as they look to differentiate their platform offerings."

Spotify's former chief economist agreed. Will Page said a major audio streamer could look to Super Hi-Fi as a way to stand out in a market of look-alike services competing for the same customers.

"All these services offer the same 60 million tracks for the same $9.99 price point. With so much similarity, the value of distinctiveness goes up," he said. "The end game could see it being acquired by a DSP."

More than Music

Even if Super Hi-Fi doesn't lure the big catches in streaming, it can serve other verticals, including digital fitness. Peloton is already a customer.

"They wanted something different," Zalon said. "They want to make sure there's no loss of energy between songs; there's nothing worse than having music drop off in the middle of a workout. So we've been working with them on the roadmap to use the AI to help create an exercise experience that never loses its energy." In addition to blending songs, this will include voice-over instructions from Peloton's instructors.

Retail music is another area the company's targeting. Octave Music Groups, which operates Apple Music for Business and manages the music that customers hear at Starbucks, along with many other bars, restaurants and stores throughout North America and Europe, is another Super Hi-Fi customer.

Just as a radio station manager works with a DJ to set ground rules for branding the station through its sonic choices – running a branded message every 15 minutes, a news break every 30, and keeping segues tight but breezy, for example – each customer works with Super Hi-Fi to customize the AI to fit its desired style.

In exchange for this AI-plus-support service, Super Hi-Fi receives a licensing fee. The company would not disclose its prices or finances, though Bolton said Super Hi-Fi has not raised any outside funding.

He thinks using AI to bring a new level of real-time curation, presentation and personalization can attract more advertising and subscription revenues to the music industry. That's all the more important in an era when live performance has evaporated.

    "We have a big, bold vision and tech that can transform playlists into listening experiences that we think will eventually make the industry much more money and provide a much better product for consumers," he said.

    ---

    Sam Blake primarily writes about media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter at @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA

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    🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

    Christian Hetrick

    Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

    🔦 Spotlight

    In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

    Image Source: Disney

    Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

    For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

    🤝 Venture Deals

    LA Companies

    • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
    • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
    • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
    • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
    • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
    • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
    • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
    • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
    • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

    LA Venture Funds

    Actively Raising

    • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
    • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
    • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
    • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
    • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

    If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

    Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

    Christian Hetrick

    Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

    Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

    Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

    Image Source: Anduril

    Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

    Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

    The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

    Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

    Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

    Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

    CB Insights

    LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

    While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

    🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

    Christian Hetrick

    Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

    Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

    🔦 Spotlight

    Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

    Image Source: SpaceX webcast

    What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

    • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
    • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
    • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
    • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
    • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

    Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

    Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

    🤝 Venture Deals

    Just Announced

    Check back next week!

    LA Exits

    • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
    • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

    Actively Raising

    • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
    • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
    • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
    • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
    • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

    If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

    📅 LA Tech Calendar

    Sunday, January 7th

    Wednesday, January 10th

    • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
    • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

    Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

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