Triller's New CEO on Its Metrics and Music Controversies and the Company's Fight Club Plans

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

Triller

Since acquiring a controlling stake in Triller in 2019, Hollywood financier Ryan Kavanaugh and his partner at Proxima Media, Bobby Sarnevesht, have transformed the company. They've made at least five acquisitions, expanded the scope of their platform far beyond short-form, user-generated music videos and reportedly explored going public. Earlier this month, they brought on a new chief executive, Mahi de Silva, who took the helm from Mike Lu, who is now president and focused on investor relations.

De Silva, who joined Triller's board at the same time Kavanaugh and Sarnevesht took control, offers a decidedly different tone than his predecessor Lu. The former executive for Verisign and most recently the head of Bay Area-based Amplify.ai, a digital chatbot tool that lets brands interact with customers, De Silva said he's focused on creating strong relationships with partners after some very public disputes.

Mahi de Silva

Mahi de Silva is Triller's new CEO.

Universal Music Group pulled its extensive catalog off the app in February, claiming that Triller "has shamefully withheld payments" and that its public statement about the situation was "removed from reality." Late last year, Wixen Music Publishing sued Triller for copyright infringement, and Triller has been called out in the past by the head of the National Music Publishers' Association for playing loose with its copyright obligations.

Triller, which launched in 2015, originally focused entirely on helping musicians create mobile video content but has expanded into livestreaming, live entertainment and even TrillerTV, which includes long-form content, including its own boxing brand, Triller Fight Club.

Along the way, Triller has faced accusations of inflating its user figures and flouting the need for proper music licensing.

Nevertheless, Triller has continued to grow its user base and balance sheet. As of late 2021, the company claimed around 18 million daily active users and 65 million monthly active users. That is well short of the many social media companies with which de Silva hopes to compete. dot.LA interviewed the new CEO to discuss his plans to change that, his views on Triller's public disputes and whether rumors are true that Triller plans to go public.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Triller now looks like much more than a short-form social video app. Was that the plan when Ryan and Bobby got involved and brought you in as a board member?

Mahi de Silva: The original thesis was to say, look, we think we can do this better than it being a simple short-form video app. If you think about the progression of YouTube to TikTok – and we have to give TikTok credit; they've done a pretty good job of taking content, making it super bite size, and making it easy to consume – we felt that we could help curate content, particularly bringing in tier-one, top-shelf content, and creating kind of a gateway to broader content, whether it be long-form or even movies. I think the reason Ryan brought me in was that back in the early 2000s, when I ran the wireless business at VeriSign, I built the largest ringtone business in the world. And it was about taking the power of music and making it into these super bite-sized things that were part of your mobile phone experience and it blew up and we built that into half a billion dollar a year business. So it was kind of a confluence of all of that, and being able to bring content and creators together to drive better awareness, better distribution, better monetization of that content.

Boxing isn't exactly a growth industry. Why was that the choice as the first step toward expanding your entertainment footprint beyond music?

Mahi de Silva: Boxing is iconic when it comes to pay-per-view. We saw an opportunity particularly in working with folks like Mike Tyson, to create really a tentpole event out of that. But we've taken a very different approach to boxing: the theatrical production of the event, the camera angles; it's using the most sophisticated technology that you'd see in very high-value production television and movies enter into the sporting arena. We also brought in lots of different artists, lots of different voices, that would appeal to an audience that wasn't a boxing fan. It's the ability to broaden the appeal of an event like this, and then really understanding how people respond to it.

To what extent do you see that expansion into different types and formats of entertainment playing into the Triller app?

Mahi de Silva: The center of our universe today is the app, so the first thing we do is we put the world's best creator tools into the app, so it's super easy to use the content you might have on your phone or the content you created, be able to integrate that with video, mix it, do effects, do filters. And then we do this unusual thing which is we make it easy for you to spread that anywhere and everywhere. You can send it to Instagram and YouTube and Snapchat and wherever you want to. We think by doing that, we are creating a different sort of distribution strategy for creators. And at the same time, we're creating tools where creators can track those posts, those shares, and draw more consumers into that content, and try to create a more lasting relationship with them. So it's not this, "let me go and build my Instagram audience, my Snapchat audience or my TikTok audience"; we're trying to enable them to think about, "okay, here's my content, here's where I distribute it, and here's my audience." We also want to help them monetize that in different ways. We think about the network effect starting with our app, but syndicating content all over the digital universe. And we also think that that snacky, 10-15 second video can be parlayed into more long-form experiences. You can do that even on our platform, moving from the short-form to TrillerTV, or being part of the content that we create for these pay-per-view types of experiences. Today that could be everything that's enabled in the FITE TV world, things that are created through the Verzuz world, and on these other platforms as well.

Sources have told me that Triller has been looking into going public, through a SPAC. Is that still the plan?

Mahi de Silva: We're at that magic threshold where as a company, we have the income statement – in terms of revenue, earnings, growth potential – we have everything that you need to be a U.S. listed public company. So whatever vehicle we use to get there –whether an IPO, a SPAC, a direct listing – we've been very thoughtfully exploring all those options, and doing the right thing for both our shareholders and what's in the best interest of creating a growth vehicle for the company.

Do you expect Triller to go public one way or another this year?

Mahi de Silva: The timeline is something that we're not wedded to, because the public markets have different envelopes of opportunity. But we certainly think that it's possible to do it this year.

Triller has faced accusations that it's inflated its user accounts and shunned the need for proper music licensing. Why do you think the company continues to find its way into the middle of so many controversies?

Mahi de Silva: Those types of controversies are almost inevitable in a) the fact that we play in a very competitive environment, and b) everybody has a different way of measuring things. I think where people tend to get a little sideways is that we've talked about total engagement numbers, and we've talked about app engagement numbers, and those numbers are different. One of the reasons I'm here as CEO is to bring a little bit more rigor into how we do planning, how we focus on priorities and what numbers are really meaningful from a monetization standpoint, and what we make public.

As to music licensing, the labels are some of our most important partners in this journey. We absolutely take music licenses very seriously. I think we have disagreements with some of these entities because they look at numbers that maybe may have been talked about, like the total engagement numbers, versus what happens with content on our app. But we are quickly converging to resolving some of those, I'd say, misunderstandings. We totally embrace license holders and we think we're one of their most important partners.

Universal Music Group had some pretty harsh words for Triller, calling the company's response to the spat over publishing rights "removed from reality." As a board member at the time, were you concerned about that? And as CEO, do you see yourself in a position of power to try to correct some of those characterizations?

Mahi de Silva: I stand behind the conduct of the company throughout the history, ever since I've been involved, ever since Ryan and Bobby have been involved, about being very forthcoming about the facts of our business. Never have we tried to deceive anyone in the industry, particularly those people that we have commercial relationships with. Many of us have been in this business and had to negotiate these licenses. I myself, like I mentioned, in the ringtone business, negotiated with all these companies. Unfortunately, there's a tactic that says that, look, I'm going to use public opinion or sentiment to shape the outcome of a commercial relationship. And it's unfortunate when it gets to that. There may have been some misunderstandings, but we will quickly resolve them and we'll continue to have a very fruitful relationship with the labels.

What kind of misunderstandings are you referring to?

Mahi de Silva: This notion of what are the total users, how many people are we touching, in terms of our reach, with our network and our content, versus what is the reach of the app and what should be counted in the licensing conversation.

But the criticism that Triller received was related to its statement that it didn't need a license with Universal (note: Triller's statement at the time included, "Triller does not need a deal with UMG to continue operating as it has been since the relevant artists are already shareholders or partners on Triller, and thus can authorize their usage directly. Triller has no use for a licensing deal with UMG."). What's your view about the conversation escalating to that level?

Mahi de Silva: People try to use the public and press sentiment to try to shape commercial relationships. It's unfortunate that we get into that kind of noise. It's all just kind of positioning; it's not based in any kind of reality. The fact of the matter is we work with a very, very broad spectrum of creators and content. We want to facilitate the legal exchange of that content across our community of creators and users. So we want to invite in the maximum amount of content on our platform. If there are certain parties that feel they need extraordinary compensation to have that content work in our ecosystem, then they need to be ultimately disabused of that idea. We're not about trying to create an un-level playing field for folks that create, produce and distribute content. We're trying to democratize that. We think that there are very sane, fair terms to do that. We've been able to agree with a vast majority of content licensors around that concept, and I'm very confident that we'll do that with just about everyone.

You mentioned you're going to be bringing more rigor to the numbers. Would you say your style is a little different than Mike's? Was he a little more prone to getting involved in some of these public disputes than you plan to be?

Mahi de Silva: I think Triller has assembled a really amazing team of operating execs. We all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses. I think the things that may be different is that a CEO kind of tries to set the tone, because our job is to create followership. As much as we like to lead, you have to have followers that buy into a vision and buy into a strategy. And I'm confident that we'll be able to bring that about.

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Cadence

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

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.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

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.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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Is AI Making the Creative Class Obsolete?

Steve Huff
Steve Huff is an Editor and Reporter at dot.LA. Steve was previously managing editor for The Metaverse Post and before that deputy digital editor for Maxim magazine. He has written for Inside Hook, Observer and New York Mag. Steve is the author of two official tie-ins books for AMC’s hit “Breaking Bad” prequel, “Better Call Saul.” He’s also a classically-trained tenor and has performed with opera companies and orchestras all over the Eastern U.S. He lives in the greater Boston metro area with his wife, educator Dr. Dana Huff.
​AI face surrounded by art
image courtesy of Andria Moore

As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, AI image and writing generators are becoming more widespread, even taking on creative tasks some once thought uniquely human.

These tools have limitations. AI-created images sometimes appear half-finished (look no further than DALL-E’s early renderings of faces), and AI-generated writing can sound like garble written by, well, a robot.

The surge in AI use for creative work like copywriting and developing art has some in the creative fields concerned about losing their jobs, going the way of the traditional animator at Pixar. Reports like one published in 2021 by San Mateo-based job discovery platform Zippia don’t help with statements like, “AI could take the jobs of as many as one billion people globally and make 375 million jobs obsolete over the next decade” and “half of all companies currently utilize AI in some fashion.”

Using AI to create open-source art available to the masses wasn’t on the radar for many until the release of the text-to-image creator DALL-E Mini last summer. The release coincided with the Washington Post’s profile of Google engineer Blake Lemoine, who claimed Google’s Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LAMDA) was sentient.

AI innovations like GPT-3—a large language model which uses deep learning to produce original text—are touted as solutions to a host of problems with little discussion about drawbacks or limitations. One notable example is the widely-used writing assistant Grammarly, which uses a combination of artificial intelligence techniques, including deep learning and natural language processing.

Hour One’s Natalie Monbiot says creatives shouldn’t be concerned about AI.

“It's normal to feel anxious about it, and it will be a realistic concern for those whose actual work can be done more cheaply, quickly, and consistently via machines,” says Monbiot, who is head of strategy for the avatar video generation platform.

“These new technologies are new tools,” she says, like “the pen, the typewriter, computers, and so on.”

Monbiot says that as AI becomes more instrumental to creators’ work, “there will be a higher premium on creativity (which is distinctly human) and less on execution.”

Kris Ruby of Ruby Media Group, a PR agency, tells dot.LA that users go wrong with AI writing products by trusting them to produce finished work. That “is not how the tools are supposed to be used,” Ruby says.

According to Ruby, users of text-to-image generation tools like DALL-E Mini and Midjourney make the mistake of “calculating the cost of the software subscription…but not the number of hours it takes to get even one useable image.”

Austin-based Jasper.ai’s CEO Dave Rogenmoser says these applications “eliminate the mundane elements of the content creation process.” Jasper develops multiple AI-powered writing tools and recently added a text-to-image creator to its suite.

“It isn’t a replacement for creators or the creative process,” he says, “rather, it’s a trusty sidekick in the content process that helps bring ideas to life faster and in a more efficient way.”

San Francisco-based Writer.com is an AI writing assistant focused on corporate clients. Its CEO, May Habib, tells dot.LA that creators have more to gain from the tools than they have to lose.

“Like any tool, it is about depth: AI writing tools are most powerful in the hands of those who are already pretty skilled, but still pretty useful for everyone,” Habib says.

“We don’t think AI is going to take away real writing jobs,” she continues, “but it will speed up ideation and drafting.”

Is there a danger of overselling AI before it can meet companies’ expectations?

Habib’s answer? Absolutely. Consumers should not expect artificial intelligence to solve all their problems. Applications powered by AI “can’t feel like magic,” she says; they have to “feel like technology."

AI expert Mikaela Pisani is the Chief Data Scientist for Los Angeles-based Rootstrap, which develops apps for startups. Asked if it was realistic for creators to worry about losing jobs to artificial intelligence, Pisani says, “AI is becoming increasingly creative” and “can help creatives generate content ideas at scale.”

When it comes to fears that AI might replace creators, Pisani notes that “Creativity is defined as 'the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas.’”

“To think outside of the box is implicitly hard to do for machines,” Pisani says, “since AI are trained on available information. Therefore, our creative brain won't be replaced by AI in the near future, since it is too challenging for machines to recreate innovation. By extension, AI does not create a final piece of art, but it can be used as a co-creator.”

Pisani’s perspective isn’t that different from execs behind AI-fueled startups. She says that because artificial intelligence can “multitask rapidly, it could also be a source of inspiration for artists.”

“Writers, musicians, designers, or artists,” Pisani continues, “shouldn't be afraid of being replaced but should make themselves aware of these AI tools that can help their creativity reach a new level of scale."

So far, the consensus seems to be that AI is just an instrument, not a replacement for human artistry.

It’s still early, though, and artificial intelligence use is evolving fast. Just last week, Vanity Fair reported that 91-year-old James Earl Jones is retiring from voicing Darth Vader for future Star Wars shows and movies. His replacement? Respeecher, AKA “voice cloning powered by artificial intelligence.” The Ukraine-based company says its product “leverages recent revolutionary advances in artificial intelligence” to create “voice swaps [that] are virtually indistinguishable from the original — and never sound robotic.”

One thing seems clear: AI is here to stay.

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