Clubhouse App logo displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Sheldon Cooper/SOPA … [+]
Clubhouse is many things to musicians and music pros: a virtual music conference with endless panels, a marketplace for promoters of bands and brands, a jam session, musical theater for the ears, and a late-night hang.
Monetization and misinformation challenges haven’t muted Silicon Valley’s newest smash hit, which uses the world’s oldest social medium: the voice … sometimes singing in groups.
But a pop-up Lion King musical that became one of Clubhouse’s biggest publicity scores yet — helping to slap-shot its popularity to a near hockey stick-shaped rise — was almost miraculous in solving the tricky business of streaming distanced musicians and vocalists as if they were in the same room.
The show also streamed twice without Disney’s permission but has drawn no complaints from the notoriously litigious studio, says Noelle Chesnut Whitmore, who organized the shows along with producer Bomani X, whom she met on Clubhouse.
Arguably, the pair of Lion King performances needed no direct licensing from Disney, because its producers didn’t record, and the app’s so-called blanket licenses — similar to ASCAP and BMI licensing for radio stations — covered their acts.
“We’re planning an even bigger follow-up,” Whitmore says. “A global jam session where we’ll have 34 countries participating.”
No small feat, given that live performances on the web get wobbly because of latency, a signal delay caused by wifi, wires and wide distances. Latency can cause a bassist in Brooklyn to play three beats behind a drummer in Detroit, or two bars ahead of a keyboardist in Katmandu.
When the Rolling Stones’ performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” last April from their separate homes for the One World: Together at Home initiative, it wasn’t a real-time simulcast but stitched to perfection afterwards, partly given away by Charlie Watts’ impressive “air drumming.”
But the lo-fi Lion King production was at least partially live and unedited, says Whitmore. Over the pre-recorded Hans Zimmer score, singers sang in real time into i-Phones and a few musicians played through mobile interfaces like iRig, she says. Live-streaming full orchestra and choir, all at a distance, would have been nearly impossible.
But not completely impossible. New technology can lower latency below 20 milliseconds, a delay undetectable to the human ear, says Ian Howell, voice faculty at the New England Conservatory. He’s a proponent of Soundjack, an app he says can put a choir spread around the country on top of the same beat. But the app currently requires special equipment and ethernet wiring instead of wifi, which may deter a makeshift musical on Clubhouse. And rehearsing and live-streaming a socially-distanced orchestra would cost a lion king’s ransom.
Whitmore says the performers worked their way around the latency problem — which was a 10-second delay for some — through sheer determination, lots of rehearsal and familiarity with each other and the material. “It just becomes so normal that you don’t even pay attention to it,” she says. “We didn’t need to count seconds or anything, you just know when to come in,” she says.
“As long as the leader stays consistent, then everyone else’s brains just adjust to the delay,” says Bomani, who also hosts virtual jam sessions on Clubhouse.
“I think it’s cool that so many people tuned in and Disney didn’t stop it,” says songwriter-producer Jon “Street” Yip of the Stereotypes, who won two Grammys in 2018 for Bruno Mars’ #1 Billboard hit “That’s What I Like.”
“I think musicals on Clubhouse will become a thing,” Street says. The Stereotypes have been writing and recording songs using the Zoom video conferencing app, which has latency and transmission issues like Clubhouse, but it’s tricky, he says.
“For a recent songwriting session,” says Street, “we played the top-liners [vocalists] a bunch of tracks we had already recorded and then they selected the one they wanted on their end. They muted themselves while they were laying down melodies, and then they played it back and together we chose which ones sounded best. When they were ready, everyone just logged off and they cut on their own, sent us back the vocals, and then we had it.”
Aside from music creation and performance, Clubhouse is true to its name as a members-only locker room where the latest music news and gossip gets tossed around.
“You have a certain sense of freedom that you don’t have on video, because you don’t show your face and body language,” says Olivier Chastan, who heads Iconic Artists Group, in collaboration with industry icon Irving Azoff. “It’s a bit like late night talk radio.”
And some on the platform feel free enough to verbally poke a pop star or scarify Spotify. Comments uttered on Clubhouse are less likely to come back to haunt someone, because they usually evaporate, unlike Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where later-regretted fulminations may be findable forever.
Case in point: Distrokid, one of the largest independent music aggregators.
In a Clubhouse room, an artist reportedly complained bitterly about allegedly unpaid royalties, and soon thousands were listening to complaints about the company. Some said Distrokid’s standard practice of offering International Sound Recording Codes (ISRCs) to those who need them was somehow nefarious and intended to wrest control of recordings from artists. Soon Distrokid’s founder Philip Kaplan dropped in to try to dispel misinformation. But that only prompted another room to pop up, this one called Distrokid Be Lying On Clubhouse, according to the report.
The Distrokid dust-up may have come as music to the ears of competitors, including AWAL, which is being acquired by Sony Music, according to an announcement issued around the same time. But little of the debate is publicly archived.
Clubhouse temporarily records all conversations for public safety investigations but usually deletes them soon after a room ends if no complaints are reported, according to the app’s terms of service.
Almost any time of day or night, Clubhouse hallways lead to rooms in mid-discussion about the business, law and culture of music, most much more polite than the Distrokid room, even when subjects turn controversial.
In one room, white appropriation of Black music was the potentially flammable topic. Eric Weinstein, a popular and thoughtful voice on Clubhouse, and a managing director of Thiel Capital, recalled as a youth seeing songwriter Otis Blackwell railing in the middle of a performance to a white audience that they probably didn’t realize it was Blackwell, and not Elvis Presley, who wrote the hits “All Shook Up” and “Return To Sender,” but that the audience identified the songs with the white star, not the Black creator.
When asked how he could defend white artists becoming famous off of songs penned by relatively unrecognized Black artists, Weinstein said: “We live in a country drenched in Black invention. So, forgive me, but there is no way to avoid people who [are not black] appropriating it, because Black cultural invention is simply too profound.”
Down the hallway, another room called Last Night A DJ Saved My Life! had VIP rappers The Game and D-Nice holding court on early hip hop days and the current scene, with openings for fans to say hello and ask direct questions.
“You can have a VIP meet and greet every single day with your fans, if you want to,” says Phil Quist, a music agent at CAA, who signed the Chain Smokers. “Obviously every artist isn’t going to do that, but artists who want to can create a real connection with fans.”
Further down the hall, strains of cool jazz, classic R&B and cocktail conversation swirled around a speakeasy called the Cotton Club, hosted by Bomani X. And at the end of the hall was the Lullaby Club, where soft songs and speech helped restless souls drift off to sleep.
Like radio, Clubhouse stays in the background, so eyes can remain on the road, roam the room, or rest, unlike video-based social media that require more visual attention and swiping and clicking. This, together with the feeling of companionship in isolated times, seems to make the app the biggest hit of the moment on social media.
Even without subscription fees, advertising or any other apparent means of monetization, Clubhouse was reportedly valued at $1 billion in its most recent round of funding.
“This is classic Silicon Valley,” says Eric Galen, music and media attorney and manager. “Get a lot of funding, get the eyeballs — or in this case ear drums — and then figure out how to make money later.”
And when that happens, Clubhouse can expect to hear from the lions of the music industry, roaring for royalties and revenue share.
I am a Los Angeles-based music and media attorney and I write and speak about music business and legal trends. From recording and publishing deals to copyright disputes