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SYNG Doesn’t Want to Be Just Another Speaker Company

Can’t make the show? Then the next best way to hear your favorite artists is through a Syng speaker.

We saw – or rather, heard – this firsthand. During a recent stop by Syng’s (pronounced: sing) headquarters in Venice Beach, SPIN wanted to put the company’s trademark speaker – officially dubbed the Cell Alpha – to the test.

And the best way to do that? By blasting Dillinger Escape Plan, obviously.

Sonically, the speakers lived up to the challenge. About 20 seconds into “Milk Lizard,” it felt as if the disbanded metal band was putting on a reunion show in your living room; the drums snapped crisply and with precision, the bass rumbled with the force of an Eliminator motorboat engine, and Ben Weinman’s guitar sliced through the room like a fork through flan. The only thing missing was having to dodge the spittle coming from Greg Puciato’s lips as he seemingly belted the song out three feet from your face.

(Credit: Courtesy of Syng)

The demo was conducted in a modestly-sized room with wood floors and four Syng speakers being used; one tabletop speaker in the rear of the room, two speakers on poles that were separated by about 12 feet in the front of the room, and one Cell Alpha hanging in the center of the room like a futuristic disco ball. (The table stand speaker costs $2,399, the floor stand speaker costs $2,499, and the ceiling mount is sold separately for $349.) From a design standpoint, the speakers are black orbs that have a flat top and bottom and see-through plastic around the perimeter. If you imagined what a home speaker would look like in 2047, there’s a good chance this would be it.

The key takeaway after listening to a few other, tamer, songs, including Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” was evident: Syng’s claim that its cells go far beyond the experience music fans get from a standard pill speaker is warranted.

But for Damon Way, Syng’s co-founder and chief brand officer, delivering a first-class listening experience is only half of the battle.

“We’re working to bridge culture and technology,” Way said, with his understated tone hinting at his roots growing up in the San Diego skate scene.

Damon Way
(Credit: Courtesy of Damon Way)

This plan – merging a company’s product with a vibrant subculture – is one that’s worked for Way before. He co-founded DC Shoes in 1994, and soon after the company’s shoes were being worn by popular pro skaters like Josh Kalis and Danny Way, Damon’s brother. A decade later, Quicksilver bought DC Shoes for $87 million.

When it comes to the technology, Syng has the design chops down. Way co-founded Syng with Christopher Stringer, a longtime Apple product designer who worked on the iPhone and iPad, among other gadgets. Apple’s sleek yet minimalist design approach has made its way to Syng, with the Cell Alpha looking like it could’ve been a background prop in “Interstellar.” Investors have bet big on the Way-Stringer partnership so far, with Syng raising more than $50 million to date.

The Cell Alpha, according to Syng, is the first “triphonic” speaker on the market, with three microphones embedded in the speaker – allowing it to detect where it is in the room, both in relation to the walls and the other speakers, if the owner has more than one. The Syng Space app, which allows customers to control the speakers from their phones, offers a number of options for owners to adjust their music listening experience. For example, users can direct where they want the sound to primarily come out of the speaker on the app, allowing users to better direct how the music circulates through a room.

Syng
(Credit: Courtesy of Syng)

Launching a high-end product is pointless, though, Way said, if it isn’t connected to something bigger.

“If you ignore culture, you have a hollow brand – you have a brand that’s only selling product,” Way said. “And a lot of companies are successful doing that. But for me, it’s not fulfilling to just sell a product without any story tied to creativity and culture.”

Without naming names, Way believes this is a critical ingredient Syng’s competitors are missing – a mistake that has created an opening for his company to stand apart. Brands like Nike, Adidas, Stussy and Palace have been able to pull this off in the fashion world, Way believes, and now he’s trying to make it happen at the intersection of tech and art.

To do this, Way has worked to create inroads into the music and artistic subcultures of Los Angeles and other major cities through the Syng Creator Network. The network, Way said, is simply a “project to engage with different creators.” Under this umbrella is a Syng program called “In The Studio,” which takes a look at “what drives artists creatively,” Way said. The first episode, which was released in May, featured Shepard Fairey, who is best known for founding Obey Clothing and for his “Andre the Giant has a Posse…” street art campaign.

Syng’s other video series, “The Space Between,” highlights emerging artists like Matthewdavid, a musician and founder of Leaving Records who Way called a “strong community leader within the L.A. music underground.” And beyond the content the company is putting out, Syng looks to connect with artists and musicians face-to-face by sponsoring events at trendy spots like In Sheep’s Clothing, a three-story record shop and music space in L.A.

Of course, this is a great way for Syng to associate with influential and creative people – to branch out beyond being seen as another audio company. But the street runs both ways, Way said. Syng wants to help promote and foster emerging artists, while at the same time taking those close ties with artists and funneling their feedback into the products Syng puts out. It’s a synergy that reminds Way of the close connection between the ‘80s punk scene – and later, the ‘90s indie rock scene – and the skate world that helped both communities flourish. Way said he already has ideas for creator tools to add to the company’s app thanks to its collaborations with artists.

“We like to build a relationship that’s symbiotic [between artist and company],” Way said. “It’s important for us to build strong, foundational communities in music, across genres and subcultures and communities. That’s absolutely critical to what we’re doing.”

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How Greg Spero’s Jump From Tech to Music Inspired Him to Put the Artist First

The pandemic was a blow to any artist who loves to perform live – and Greg Spero was no exception.

The 37-year-old Los Angeles-based musician had spent the better part of the last two decades recording and playing live, including a four-year run touring with Halsey – in which he played a sold-out Madison Square Garden and performed at Coachella – and leading the jazz band Spirit Fingers. But when everything came to an abrupt halt in March 2020, he quickly pivoted: instead of being a full-time performer, he focused on finding a new way to help performers earn money.

That desire pushed him to launch Pitch (formerly known as Weebid), a startup he describes as the “first fan-initiated crowd-funding platform.”

The concept is simple: When a music artist joins Pitch, their fans are able to head to their profile and – you guessed it – pitch them ideas. Want to have your favorite band play in your small midwest town? Or have your favorite artist cover one of your favorite songs – or hey, even write a poetry book? You can post your idea to the artist’s Pitch profile and pledge some money towards it; other fans can chip in, too, and when those pitches reach a certain dollar amount the artist is aiming for, the artist then follows through on the request.

“When the pandemic hit, I was like, I need to make this,” Spero told SPIN over the phone. “I’m the only person in the world who would build this platform, and it needs to be built because this could change the world for artists.”

One reason Spero was excited to pursue this daunting task? It allowed him to tap back into his passion for technology – something that began at a young age. Spero had taught himself HTML and started a web design company by the time he finished middle school back in the late ‘90s, helping build websites for his dad’s friend’s businesses in his hometown of Highland Park, Illinois.

Later on, after graduating with a music degree from the University of Illinois, Spero attempted to juggle working both in the tech world and as a professional musician. The combination didn’t go well.

“I was thinking I could do both straight out of college. And I wasn’t happy at either,” Spero said. “I hated my life, because I was working eight hours a day on tech and eight hours a day on music, and I wasn’t an expert at either of them. Nothing was growing in the way that I knew that I could grow something.”

Spero said his life changed at this point when, at 23, jazz icon Herbie Hancock introduced him to Buddhism. (Spero met Hancock by slyly maneuvering backstage at one of his shows, after putting on a suit to make him “look like a big timer.” When Spero asked him how to “bring out his greatest creative potential,” Hancock jumped at the opportunity to tell him about his experience with Buddhism and meditation; the conversation lasted for four hours.) Soon after, an inspired Spero took a month-long backpacking trip to Thailand.

“I stayed with people who were living on a dollar a day and happy. They were happy human beings and I wasn’t a happy human being,” Spero said. “[I thought] ‘something is wrong here.’”

(Credit: Emanuele Pica)

Upon returning to the States, Spero ditched his business life and devoted himself to music, fearing he’d “regret it” forever if he didn’t.

Spero moved into his grandparents’ basement and started practicing the piano religiously. That decision paid off for Spero, who spent the next four years of his life building a career within the Chicago jazz scene. After touring with artists like the late John Blackwell and winning the 2013 Best Jazz Entertainer award at the Chicago Music Awards, Spero moved to LA, feeling he’d grown as much as he could as a musician in Chicago.

A year of nonstop jam sessions with musicians around LA eventually paid off, with a mutual friend introducing Spero to Halsey just as her career was taking off. He spent the next four years as her keyboardist – a run that started with club shows in front of 80 people and culminated with a “Saturday Night Live” performance in 2018.

Those years were not only imperative for his creativity and sanity, Spero said, but also set the table for him to lead Pitch.

“I’m an artist before I’m a tech guy,” Spero said. “And Pitch is born out of my own experience as an artist… I want to create and I want to empower creativity.”

Pitch does this, Spero said, by creating a win-win scenario for both fans and artists. Fans are able to pitch pretty much any idea to artists – “anything stupid,” including illegal or immoral or pornographic pitches, Spero said, gets pulled down by filters – and artists are able to execute the ones that jump out at them – and get paid to do so.

“Pitch helps create a new relationship with fans and others who want unique interactions,” singer Aloe Blacc told SPIN. “The ability for a fan to make a request is helpful, because crowdsourcing ideas could highlight ideas that artists would have never considered. With Pitch, the artist gets to decide on the idea and what it is worth, while fans get the chance to pledge funds to make it a reality.”

Beyond being one of the first artists on Pitch, Blacc also recently participated in the platform’s biggest event to date. On March 31, Pitch hosted a live concert to benefit Ukrainians impacted by Russia’s invasion. Blacc sang Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and was joined by 20 other musicians, including Macy Gray and Moontower. The five-hour event raised $36,000 for Ukrainian civilian relief.

 

“I am passionate about using my voice for positive social transformation…I wanted to be part of this benefit because my heart goes out to those who are suffering and in need of help,” Blacc said. “I am happy that we were able to raise money that will go to support families seeking refuge from violence.”

Other artists on Pitch include Herbie Hancock, Judith Hill, Eric Bellinger and Darryl Jones. Producer Quincy Jones is also on the platform and has received one of Spero’s favorite fan pitches so far – for Jones to make an 8 bar piano sample for producers to use in their songs. Fans have pledged $2,238 towards the idea so far.

On the business side, Pitch gets a 10% cut of any pitches an artist follows through with. Compared to the exorbitant slices record labels take from artists – on top of the frustrations many artists have with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music – Spero is optimistic this arrangement will attract musicians to the platform.

“Artists are really hurting right now,” he said.

While the digital revolution, Spero said, has helped musicians reach their fans easier than ever before, it’s also made their art less scarce – and as a result, less valuable. “Artists have more power than ever before, but they’re making less money than ever before.”

Pitch wants to change that reality, one fan idea at a time.