This set of wooden speakers brings concerts to your home
By Geoff Edgers
In September, Norman Whiteside, a cult hero whose funk creations have been sampled by everyone from Frank Ocean to Kanye, sat down at a keyboard in his living room and played a gig.
This was no normal performance. In 30 minutes, Whiteside masterfully walked through his decades-old musical history. He talked about his influences, from Sly Stone to Al Green, and delivered snippets of song in their voices. But even as he offered this intimate performance, Whiteside admitted he found performing on Oda, a new, audio-only music service, took some getting used to.
The 67-year-old singer was in Columbus, Ohio. His audience could have been anywhere. They were listening on Oda's hand-built, square cedar speakers. There was no screen and no way for Whiteside to get feedback from those in the audience.
"While I was performing, I was saying, 'are two people listening to me, or are 100 people listening?' " he remembers. "Is anybody listening or is this a prank?"
That will be part of the test for Oda (pronounced like Yoda), a concept developed long before the pandemic but coming online officially now, as if in response. The service launched December 31 with a performance by multi-instrumentalist Laraaji, after a series of previews and tests throughout the fall. Oda was conceived by music technologist Nick Dangerfield, is being funded by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and is set to feature an eclectic group of musicians, including jazz singer Andy Bey, folkie Jessica Pratt, soul singers Don Bryant and Ann Peebles, the Microphones, minimalist pioneer Terry Riley and Whiteside.
Oda's creators never meant for the speakers to replace live music, even if the timing seems prescient. They say the service is an alternative to the Instagram Live and Facebook gigs that have been popping up during the pandemic as well as the seemingly endless scroll of virtual meetings. You cannot listen to an Oda concert on your phone, laptop or your Sonos speakers. The shows are transmitted through an illuminated box, or "lighthouse," that connects to the specially designed speakers, which cost $299 a pair. Oda's business model is to earn most of its income off subscriptions. The first season, which runs through March, will be free as a kind of dress rehearsal. After that, subscribers will pay $79 per season.
"We have so many ways to get distracted, and we're already seeing people looking for more minimalist experiences," Ohanian says. "What Oda does is it forces you to be present and just paying attention with your ears."
Music tech is a hard market to forecast. For every iPod and Spotify, there's Neil Young's Pono, the Toblerone-shaped player that fizzled quickly. Oda's developers stress that their concept stands out because it's both gear and an experience. Though nothing like Oda currently exists, there are several video concert services - Nugs.TV, Live from Here - that have been thriving, particularly during the pandemic.
"There's a lot of things that need to gel for it to work," says Eric Welles Nystrom, Oda's marketing head. "It's not just about bringing these speakers to people. It's about intimacy, how can you make the gap from listener to artist as tight as possible."
Dangerfield began work on what became Oda four years ago. He was a fan of Phil Elverum, the songwriter behind the Microphones and Mount Eerie. In 2015, Elverum's then-wife, Geneviève Castrée, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Elverum let fans know he would have to stop performing to take care of his wife and their baby daughter. (Castrée, just 35, died in 2016.)
Dangerfield, a fan whose work focuses on finding ways to connect music to people, plotted a way for Elverum to reach his audience without going on the road. He created a portable speaker that he could stream sound over.
"It was essentially like a baby monitor for an artist," Dangerfield says.
The trouble with the box is that it did not provide good sound.
"I went through an embarrassing demo with an artist manager," Dangerfield says. "Now that I listen to it, it sounds terrible."
Dangerfield worked on the sonics by connecting with Perry Brandston, a sound artist who had worked at New York's Fillmore East and CBGB's rock club, and acoustician Benjamin Zenker. Together, they developed the current speakers, which are meant to provide a clear, warm sound. Ohanian heard a performance by Laraaji on those speakers, while he bubbled on Long Island during the U.S. Open with his wife, tennis star Serena Williams.
"I was sitting in a rented house and set it up on a pool table and just closed my eyes and listened," Ohanian says. "It felt like I was somewhere else. I'm not saying this as a passionate music lover. I'm saying it as a human being."
A lot of what drives Oda is Dangerfield's frustration with how music is distributed and consumed across digital platforms. Streaming services offer unlimited listening options, playing devices are packed with apps to allow multitasking and speakers are so mobile they can be slipped onto a bookshelf until they're almost forgotten. Music becomes the background to ever-looping activities of daily life.
To that end, Dangerfield initially didn't even want Oda subscribers to have the ability to play their own music through their phones on the speakers. He was overruled.
"I hate to sound like a grumpy old man, but I don't like where things are going," Dangerfield says.
Many of the artists Oda has signed find the focus appealing.
"I don't like being in front of my computer, and I don't want to make other people be in front of their computers," Elverum says. "I want to create reasons to be in the real world. If that means pausing live performance for some years, that's fine. This Oda thing has no screen and no buttons and it requires slowing down and simplicity and deeper attention in some way. In a way that a Zoom concert or steaming video doesn't."
"It's also free of interference," says Kristen McElwain, Oda's artistic director. "No brands, no advertisements. There's an audience that's present and really tuning in. Like you did pre-television."
For his Oda test show in September, Elverum, who lives in Orcas Island, Wash., set up in his bedroom. His daughter, Agathe, now 5, watched a video in another room. Elverum played some tapes - one with an organ, another with background fuzz - to create textures for the 90-minute performance.
"It felt a little scary because it was totally new for me," he says. "It made me realize how much I rely on the two-way communication between the audience and performer to give me constant validation. It's intense. It requires a lot of self-assurance."
Another performer, pianist Marjorie Eliot, played gospel songs and Thelonious Monk in her Oda debut during the fall testing season. Her performance was impeccable. There was also a level of intimacy not standard during a streaming show, as listeners heard her asking her son for a glass of water and "where are my glasses?"
Whiteside says he ultimately found the Oda experience energizing. He put out his lone album, "You Can Fly on My Aeroplane," in 1977. But in 1985, Whiteside was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for his involvement in the incidental shooting of a college student during a gang dispute. He would not be released until 2016.
Now, he's thinking of finishing his second album.
"I had been writing, but when Oda contacted me, it was like a sign to keep going forward," he says. "There is someone who appreciates you."
The Washington Post