In a year marked by a sudden, unexpected absence of live music, one of the only perks for despondent fans stuck indoors is the recent influx of solutions driven by technology, creativity, and an inexhaustible sense of community that has always made music fandom feel so special. Tapping into all three of those things is a new live music company called Oda that, at first glance, simply looks like a pair of gorgeous, bespoke speakers — but in reality, represents access to a whole slew of live programming that’s only available via the wooden boxes themselves. In an era of iPhone ubiquity, Instagram story sing-alongs and hour-long Youtube concert rips, this kind of unrepeatability is rare, and to plenty of listeners, inherently valuable in that rarity.
Aside from the leaps and bounds we’ve made in tech over the last two decades, the experience of earning a living as a musician — and therefore, touring — has become increasingly untenable. After spending almost ten years interviewing musicians, both the very famous and not as well-known, it’s depressing to hear over and over again what a toll touring can take on mental and physical health, relationships, and overall well-being. Certainly, that’s not always the case, and if anything could make tour suddenly seem desirable, it’s months spent in quarantine. But everyone who pays attention in this industry even a little bit knows that the financial situation for the majority of working musicians is precarious at best, even before a pandemic got involved.
Oda was built to help rectify some of the disparities in the existing touring framework, and though it was conceived of prior to the onset of COVID-19, the company has only become more relevant given the impact of the pandemic. Founded back in 2016 by Nick Dangerfield (who, along with his team at Planeta, helped adapt the David Bowie Is mobile app that recreates the museum exhibit devoted to the icon) and sound artist Perry Brandston of Sound Concern, a social and sound company situated at the intersection of art, science, and party culture. Though they’ve been working on their speakers for the past four years, the core component of the company is actually the programming, and the freedom it gives artists to play something live for fans, from the comfort of their own home. Utilizing pre-existing home recording setups, and stepping in when equipment is needed, Oda also helps empower elder musicians, who might not be drawn to learning the tech required to pull off a livestream.
First things first: In order to access the live programming Oda has enlisted, you have to cop the speakers. They are beautiful, and probably the best speakers most of us will ever hear sound on, but they cost a pretty penny at $399 — $299 during this special launch phase beginning today, October 6. That price is good for only the first 1,000 units sold, then it bumps up to the standard cost. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but then again, most professional-style speaker sets cost in this price range and have none of the aesthetic appeal these sleek, wooden boxes boast. For comparison’s sake, Google’s oversized Google Max speaker begins at $299, a single unit. The full system comes with two wooden speakers and an amp that the company has dubbed “the lighthouse.” Angelenos, it’s like someone took the experience of In Sheep’s Clothing and gently set it down directly into your home (whiskey sold separately).
The other thing that’s sold separately is the seasonal programming the Oda system provides access to. Those slots are sold in “seasons” and run $79 per three month “season,” which is still a hell of a lot cheaper than even the cheap seats at the Hollywood Bowl. Then again, I know you’re thinking over $300 or so a year is still a lot. But if you consider that chunk of change a donation to shifting the infrastructure that currently leaves independent musicians bereft, well it’s an easier pill to swallow. Some listeners can easily afford to put that money back into the pockets of musicians, and gladly will for the kind of access that Oda offers. Back to the programming, every show will happen live, and sometimes secret or unexpected guests that haven’t been announced will pop in. The initial date for the first season is December 21, 2020 and it will run until March 20, 2021. The second season will begin March 21, 2021 and run until June 20, 2021 and so forth. Currently, the shows are setup around American east and west coast time zones, and will occur at “Sunset” and “Weekend” slots. Additional programming oriented toward Europe and Japan will be coming soon.
Again, all of this is only available if you own an Oda (or have a close friend that does) and the earliest residency announcement includes artists as disparate as Madlib, The Microphones, Harlem jazz pianist Marjorie Eliot, Teddy Riley, a personal favorite of mine, Jessica Pratt, and Bradford Cox of Deerhunter fame. In stark contrast to the accessibility and longevity of many existing streaming models, all of Oda’s performances are “one-time unique live events,” with the artist as the owner of the recording. Important note: All the recording of the set is done on Oda’s end, unlike many smart speakers, the Oda does not have a microphone in it and is not recording the listeners. But, the speakers can be used to stream your own music at home like any other bluetooth speaker, and in between performances they will also offer livestreams of various places around the world, like a bird sanctuary in Costa Rica or New York’s Tompkins Square Park.
I’ve yet to try the speakers myself, but considering the minds that are involved with this project, the attention to detail, and the artists who have signed on, I’m more than convinced that both the quality and the ethos are sound. The speakers and accompanying lighthouse amp, that the company says acts as a “on-air” signaling structure are all made of only natural materials: wood, glass, steel, and cotton. The resulting sound is reportedly a physical, pliable one, that feels more like an instrument than a modern speaker. This too feels like a skillful mimicry of the best thing about live shows — all the best concerts I’ve ever seen are in buildings mindfully built to enhance sound, not the expensive sound systems that enhance the volume at arena shows but never make the music feel close. The other thing about the advent of near-present technology is this, many of us prefer to leave behind high-tech for high-touch, Oda speakers might be the height of that desire, at least when it comes to streaming music.
“Our secret mission is to make you listen carefully,” Oda co-founder Nick Dangerfield said in the launch announcement. “If you truly listen, everything will be fine.” In a year of chaos, mistruths, anger and upheaval, these calming words of assurance ring more true than ever. And when that listening helps promote the transformation of a system that has been failing the very artists who are keeping us going during the turmoil, then I’m all for it.