Last Friday, Audible – one of the leading creators of premium audio storytelling and a pioneer for original audio content – held a panel as part of SXSW 2023 in Austin, TX. The panel, which centered on Innovation In Audio, served to spotlight Audible’s forthcoming category-defying project Breakthrough, the first-ever music competition series developed and launched exclusively as a podcast. Taking place at the Austin Convention Center this past Friday, the panel was hosted by Rolling Stone’s Associate Managing Editor Angie Martoccio and included Breakthrough narrator, American actor, and rapper, Daveed Diggs; Breakthrough mentor and singer-songwriter, Sara Bareilles; At Will Media founder and CEO, Will Malnati; executive producer of Original Music-Storytelling at Audible, Preston Copley; as well as a video greeting from Breakthrough mentor as well as American singer, actress, and former Destiny’s Child performer, Kelly Rowland.
In Breakthrough, audiences follow five young musical artists – from aspiring professional singers to those who are more established in their careers – as they work through a series of challenges, trying to refine their crafts and find their voices as they learn from two of the industry’s best in Bareilles and Rowland. One of the factors that sets this project apart from other competitive music programs is its audio-only nature, which lays bare many of the aspects that visual-first shows tend to gloss over. “It distills this process of creativity into such an intimate conversation,” says Bareilles. “The fact that it is all audio really focuses you in on all of the little [components] of songwriting,” says Diggs, whose narration serves to bridge the gap between the contestants, the judges, as well as the audience listening at home. “You are the audience’s confidant,” Copley says of Diggs during the panel.
Beyond the audiences’ relationship to the show, the audio-only nature also extends to how the judges interact with the program’s contestants as the musical acts remain anonymous and imageless throughout the duration of the series. “I don’t know what these contestants look like,” says Bareilles. For series creator Will Malnati, this premise innovates on the medium it works within. “It’s not for your eyes, it’s for your ears,” says Malnati. With production beginning in 2020, the series was recorded almost entirely over Zoom. Joking that she was able to work in her pajamas, Bareilles says these constraints helped the show to zero in more on the actual nuts and bolts of songwriting. “I was surprised by how engaging I found the process to be,” says Bareilles. “You [get to] hear critiques or suggestions about…how to get out of this rut [or how to help a song to] come together,” says Diggs. “It’s such a rare experience and a very vulnerable one for all these artists to allow that to be heard.”
Another key difference between Breakthrough and other competition shows is that it leads with kindness. “We both felt very attuned to make this a kind show,” Bareilles says of her and Rowland’s decisions to sign on to the project, adding, “it’s so aspirational.” For Audible’s Preston Copley, Breakthrough is about lifting up musical hopefuls rather than putting anyone down. “There’s no one voted off so it feels like a celebration more than a competition,” says Copley. “There’s a phrase that is used on the show, ‘we are here for the journey, not the drama’ and I think that’s a great encapsulation of the vibe of the whole experience.” Series creator Will Malnati agrees with this sentiment, saying that the show is a mixture of documentary as well as service content with helpful tips and tricks for aspiring songwriters everywhere.
And yet, beyond the creation of music, it is the uniqueness of Breakthrough’s intimate storytelling that will stay with listeners long after the episodes have finished. As a pioneer in its field, Audible is looking to leave an indelible mark on the art of narrative audio. “It’s a show about how to tell a story,” says Diggs.
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