Songbird Struggles with Pivot, Appoints New CEO

By Whitney Phaneuf , written on July 12, 2012

From The News Desk

Music player startup Songbird's Board of Directors yesterday appointed new CEO Eric Wittman, former SVP of Product, replacing CEO Les Schmidt, who held the role for less than a year and a half. The decision comes on the heels of a 10 percent reduction in staff, following a lackluster launch of updated products in mid-June, the first stage in what Wittman calls a two-year pivot.

"The lights are still very much on," says Wittman of Songbird's SF office, which has about 20 employees. "We're putting all our weight behind this new vision."

Wittman will be the fourth CEO of the five-year-old startup that first launched as an open source, desktop media player and alternative to iTunes. Songbird's renewed strategy focuses on music discovery and personalized recommendations by pulling user data from Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud, and other social platforms. Songbird has 10 million users across its desktop and Android products.

Insiders say they're not surprised, reporting Songbird lost its vision when founder Rob Lord got the boot in 2009. Lord's proven success leading strategy at Winamp and co-founding Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA) helped Songbird raise a $1 million and $8 million seed investment from Sequoia Capital and Atlas Venture, respectively in 2006 and 2007. When Songbird ran out of money, the Board brought in a new CEO who raised $2 million with Atlas Ventures, after Sequoia backed out of the deal.

One look at Lord's personal website gives a clear sense of a founder who envisioned Songbird as a company that could disrupt the established music players. Lord remained active in the music community, creating Billion Jelly Bloom, the glowing jellyfish art piece that appears at concerts and festivals. He's also working on non-music related startup Lord's departure also resulted in some of Songbird's brightest stars joining competitors such as Rdio.

Since Lord left, Songbird has struggled to remain relevant in the crowded music tech category. According to a source who worked with the company during its June comeback, the recently departed interim Chief Marketing Officer tried to convince Songbird's social media team to spam music festivals' Facebook walls.

Wittman admits former CEO Schmidt was brought onboard to restructure the company, not make its products hip. "Les [Schmidt] has a background that lent well to operational and financial changes. We got to the point that he'd done his job, and now it's time to return to the product," says Wittman, who worked on the original team who built Adobe's Macromedia Flash.

Songbird says not to count it out, and stay tuned for an iPhone and iPad app coming out before the end of the year. If the company fails, it may serve as an example of what happens when a founder is forced out too soon.