Music Startup Stem Raises $20 Million To Expand Reach - dot.LA

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Kristin Snyder is an editorial intern for dot.la. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA’s Daily Bruin.
Stem, a music tech startup focused on helping artists with distribution and payments, has raised $20 million in a new funding round.
Fintech-focused venture capital firm QED Investors led the funding and was joined by Block, the Jack Dorsey-led payments tech company formerly known as Square. Block notably paid nearly $300 million last year to acquire a majority stake in TIDAL, the music streaming service backed by rapper Jay-Z.
Existing investors Slow Ventures and Quality Control also pitched in on Stem’s new round, which takes the Los Angeles-based startup’s total funding to around $40 million.
Since launching in 2015, Stem has merged financial management tools with music distribution capabilities, working with independent record labels like Big Loud as well as major artists like Wiz Khalifa. Its dashboard includes tools for artists, managers and labels to oversee their revenues, split funds with collaborators and receive automated payments. While only Stem-distributed artists can currently access its financial tools, the new funds will go toward expanding the platform’s existing royalty accounting features to other music distributors.
Stem co-founder and CEO Milana Lewis told dot.LA that she launched the startup based on her experiences as a talent agent for industry heavyweight United Talent Agency—a role in which she saw firsthand how difficult it was for artists trying to aggregate multiple revenue streams. Stem was born out of Lewis’ desire to streamline the process.
“Getting into music has always been hard for anyone that works in music,” Lewis said. “There’s this notion of a starving artist for a reason: It’s because the business is really complex, and it’s gotten more complex.”
With avenues for music monetization—from streaming platforms to home devices—constantly expanding, Stem aims to provide artists with a “financial backbone” allowing them to plan their projects and income, Lewis added.
“Our belief is: What if we build a system that can become the system of record for who gets paid what and how?” she said. “It makes it possible for other really interesting economic things to happen for artists.”
Stem is among a new generation of startups that are turning L.A. into a music tech hotbed—a trend that makes sense given the city’s status as a global entertainment capital and home to major labels like Universal Music Group. Last week saw Trac, another startup distribution platform for music artists, raise $2.5 million in new funding, as dot.LA reported.
While streaming has helped the music business evolve its revenue model, that hasn’t always been to the benefit of artists: Spotify recently revealed that most artists earned less than $10,000 through its platform in 2021. In turn, some independent musicians have protested against the streaming giant over its low royalty payments.
Kristin Snyder is an editorial intern for dot.la. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA’s Daily Bruin.
Decerry Donato is dot.LA’s Editorial Fellow. Prior to that, she was an editorial intern at the company. Decerry received her bachelor’s degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.
A former TikTok employee has criticized the social media firm’s workplace culture—claiming that managers would pressure employees to work long hours and weekends in a nod to China’s “996” culture.
Pabel Martinez, a former global account director at TikTok, told Business Insider that managers at the Culver City-based company—which is owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance—would encourage employees to work into the evening and ask them to attend meetings during the weekend.
“I do think that the culture of working too much or not having as much of the work-life balance does permeate throughout the organization, and it is often encouraged you work ‘after hours’,” Martinez said. “The 996 policy’s infamous.”
The “996 policy” in question stems from China, where companies are known to demand that employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. While ByteDance has reportedly made attempts to counteract that culture, Martinez said he and other colleagues were pressured to attend weekend meetings—and that when he objected, he was told by a manager: “That’s not how we do business here.”
“I was made to feel like I was never doing enough,” Martinez told Business Insider. “At TikTok, no conversation started with ‘How are you?’ It was like, ‘How’s the revenue? What are we doing to drive more growth?’”
Representatives for TikTok declined a request for comment by dot.LA.
Decerry Donato is dot.LA’s Editorial Fellow. Prior to that, she was an editorial intern at the company. Decerry received her bachelor’s degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.
Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Samson is also a proud member of the Transgender Journalists Association. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter at @Samsonamore. Pronouns: he/him
Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe has warned that the electric vehicle industry could face a dire shortage of materials needed to make batteries in the coming years—a problem that he said could be worse than the ongoing semiconductor chip shortage facing automakers.
During a tour of the Irvine-based electric truck maker’s production plant in Illinois last week, Scaringe told the Wall Street Journal that the industry will encounter challenges procuring the materials needed to build enough batteries for the large-scale adoption of EVs—including valuable resources like nickel, cobalt and lithium.
“Put very simply, all the world’s [battery] cell production combined represents well under 10% of what we will need in 10 years—meaning, 90% to 95% of the supply chain does not exist,” Scaringe said. The Rivian CEO described the current semiconductor shortage as “a small appetizer to what we are about to feel on battery cells over the next two decades.”
To cope with the shortages, Scaringe said Rivian is targeting “multiple suppliers” and plans to invest in its ability to build batteries in-house.
Rivian began selling its first models, the R1T electric truck and the R1S electric SUV, last fall and also has a deal with Amazon, one of its largest financial backers, to produce 100,000 electric delivery vans known as the RPV. The production of the Amazon vans is still in early stages, according to the WSJ, with Rivian planning to fulfill the order by 2025.
Despite noting around 83,000 reservations for its trucks and SUVs in March, the automaker only sold a total of 1,227 cars in the first quarter this year, and announced that it was halving its 2022 production forecast to 25,000 vehicles. It also made a contentious move to raise prices on pre-order holders, sparking a backlash that saw the company reverse its decision and Scaringe publicly apologize.
In addition to its Illinois factory, Rivian will soon begin building a second production plant located near Atlanta that is expected to come online in 2024. That facility will produce a smaller, compact SUV called the R2, Scaringe told the WSJ.
Rivian’s production issues have contributed to a more than 60% slide in its stock price this year, with its shares now trading below $40—well off their nearly $180 peak after the company’s November IPO, which briefly saw Rivian become one of the world’s most valuable automakers.
Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Samson is also a proud member of the Transgender Journalists Association. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter at @Samsonamore. Pronouns: he/him
Christian Hetrick is dot.LA’s Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.
Netflix will launch a mobile game and TV show based on “Exploding Kittens,” a popular card game created in Los Angeles.
The streaming giant, which has recently expanded into the realm of gaming, will release “Exploding Kittens – The Game” on mobile devices in May and follow that with an “Exploding Kittens” adult animated comedy series in 2023, it announced Monday. It’s the first time that Netflix will launch a mobile game and adapt it into a TV series.
Launched in 2015, Exploding Kittens claims to have sold more than 18 million tabletop games in over 50 countries. Its flagship game of the same name is a Russian-roulette-style competition, in which players try to avoid drawing “Exploding Kitten” cards that eliminate them. Players can “defuse” the cats with cards representing laser pointers and catnip sandwiches, according to the game’s description.
Netflix has paid Exploding Kittens to license the rights to the card game’s intellectual property, representatives from both companies told dot.LA. Neither firm disclosed financial terms.
“The co-development of a game and animated series breaks new ground for Netflix,” Mike Moon, Netflix’s head of adult animation, said in a statement. “We couldn’t think of a better game to build a universe around than ‘Exploding Kittens,’ one of the most inventive, iconic and original games of this century.”
Exploding Kittens co-creator and chief creative officer Matthew Inman.

Exploding Kittens co-creator and chief creative officer Matthew Inman.Courtesy of Exploding Kittens
The show “Exploding Kittens” will see the eternal conflict between heaven and hell manifest itself on Earth when both God and the Devil are embodied as chunky house cats, according to Netflix. Starring Tom Ellis (“Rush,” “Lucifer”), Lucy Liu (“Shazam,” “Elementary”) and Mark Proksch (“What We Do In The Shadows,” “Better Call Saul”), it’s currently in development with showrunners Shane Kosakowski and Matthew Inman, the latter being the co-creator and chief creative officer of Exploding Kittens, Inc.
Inman, the cartoonist behind The Oatmeal webcomic, created the card game alongside Exploding Kittens CEO Elan Lee, the former chief design officer for Xbox Entertainment Studios. Lee had previously developed a card game called “Bomb Squad” that eliminated players who drew bomb cards, he told dot.LA. Inman, who met Lee through a mutual friend, thought the game was great but needed a new name, believing that exploding munitions seemed too on-the-nose. Instead, players should be scared of something cute, fluffy and adorable like an exploding kitten, he suggested.
“At that moment, we formed a partnership and decided to start working together and have done so ever since,” Lee said.
They eventually raised more than $8.7 million for the original Exploding Kittens game in what remains the most-backed Kickstarter campaign by number of donors ever. Since then, the firm has grown to over 80 full-time employees that have helped make 15 games along with 14 puzzles and expansion packs. The company will launch the seventh iteration of Exploding Kittens, “Zombie Kittens,” next month.
Exploding Kittens’ leap to Netflix can be traced to a $30 million investment in 2019 from TCG Capital, the L.A.-based investment firm run by ex-News Corp. executive Peter Chernin. Chernin convinced the game’s creators to expand their IP and think about shows, movies and other ways to let people “live in these worlds instead of just play the games,” Lee said. The company started shopping its IP a little over a year ago before striking a deal with Netflix, according to Inman.
“We were like, ‘What do we do next?’ We were all over Target, Walgreens, Walmart. We wanted to do something else,” Inman said. “I’m a cartoonist, a writer, worked in animation and boards. This felt like a natural fit for me, to go back to what I think I’m good at.”
Exploding Kittens co-creator and CEO Elan Lee. Exploding Kittens co-creator and CEO Elan Lee.Courtesy of Exploding Kittens
Netflix has moved to expand beyond movies and shows as it faces more competition and slower subscriber growth. The company has bought three gaming studios since September—including Glendale-based Night School—and now has 17 mobile titles available to subscribers. The streaming service has also rolled out interactive programming—starting with the 2018 film “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and more recently with the trivia cartoon “Cat Burglar”—that blur the lines between TV and games. That comes as data indicates that younger consumers increasingly prefer gaming over more passive forms of media.
Netflix’s “Exploding Kittens – The Game” will retain the gameplay of the tabletop version and be available to subscribers free of charge. The Netflix version adds exclusive cards that help players find Exploding Kittens or reverse the order of the cards in the deck. Future cards and game mechanics will be tied to the animated series.
Over the years, the founders said they have debated the best way to measure their success—from the Uber driver who knew about “Exploding Kittens” to the late Alex Trebek asking a question about the card game during an episode of “Jeopardy!”
“We debate this stuff because it’s fun and interesting, and there’s no right answer,” Lee said. “Until a Netflix show came around. That is definitively a right answer.”
Christian Hetrick is dot.LA’s Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.
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