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The Mule of Smule: Marketing the ocarina and leaf trombone iPhone apps

May 7, 2009 |  8:30 am
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Turner Kirk as the Mule, who markets iPhone apps for Smule. Credit: Gene Kosoy

Sure, Smule -- that Silicon Valley start-up featured in today's Times -- has an unusual pedigree, melding computers and music to create applications that turn the iPhone into a musical instrument. But how does it get the word out? Who drums up the fervor among its fans?

That would be the Mule. The company's name is a contraction of SonicMule -- the Mule was a character in science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series -- and when Ge Wang and Jeff Smith were starting the company, Smith said, "We need a Mule." And instantly, they knew who that would be.

Turner Kirk, 23, had been studying at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics -- CCRMA -- at Stanford University, where Wang and Smith had met and hatched Smule. Housed in the original Stanford president's mansion, the center embodies the eccentricity of its field. It has a state-of-the-art heptagonal listening room, with no parallel lines and a sunken floor for optimal sound, and stacks of laptops for making music. Speakers are embedded in IKEA salad bowls or attached to wrists for playing in cellphone orchestras.

Kirk had always been in close touch with his inner eccentric, playing bagpipes from an early age. Even among the strange musicians of CCRMA, he stood out, and Smith, Smule's CEO, knew he would make a perfect mascot-cum-guerrilla marketer.

Acting as “the Mule of Smule,” Kirk has been thrown out of Apple stores and ...

... the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, where he wore a top hat, white suit and banners on his back. He’ll ride unicycles and tricycles around the Financial District of San Francisco, or play bagpipes. He blogs and tweets for Smule, hosts its YouTube videos online, and even hosts a Ustream webcast every Monday night. 

“It’s what I like to do as a person anyway,” Kirk says. “Be a total goofball.... Eccentricity is something that runs deep through this company.”

Kirk has a bachelor's degree in music engineering from the University of Miami and a master's from Stanford. He's played the bagpipes since age 9, which he said "affected the way I developed. People laugh at you when you wear a skirt. You learn to be the first to point fingers at yourself and laugh."

There are not a lot of jobs in the world for a computer music expert. "I was about to start my whole job search last August," he said. "It was this evil thing looming on the horizon. What company am I going to sell my soul to?" And then Smith called.

He couldn't quite imagine the role of Mule, until Wang told him, "Think 'Cat in the Hat.' "

Smule fans love him. Daphne Mir, 17, of Laguna Niguel joined him at a Smule demonstration at the Pasadena Apple Store, and they played a duet of "Oh, Shenandoah" together. Afterward, she said, "We all hung out in Pasadena, jamming around on the Smule apps and Dr. Drew [Pinsky, of "Loveline"] went by in his Porsche. He stopped and looked at us, and he looked so confused."

-- Dan Fost

Below: Turner Kirk, in full Mule regalia, announces Smule's "This Contest Blows" competition. The contest is closed, but the video gives you a sense of the Mule persona.

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