Audio-First #7: Fifty-Five Bullet Friday

  
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Welcome back audio nerds!

 I hope you enjoyed the last interview with Drew Austin. Again, the episode (and all future audio versions) are all findable on the apps Apple/Spotify/Pocket Casts/Stitcher/others.

Since I’m currently far away on a trip, and hence without my beloved microphone, I’m recording audio from a laptop. Apologies. This will be a brief roundup things I’ve been listening to lately.

Podcasts recs

First, after years of groaning at Pomp’s bitcoin tweets, I have to say I’m totally impressed with the Joe Rogan-for-tech universe he’s built. His podcast Unchained started more strictly focused on crypto, but in the new year he’s opened it up to to more general tech interviews. Sriram Krishnan & Geoff Lewis had some fascinating parts to their interviews, and tech folks will find them worthy listens.

But I was totally floored by Pomp’s most recent episode with Brian Norgard, former CPO of Tinder, which focused almost entirely on the future audio. (Brian’s prescient tweets about airpods were an inspiration for me to start writing on the subject.) Audio nerds, this is a must-listen. Brian drills into why airpods are growing, product opportunities and limitations, and where the medium goes from here. And they stick on this thread for quite a while. I’m still taking it in.

Second, I’m hooked on Radiolab’s new series The Other Latif. It’s being hyped as the next Serial, and has some obvious parallels. This one’s about a (potentially) wrongfully imprisoned inmate at Guantanamo Bay. 

Some other honorable mentions: The Portal, After On (the episodes with Naval are chilling must-listens), and I’m not proud of how much I like Prof Galloway’s rants on Recode Decode.

Last, if you’ve never listened to EconTalk, stop what you’re doing. It’s bar none my favorite podcast, and I’m planning to write a little writeup as to why. In a nutshell it’s accessible conversations with the smartest people in the world. I’ve learned so much from it over the years. Maybe I’m an econ nerd, but this is just simply the best.

Music recs

2020 is also shaping up to be a banner year for music. Some big albums have already dropped, and some of the most creative minds in music will release by year’s end. I, for one, am stoked. I’ll list what I learned from this Pitchfork article.

Dropped or dropping soon that I’m excited about:

And this year we can expect something from:

If you’re unfamiliar with any of these artists, I’d urge you to give them a try. I can vouch, and I’d probably go see them if they were in town.

Liner notes

Every music streaming app is the exact same. Spotify’s in-song facts about the creative process. A totally random article. Fantano blasting my fav band’s new album. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker with Zane Lowe.

Stay tuned and keep it locked,

Nick

@NpappaG

Audio-First #6: AirPods and Urban Life With Drew Austin (aka Kneeling Bus)

  
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My inaugural interview guest is Drew Austin, (AKA Kneeling Bus). Drew regularly produces some of the most thought-provoking essays about tech and urban planning. I encourage you to check out his weekly newsletter. We dive into everything AirPods, audio, AR, and urban planning.

Some audio-related ideas of his to check out:

Audio-First #5: Milton, Media, And Going Multi-Modal

  
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Hello audio nerds, two big updates for you today.

First, Audio-First is now distributed on your favorite podcast apps. At long last, you can enjoy my voice on-the-go, and not just from your inbox. You’ll find the audio versions (past and future) uploaded here:

Depending on the audio app (e.g. Pocket Casts), the Notes section will be the fully-linked text that goes out with the newsletter.

I implore you to take the 2 seconds to subscribe because…(announcement #2) a number of upcoming episodes of Audio-First will be interviews with audio thinkers, iOS developers, and other tech insiders. Contain your excitement. These will be longer than the fortnightly-ish post I’ve been sending out, so I imagine you’ll want to listen as you would with a traditional podcast.

Tomorrow, our first interview drops with the great Drew Austin, aka Kneeling Bus. Drew regularly produces some of the most thought-provoking essays about tech and urban planning, and he makes one of my favorite weekly newsletters

Some audio-related ideas of his to check out:

Anyway, Drew’s ideas have been very influential for my writing on Audio-First. So sign up on your podcast app, and hear us dive into all things audio, airpods, and urban living. (It’s about 40 minutes). 

Audio-visual

Now that Audio-First is officially straddling both podcast and newsletter distribution, you might be asking yourself: How do I, a faithful reader-listener, consume this content as intended? 

More than ever, there’s a chance you’ll gravitate toward the audio over the text, or the text over the audio. To me, it makes no difference. I hope it comes down to your own convenience.

Perhaps this is grandiose, but I hold a small hope that a few of you do both simultaneously. Realistically most of you don’t, but I love the possibility. 

Mostly because in college I was forced to read Paradise Lost by John Milton. (If you don’t know, Paradise Lost was written in 17th-century vernacular, in poetic verse.) And I found the best way to absorb it was to speed up the audiobook track to a comfortable reading speed. With the audio and visual experience synced up, I was powering through Milton’s wackadoo language with ease. Every word from this genius was flooding my senses. As a result, the book hit way harder.

I’d certainly be thrilled if my writing had sense-flooding.

In fact, if it wasn’t so weird, I’d send it out these posts with a Spritz reader. Or I’d hire a video maker to do a whiteboard illustration. Really, I’d try anything up to Clockwork Orange-ing if there was demand. This is all to say, media makers want to have the most engaging tools possible to reach their audience. 

Sure, Milton was writing one of the greatest works in the English language, and I’m just some techie with a substack. But we all have our aspirations as media makers. And what is media but a momentary hijacking of the mind? It’s just a matter of degree. 

What’s been disappointing to realize with Audio-First is there’s not much media mixing. Right now, the majority of you are reading this (without audio). A sizable 39% of you will turn on the audio portion. But there’s not much combining. There’s no technology to make this hit harder or differently. The maximum has been reached. For now.

Multi-Modal

On a similar note, this week, Pace Capital’s Jordan Cooper penned a new post on this exact subject. Cooper argues that there’s a good chance with the advent of AR that mixing of audio and visual information will increase. He writes:

I think the insight that we will use computer vision to augment the way we process our physical surroundings is more or less a given. Cars are perhaps further along than people in this regard. It seems implausible that this assistive capability will not follow us into all realms of our mobility (i.e. when we get out of our car and walk). What I don’t think is a given is a) that the camera we use to capture our surroundings will be on our phone, or b) that the response to a camera based query will be displayed visually.

Most read/write situations don’t traverse disparate medium. If you capture visual information, it tends to be displayed visually. If you capture audio information, it tends to be displayed acoustically. Even if you capture tactile information, it tends to be displayed/processed tactilely.

But in the case of AR, I see the capture/write function and the read function decoupling as it relates to media type. I think [we] will use a wearable, voice activated camera to capture and query, and I think we’ll listen to the response or results that come from that query.

I agree with Jordan that we’re very limited by our media types. Media combinations haven’t evolved. There’s little mixing between these lanes.

In a way, Audio-First was born out of this idea of allowing multiple media types. But switching or combining is a whole new ballgame, and I feel like a lot of tech innovations (both voice, cameras, and later AR) will soon enable really novel interactions.

(I encourage you to read the full post. Cooper’s earlier writing on AirPods was a big inspiration.)

Liner notes

Shakira, Shakira (feat. Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and J. Lo). Don’t doubt ur vibe, apparently on SoundCloud’s top 10.

Stay tuned and keep it locked,

Nick

@NpappaG

Audio-First #4: The YouTube Edition

  
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[^^Listen above, or read below (or both if you’re feeling crazy)^^]

My dear audio nerds, Happy New Year. If you’re new here, read The Charter. We’ve got a ton to talk about. 

First, my apologies for the holiday hiatus. This won’t be your typical 3-and-done podcast/newsletter, so worry not. After some time off in December, I feel recharged and full of things to write about. And with a steady stream of audio headlines (like Carlos Ghosn hiding in audio gear), Audio-First pretty much writes itself.

Day by day, I sense audio hype and investor interest growing. When I wrote this piece last May, there wasn’t much hype here at all. Now, all the VCs are on TalkShow wondering what’s happening here. It feels like a timely discussion. Let’s get right into it.

The world’s biggest radio station

With over 2 billion monthly users, it’s no secret that Youtube is the world’s largest video platform. But could it also be the #1 audio platform as well? In one of my favorite summaries of the audio space, Alex Danco highlighted how YouTube is probably the biggest hub out there. Danco writes:

We know that Music on YouTube is huge, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I mean: what percentage of all YouTube content, and of all streaming time, is content that’s mainly someone talking, saturating one single sense – your ears – and not much else important is really going on? If 10% of YouTube consumption falls into this category (and I’ll bet you it’s higher!) that’s 100 million hours of New Radio consumed every day. 

Clearly, the scale of the platform is bananas. But it’s overlooked that video is often consumed as a “podcast equivalent”—or New Radio as Danco calls it. There are no hard numbers here, but if it’s even 10% of video streamed on YouTube, it’s an astronomical amount (1/10th of the 1B hours watched per day). 

10% sounds about right to me, too. In my daily workflow, I constantly start videos and switch tabs to simply listen. It’s the flip side to why you’re seeing viral videos on Twitter & Instagram using closed captions. Sometimes you’re not ready to listen. Other times you’re not ready for video. 

Inside this podcast-equivalent stew there’s interviews, news segments, comedy sets, vlogs, book readings, explainers and how-tos, radio-video hybrids (like Joe Rogan or The Breakfast Club), and likely more formats I’m forgetting. This spoken-into-your-brain style audio is YouTube’s bread and butter, and it’s often lumped into video when it’s really listened to as a podcast equivalent.

Even if you’re looking at traditional podcast numbers, the consumption of this audio is growing wildly. Data from a16z says that 65% percent of weekly listeners came online in just the last 3 years (!). 

And a really neat sign of the times was this chart from the FT. Publishers’ ebook sales are being cannibalized by the audiobook version. 

Charts showing how audio books have taken over from ebooks as the growth sector of the US book market. The growth has been largely driven by young, educated audiences, according to research from Pew

With better audio hardware, software, content, and consumer awareness—and the same demands of commuting, education, & boredom to fill—it’s hard to bet against the trend. Video screens have grown so omnipresent where sleep is Netflix’s biggest competitor. Maybe it’s audio’s turn to fill in where screens will never exist (until widespread AR).

We know audio thrives in that 70%-attention realm, where you’re walking down the subway stairs but can handle eavesdropping on a stimulating discussion. My biggest learning as an AirPod owner has been just how much 70%-time there is to fill. This is why I’m ‘long’ distracted consumption—there’s just a shocking amount of surface area unlocked.

But wait. Why would audio hold a candle to videos, which are far more captivating and information-dense?

As the neuroeconomics researcher Paul Zak said: “A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text. It’s the same kind of activation in the brain” 

There’s also something magnetic and deeply human about interviews. Breaker, a podcast app, said over half of its most popular episodes in 2019 were interview style. Sometimes you could listen to a person talk all day, based on some combo of style, views, and knowledge. (For me that’s Russ Roberts.)

People often slam audio as the lazy version. And they might be right in terms of retention. And there’s a chance it’s leading to never-quiet minds. But, more likely, people are already consuming more information than ever, and this just suits their needs. I imagine most people’s New Radio calculus is justified along the lines of, “If it’s not 100% critical work stuff or for entertainment, why focus fully? I’ve got a million things to do.” At least, that’s my calculus.

To tie this all back to Youtube, the point here is they’re sitting on a goldmine. Famously, you cannot play videos in the mobile app with the screen locked (it’s currently a big upsell feature for Premium). But what if you could? What if they added dynamic podcast ads like Spotify is soon attempting? What if YouTube made an audio push? There’s really no telling how they could exploit their scale. The platform wars are far from over.

YouTube, the music community

One of my all-time favorite creators is Anthony Fantano’s channel The Needle Drop. Fantano is a masterful creator at reviewing albums, and I give his reviews about as much weight as Pitchfork, which is the most influential arbiter of taste, periodt. Fantano has done a lot of things right as a YouTuber. He was early to the platform, he embraced esoteric musical genres, and he layers his videos with glitches and meme-y absurdist humor to keep it interesting. And this is all in addition to being a talented reviewer of music. Listen to him talking about Denzel Curry’s insane trap bangers like he’s defending a PhD dissertation. 

If you’re a creator in the music space, it’s no secret that YouTube is your place to start. 

For me, I’ll watch Nardwuar and The Breakfast Club for artist interviews, Paul Davids for guitar playing, Tony Holiday for producing in Logic Pro X, Justice Der for guitar inspo, Cercle (a very high-quality Boiler Room alternative), Holistic Songwriting for music theory. The list goes on.

But beyond being an excellent musician school, YouTube is the perfect crucible to see mega-trends in action. One big one is artist discovery. 

In the platform world, there’s new gatekeepers in town. Getting featured by curators like Trap Nation or Chillhop radio’s (maker of the famous ‘lofi beats to study/relax to’ channel) can put an artists’ music in front of millions. And through Tony Holiday, I learned about 88rising, a YouTube promoter/artist manager/record label hybrid that’s behind Asian hip-hop names including Rich Brian and Joji. 88rising’s formula is effectively the 21st century playbook: launch a curated corner on a content platform->build trust in a niche->partner with the artists you promote. Not shockingly, 88rising has its own tastemaker section at Coachella (much like Soulection did the year prior).

Another mega-trends is the presence of Latin Trip and Urbano music. In 2019, 7 out of 10 of YouTube’s biggest music videos belonged to Latin artists (as of October - the final list isn’t yet out). And in 2018, the 3 most-streamed artists were Ozuna, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny, with 8 of the 10 biggest videos considered ‘Latin.’ Some music analysts say 95% of the genre is streamed.

For any artist, curator, and music-related creator, YouTube is where the eyeballs (/eardrums) are found. 

Liner Notes

The confusing equity triangle of Spotify has with Tencent Music. How indie went pop and pop went indie (echoing what I wrote this summer). The world’s most infamous audio-equipment case. The black magic of AirPods and urban life.

If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy. 

Stay tuned and keep it locked,

Nick

NpappaG

PS - thanks to my music-creator-e-friend Tony Holiday for the YT knowledge. Definitely give him a follow. 

And thanks to other supporters of this series. You know who you are. I’ve got more than enough love where this feels like a worthy endeavor. Till the next.

Audio-First #3: Software Is Eating Music Hardware, DAWs, And The Long Tail Of Music

  
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[^^Listen above, or read below (or both if you’re feeling crazy)^^]

Hello audio nerds! Edition three has arrived. For those of you who are new, Audio-First is an ongoing series looking at audio, airpods, voice, and music. 

There’s also big news this week: your humble narrator has invested in some audio equipment, taking advantage of those Black Friday deals. With any luck, future editions will be heard in high-fidelity. In that vein, I’m trying to make the accompanying audio a worthy listen, and I’m finding it hard to speak aloud a pre-written work with gusto. This week, I’ll be giving it more love (and multiple takes).

Onward.

Software is eating music hardware

There’s an old chestnut in the tech industry that ‘software is eating the world.’ From snapping photos, to reading books, to watching movies, enjoying media once required a hefty investment. Obviously, breakthroughs in personal computing changed all that. After 10ish years with smartphones, we take software-based photos, publish directly online, and stream video from our couches. Software has ‘eaten’ all of this atom-world infrastructure and replaced them with the best business model ever made: near-zero marginal cost.

In terms of audio formats, the arc is just as easy to see. Recorded music began in 1860 by scribbling on glass and tinfoil, and iterated over a century into ever-smaller plastic discs until disappearing completely into the mp3.

What’s talked about less frequently is how this transformation is happening on the production side of things. As I’ve gotten more into bedroom music-making, I’ve learned software has eaten a ton of music hardware, much of it pretty recently. 

Arguably, the biggest game-changer here was the rise of DAWs (digital audio workstation), which are versions of GarageBand on steroids such as Logic Pro X, Ableton, or Pro Tools. DAWs took all the buttons and doo-dads found in a recording studio and made them available to anyone with a laptop. Artists could finally edit, mix, and add effects, with far less hassle. Again, this was niche commercial software well into the 2000s. But now it’s everywhere. The same goes for the instruments. Can’t afford a $5,000 Mellotron (the early synthesizer made famous on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’)? You can buy a software plugin that will turn your USB piano—or even your computer keyboard—into a near-replica. No moving van required.

Your favorite tunes are likely made with a mix of traditional instruments alongside dozens of software-based ones. And entire marketplaces exist to trade software instruments and samples. Lil Nas X famously made “Old Town Road” through BeatStars, which links up artists and producers to exchange beats without ever getting in the studio together. Right now, software-based tools and marketplaces are transforming the supply side of music.

The changing power law

So what happens when software ‘eats’ the tools powering art and media?

Now that everyone has Abbey Road Studios at their fingertips, there is a conundrum: financially and practically, the barriers to making music have never been lower. But now it takes more than ever to stand out from the crowd. There’s a similar saying in Silicon Valley: “it’s never been easier to start a startup, and it’s never been harder to scale one.” Or put another way, leveraging all these new tools and spitting out success has never been more complex. 

For areas like movies, music, fashion, writing (and perhaps soon food with Cloud Kitchens), the now-cheaper delivery means we consume to the point of saturation. The obvious example here is Spotify, which delivers so much recorded music that we rely on algorithms just to remember what we enjoy. Over time, we begin to care a bit less who’s making the songs, deferring to playlists and curators. But we’re also listening to more than ever, so in aggregate there’s more consumption—and likely artistic inspiration—than ever. Anyone can indulge in it now. In certain cases, this has been the death knell of industries (for journalism it literally halved newsroom jobs). Elsewhere, in music, fashion, and video it’s completely reinvigorated them.

This summer, after going to a music festival, I was struck by how the pop artists seemed better than ever (even compared to the indie mainstays): 

Thanks to the long-tail effects of the internet, ‘niche’ artists can amass huge followings. For most of my music-snob life, ‘pop’ music had a negative connotation. But the lines of ‘pop’ versus ‘indie’ have blurred so much it’s almost meaningless now. There is no gulf in artistic quality anymore. Any small genre can quickly become ‘pop’ if it gets enough clicks. And conversely, hyper-popular musicians like Arianna Grande are actually making great music now. (Sidenote: I’m still not sure if this effect benefits incumbents or newcomers more, but I think the whole pie is growing.)

Maybe I was fooling myself, but I felt I was witnessing firsthand how the internet made things more efficient. 10 years ago, indie music was a cut above pop music. Now, it seems that Top 40 names organically bubble up with far more artistic integrity.

I’m still curious as to how tech disruption changes the “odds of success” in the music game and beyond. Especially because not long ago Spotify CEO Daniel Ek made the bold claim that the company’s long-term mission is to empower “1 million creators to live off their work.” Does the rising tide lift all boats equally? Does it favor incumbents over newcomers (or vice-versa)?

I dug around for some numbers here, and while this data includes a large cohort of designers, a stable share of the labor force are working artists (either as a primary or secondary job), growing slightly from 1.4% to 1.55%. Other fun fact: 34% of musicians pursue it as a second job, which is the highest rate of all creative fields. 

Another big consideration here is the hits-driven nature of this world. I came across this excellent data science post by Michael Taulberg called Power Law in Popular Media that explored the competitive landscape of different media types. Surprisingly, the study found video game publishing is the most winner-take-all industry, followed by book publishing. Music, more middle of the pack, saw the top 20% of artists commanding 69.7% of the Billboard success. And newspapers were the least concentrated, with the top 20% seeing only 62% of the circulation.

So what can we expect from this recent democratization of music tools? Will gains still go to the big fish? Or will an influx of new artists translate to more success for the newcomers?

I couldn’t gather evidence that supports either view. Certainly, though, it stands to reason from long tail theory, that we can expect a nichification of “long tail” music to wrest away power from pop stars. Recent successes like Lil Nas X keep this dream alive for outsiders.

But is Lil Nas X part of a growing tide, or an exception to the rule? Or put differently, does being in a saturated, algorithm-driven musical renaissance increase the appetite for the small-time creators? My hunch is it’s never been better for the little guy. Theoretically, the tools are out there and the gatekeepers are less powerful than ever. In actuality, though, it’s not so cut and dry. There’s a strong possibility we prefer a certain ratio of hits-to-weird music in our lives.

As that data scientist Michael Taulberg wrote:

What is it about media that results in this concentration of success? …   in our networked world people recommend books, movies, and games to each other. These titles will get more reviews, more shelf space, and ultimately, more attention. In this way, success breeds success. It’s a virtuous cycle, a positive feedback loop. The popularity of one work takes attention away from others. It crowds out other media just as giant trees crowds out smaller plants. This process is called preferential attachment and it is at the heart of power law. 

Is our attention for unestablished creators expanding? Or is there a natural equilibrium that persists?

As a once-in-a-while DJ myself, there’s always a tension between playing bangers versus taking a chance on something edgier. Among DJs, there’s an apt and cynical saying here: “people want to hear 2 types of music—songs they’ve heard before and songs they’ve heard before.”

Liner notes

Holiday must-have: the AirPod carrying strap. The first-ever Spotify Awards will be held in Mexico City, which is apparently the world’s music streaming capital. Apple clapped back with its own event celebrating Billie Eilish. Travis Scott’s Jack Boys, coming soon. How UK garage producer Burial inspired Lana Wachowski. Grimes interviewing Lana Del Rey. A case for Tame Impala as artist of the decade.

If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy. 

Stay tuned and keep it locked,

Nick

NpappaG

PS - The audio market map is still on the way. Hofstadter’s law in action :)

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