Audio-First #4: The YouTube Edition

Audio-First #4: The YouTube Edition

[^^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,



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.