July 23, 2013 at 11:38 am

WTF: Lessons from the Podcast Renaissance

marc maron wtf podcasting music

Marc Maron, pictured on the right, was as surprised as anybody when a garage-based podcast resurrected his career, leading to sold-out appearances and a television show that was just renewed for a second season.

We’ve been thinking for quite some time about this apparent podcast renaissance, because… why should it be? Aside from being saddled from the worst new word for content (other than “blog”), the podcast seemed destined to becoming one of those technology relics that, before too long, nobody seems to remember how to use, like the personal website.

The problem: Podcasts were designed to serve fresh audio to old-school devices like the original iPods, which can’t connect to the internet on their own. Now that seemingly everything connects to “the cloud,” why would anyone want to to subscribe to things that download stuff?

As it turns out, plenty of people still like podcasts, the author included, for a combination of reasons (including that downloaded podcasts don’t mess with your data plan or suffer outages when you’re on the train). Apple announced on Monday that it now manages one billion podcast subscriptions. That’s a big number, and no matter how you slice it, podcasts are moving a lot of audio.

For a music industry that is also concerned with moving a lot of audio, and that is always looking for new ways to deliver content, and to get people and advertisers to pay for it, the podcasting renaissance offers some potentially valuable lessons in how to deliver music via artist, label, or other apps, whether through an actual podcast or a podcast-like feature within another app.

Notes: We understand that negotiating the licenses necessary to include someone else’s music in a podcast are thorny, with no compulsory rate, the way there is for streaming. However, there’s no reason an artist or label couldn’t podcast music to which it has or can easily obtain the rights.

Easy, Optional ‘Push’

There’s a lot of music on Rdio, Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, and all of the other services we use to listen to music. If you know, for sure, that you want a specific slice of that content, perhaps you’d subscribe to a podcast of music from a certain artist, label, radio station, or other entity. That way, you could simply open the app and hear something you’d like. With most podcast clients these days, you can choose to stream any episode you want, or tap a symbol to download it to your phone, so you can play it without using a connection. In the early days of the web, this was called “push” technology, in that it was pushed to you, rather than you having to seek it.

Personality/Voice

FM radio has plenty wrong with it, but one thing it still gets right is voice. People tune in to WTF and other podcasts in part because the guests are interesting, but also because the host has such a strong, consistent voice. Digital music in its various forms demolishes FM radio in every other area; an app that included voice, both literally and figuratively, could make a big impression, whether applied to hand-programmed or personalized radio.

Episodic Content

Musicians still record albums, in part because it’s more economical to book a bunch of studio time and record everything at once (or at least to hand a bunch of material over to a producer). Albums still make sense as artistic statements, but artists already release singles, remixes, live versions, videos, tweets, and other elements designed to keep people interested in between albums. Perhaps one lesson of the podcast renaissance is that people like a steadier stream, rather than waiting for an album every year or two — and for that new content to be delivered in a consistent way, so they don’t have to hunt it down each time, which leads us to…

Regular Updates

One reason that podcasting works is that people don’t have to remember to do anything. This is important, because we all, from the just-got-a-smartphone teenager to the juggling-three-kids-and-a-commute suburban crowd has way too much going on these days. With podcasts, the fresh content simply appears in the client, which is about as simple as it gets. To make it easier for the listener to know when to open the app, most podcasts release new episodes on specific days of the week, so that people know when to look for them. For music, this could mean issuing a new chunk of music on the first of each month, or every Monday — the point is that people know when to check the app for the latest stuff.

Paying For The Archive

A confession: I have actually paid for a free podcast, Marc Maron’s above-linked WTF, even though the latest episodes are always available for free. The reason: I needed — needed – access to all of the earliest episodes, featuring different guests. With music, the equivalent would be getting turned on a fresh new single, and then choosing to subscribe to an artist to get their back catalog, in the form of previous “episodes.”

Podcasts aren’t the answer for every challenge faced by the music industry. Speech is different from music. However, these concepts could apply to music as well, perhaps in the context of an app like this.

In other words, when you’re listening to an online radio station, an on-demand track in Rdio, a stream from a music blog, or anything else, next to the “buy” link that sometimes appears, perhaps you could see another button for “subscribe.” What the artist then chooses to put in their podcast (or podcast-like app), once they’ve gotten your attention, is their call.

(Photo courtesy of WTFPod and Dmitri Von Klein)