The current rave about newsletters and so-called or social audio is just the latest version of the story of podcasting. Take the idea that podcasting is experiencing a new wave of popularity and scaffolding. Are you sure? Apple is bent on turning the space into a subscription model, and we’re all going to twist again like we did last summer. Somehow I doubt it. The basic attraction for me is not paying for podcasts. Subscription startups may be an important step forward, but the heart of the matter is talent formation.
Back when they first started, the real charge was the ability to own the whole stack: writer, producer, editor, star, and marketer. Making money for this may have been a future goal, but right now the real power was in figuring out what might work without the intrusion of what people other than yourself thought about the product. Only if something made itself apparent was it necessary to address the needs and wants of the audience.
Luckily, that ruled out about ninety percent of the resulting wave of stuff. There were Ted talks, or what became Ted talks, well thought out verbal slide decks in an 8 minute payload that grabbed, shook, and exacted payment in credibility and validation of the expertise of the artist. Always lurking was the question of what day job the author was moonlighting from. Many self help business books emerged from this.
Then there were the professionals, the public radio folks who knew how to do this in their sleep but were looking for a role not dependent on grant writing or public liberal funding. Reporters who knew how to squeeze out a story, producers who mined their rolodex to fashion a conversation, screenwriters looking for momentum to bank a shot off studio executives to get a pilot or series starter commitment. Eventually this added up to enough successful podcasts to attract sponsorship support from audiobooks and publishing services. Scripted shows became farm clubs for independent talent aiming for the Big Show. This endured for 20 years.
Meanwhile, the Beatles transformed the music business from a vaudeville-like zero-sum game to a Renaissance of control over writing, performing, promoting, and touring. Aspiration was the fuel of the business model, obviating the need for incremental success in favor of explosive momentum and dominance of the media. Hair, boots, sex, striking fear in the hearts of parents and then politicians everywhere. Sgt. Pepper and Kubrick created a version of the future that made everything else pale by comparison. That it all crashed and burned was just one of the risks of what became the startup culture in Silicon Valley and Route 128.
In today’s world of NFTs and Decacorns, free still has a reason for believing. The old guard of the blogging world have reinvented themselves as Lone Rangers in the creator economy. Slap a badge on that podcast and hitch a ride on the promise of endless subscription growth, minus 10% per newsletter sub or 30% for the first year in the AppStore. It’s not the long tail, so what is it? To be sure, the world will endorse the talented solitary surfers, armed with MG Sieglerian talent for the suite spot of the tech zeitgeist, the revolutionary zeal of the breakthrough synthesists of the political, lyrical, and comic survivalists.
How will the media compensate for the loss of their gatekeeper status? For starters, the more the stampede accelerates, the bundlers will storm the economics with constructs that look very much like the magazines and social destinations they replace. As crypto enters the bloodstream, streaming will generate a new measure of success and equity for the artists. Free will still be the driver of the form, but transitional models like tip jars will migrate to social capital to be banked by investors betting on the future success of the talent.
Even this early, some things have to change. The no recording conceit is an artifact of the launch stage, soon to be jettisoned when the effort reaches escape velocity. Clubhouse gains much of its critical mass from who rather than how many are swarming; interesting combinations of speakers and listeners weigh more tellingly than the raw numbers of name guests and moderators. Live is important, but committing to the voice of the artist is a calculation of time, window of opportunity, relevance to the emotion and tenor of the times. And the competitive landscape for that attention spans so many of the medias being replaced or transformed by the application of free.
None of this means the newsletter and conversation startups won’t succeed. Subscribing gives us something to consume to justify the tithe, and most people who drop streaming subs replace them with another service. As these services proliferate, competition drives innovation and expansion into events and paradigm shifts like Netflix and SPACs. Witness TechCrunch, built on just the dynamics Substack and Revue-Twitter now make accessible to a new wave of Arringtons.