Those of you that grew up huddled around transistor radios and then happily moved to a world of screens, photos, videos and SMS will rejoice in audio’s rebound. Voice and audio are back and bigger than ever.
In the last year there has been over $1 billion in M&A in the audio space, as companies from Amazon to Spotify made investments and startups abounded. It’s not surprising that audio is having a moment. The pandemic forced us all to live life through screen-size windows watching faces in boxes. Anything that could untether us was welcome.
At this year’s SXSW, entertainment industry veteran David Bloom noted that audio was having “a Cambrian explosion of all sorts of new life forms garnering attention from investors, creators, and new platforms.” Amir Hirsch from Audioburst calls it the “Year of the Ear” saying that audio “can pretty much follow you throughout your day without interrupting whatever it is that you’re doing at that moment in time.” EMarketer reports in its US Time Spent with Media 2021 that time spent on digital audio listening grew 8.3 percent in 2020 and is expecting to continue to grow in 2021.
An explosion of content, increased bandwidth, and new audio technologies have created the perfect storm for audio’s comeback. Audio is well suited to remote production and relatively inexpensive production, so creators flocked to the medium during the pandemic. The results are exploding simultaneously across many different audio arenas.
The global audiobooks market size was valued at $2.67 billion in 2019 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 24.4 percent from 2020 to 2027. Audiobooks as an audio genre are not growing quite as quickly as podcast listening, but growing nonetheless. Perhaps that’s because of the required commitment of time to listen, or perhaps because the medium has been around for longer than podcasts. An average audiobook is 10 hours long. Long plane rides and car rides have not kept pace during the pandemic, and many people’s new commute from bed to kitchen to desk isn’t conducive to longform listening. Still, for screen-tired eyes, for immersion into a story, for saving sagging bookshelves, and for many other reasons, a deeper-comprehension audiobook is the medium of choice.
You’d figure that without the daily commutes, podcast listening would drop. But according to The Infinite Dial, podcast listenership is actually up–way up. Approximately eighty million Americans – 28 percent of the U.S. population over 12– are now weekly podcast listeners, a 17 percent increase over 2020. And the market is quickly maturing from one of indies to one of corporations.
Spotify made the most notable investment into the podcast market by deftly incorporating podcasts into its music offerings. Its podcast catalog now offers over 1.9 million titles. Acquisitions including Megaphone, which serves ads over podcast networks, The Ringer, a podcast network, Gimlet Media, podcast producers, and Anchor, a distribution platform that lets anyone publish and monetize their own shows together have given Spotify a healthy lead (it’s now ahead of Apple in podcast distribution).
Facebook is planning on entering the audio streaming market soon as well. As celebrities, presidents, and first ladies are embracing the medium, and as NPR still reigns in quantity and quality, indie podcast followers bemoan the gentrification of podcasts. There’s a treasure trove of podcast data from this past January available at Podcast Insights and there’s no doubt that we like to listen.
There’s enough written about the Clubhouse juggernaut to have turned into cocktail chatter (if you remember what that is) in its own right. Again, your eyes are not on the screen, your hands are free and you get to listen and vocalize actively or not.
Born of a moment when we craved intimacy that wasn’t screen-driven, Clubhouse offers audio-only encounters in different rooms, on different topics, nearly 24×7. It promises attendees an authentic, original environment for conversation. On its one-year anniversary about now, the Clubhouse app has been downloaded 13 million times worldwide . Twitter is working on a similar experience called Spaces and naturally so is the ultimate mimic, Facebook. Clubhouse has been lambasted for fostering the bro’ insider network but its exclusivity and VIP aura are rapidly diminishing.
Expect to see other newcomers in adapting voice-only environments this year. (Special tip to founder-types: there’s a lot of money to be made in Clubhouse’s offspring products, to do anything from organizing the discovery of rooms to offering recaps and saving soundbytes.) Less buzzworthy newcomers like Nedl use a radio broadcasting model where you can start talking into the mic and invite your friends to join. Think radio call-in show. Nedl already has 74 million daily listeners in the U.S. alone.
At SXSW I (virtually) bumped into the earnest and articulate founder of Swell. Unlike Clubhouse which is synchronous communications (sort of like the old telephone party line), Swell is all about asynchronous communications, where you broadcast a bit of audio and others then comment. CEO Sudha Varadarajan likes to say that as a species people convey emotion with voice that cannot be conveyed in other ways. And she believes that asynchronous solutions are more thoughtful. One person talks. The next person thinks before they respond. In a world where we’re often separated by time zones and meetings are inconvenient, she expects Swell to find its place, describing it as a social-based voice platform that’s more thoughtful than social media based on emojis and three-word messages. The best news? For the moment the app is free, though there are plans for enterprise-ready models in the works.
Smart Speakers and Voice Shopping
While mobile phones have certainly reclaimed their rightful place as “phones” in this audio-based world much of the credit for voice-enabling goes to smart speakers. Today, roughly one in four adults owns a smart speaker, and 56 percent of Americans ages 18 and older use voice assistants, according to the Media Behaviors and Influence study from Prosper Insights & Analytics. Voice-based shopping systems like Jetson are gaining momentum. Alexa is getting more helpful as a shopper, too. Even games and entertainment are finding their way to smart speakers. There are dozens of Smart Speaker games, ranging from NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell me to popular kids games from Disney. Nolan Bushnell’s Virsix gaming company launched an Alexa powered murder mystery game last year and recently launched a now canceled Kickstarter campaign for a new smart speaker-powered game called Star Audition. (Sometimes it takes a while to get it right).
Immersive High Fidelity
For years audio got no respect. It was being pushed out in low fidelity through mobile phones, questionable earbuds, and inadequate speakers on flat-screen TVs. Spatial audio — being able to hear like you’re right there, surrounded by sound, is improving. Already sites like Quoboz offer listeners higher quality audio for their streaming music. Jacqueline Bosnjack of Mach1 spoke eloquently at SXSW about the renaissance in sound that comes from being able to capture the full dimensions of sound. And in living rooms and media rooms, five and even seven-speaker setups are changing a flat-screen system into a home theatre.
We’ve had a lot of time to listen this past year, and a lot of incentive to move away from our screens. The year 2021 will be good on the ears.