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May 21, 2019, 11:27 a.m.

From Walkman to podcast: Sony Music moves into the podcast business, setting the stage for other music companies

Plus: Running from zombies for profit, Comic Sans rises again, and Spotify has a “Car Thing.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 210, published May 21, 2019.

Joint adventures. Last Thursday, Variety reported that Sony Music, the global music conglomerate ($7.2 billion in revenue in fiscal 2018), has formed a joint venture with Adam Davidson, the New Yorker staff writer and co-founder of Planet Money, and Laura Mayer, the former executive producer at Stitcher.

The new entity, which has yet to be named, is structured as follows: Sony Music will own 50 percent while Mayer and Davidson each hold 25 percent, with the former taking responsibility of the various business aspects (marketing, sales, distribution, business development, and so on) and the latter two focusing solely on the creative side. According to the Variety writeup, Sony Music is also investing an undisclosed sum.

One significant thing to keep in mind: “This is not a music content company,” Davidson emphasized when I reached out for more information over email. “We are a podcast company.” That is, the new venture will focus on programming across a variety of genres, topics, and production types, and thus will not strictly take the form of a music podcast-centric operation. “I’m sure we’ll do some music shows, but that is not our focus,” he added.

I found this a little surprising, having originally assumed as such when I first spotted the news. After all, when you have a major music conglomerate making an investment into a space somewhat outside of its content expertise, one might assume that said company would want to capitalize on its unique edge — music licenses, activated music audiences, talent relationships, and so on — especially when that edge happens to be in the genre most desired by podcast listeners, according to recent research. But that isn’t necessarily the case. The move is perhaps better contextualized by knowing Sony Music has previously worked in the development and distribution of other types of non-music audio content, like stand-up comedy recordings.

This arrangement is interesting logistical development for Davidson and Mayer, who had recently formed a separate venture called Arrow Productions in order to produce a Luminary show called The Passion Economy for exclusive distribution behind the app’s paywall. I’m told all of Mayer and Davidson’s future projects will be funneled through this new joint venture with Sony Music.

So where does that leave The Passion Economy? That production, I’m told, will keep going in its current form. “We feel great about it,” Davidson tells me. “We’re hearing great things from listeners. We feel like we hit the voice we wanted. Lena Richards, the show’s producer, is amazing and will continue to work on the show.”

I asked about the thinking driving the choice to partner up with Sony Music — specifically given the pre-existence of Arrow Productions — and Davidson replied:

When Laura and I started working together last year, we decided we would have no investors, no corporate partners. We wanted to be able to do work that we loved without having some outside entity demanding we hit external metrics or satisfy their external strategy. Sony Music reached out to us and we were, initially, skeptical. Over time, though, we came to see that Sony is a creator’s company. They see their core competency as supporting artists so they can do their best work. They are able to give us this amazing global infrastructure. They know how to market and distribute audio content to people all over the world. They know how to manage a portfolio of creative products. This is a real strategic partnership, where we all feel like we have a lot to learn from each other.

It’s also worth noting that forming joint ventures directly with creators is not an uncommon move for Sony Music, which has done so often with specific musicians to create new music labels. Of course, the metaphor here isn’t strictly one-to-one — I reckon the Sony folks would be hesitant to use the same “label” language here, since it means very specific things in the music industry context — but the general direction of the logic is very much there.

Anyway, Mayer and Davidson are now setting up shop in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus, and they hold plans to hire for producers soon, so keep an eye out for that. (On a completely separate note, did you know the city is rezoning the neighborhood to allow for high-rises? Man.)

Two miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I fully expect to see similar plays from other major music groups.
  • One way to think about this from the creator’s perspective: It’s an alternative to raising VC money to start a podcast content company — though probably one that isn’t accessible to most.

This week in Spotify. Two stories to follow if you’re keeping an eye on whether Spotify will indeed become the next Great Podcast Platform:

  • Here’s a look at Spotify’s app redesign, courtesy of The Verge; it appears to have hit only a small percentage of users at this point in time. Two things: First, a spokesperson declined to definitively say if this is, indeed, the version that will roll out to all users eventually. And second, note that the images only pertain to the “My Library” section of the app. I don’t really have a gut take on this just yet other than: I have a feeling this is merely the tip of the iceberg.
  • Spotify is apparently working on its first piece of hardware: a voice-controlled smart assistant for the car that the company is calling, well, “Car Thing.” (The name might be a placeholder, but I do hope they keep it. Shouts to the branding-slash-verbal-identity expert that came up with that.) This development doesn’t come out of nowhere, as there have been reports dating back to last summer of the company registering with the FCC, which is, as Variety explained, a necessary first step to getting devices approved by the government for use within the United States. If you should take away just one thing: This sets up a pretty interesting clash with car OEMs, which is the space within which terrestrial radio companies make their bread.

A lot more Spotify in the newsletter these days, huh?

Post-zombie [by Caroline Crampton]. I’m not very good at regularly exercising, partly because, while I like running, I’m rubbish at self-improvement and get bored easily without some external form of entertainment. My quest to overcome this has lead to some exploration at the intersection of fitness apps and podcasting, which largely takes the form of finding things to keep me running without having to listen to my own thoughts too much.

It was this search that led me to Zombies, Run!, a platform that combines audio storytelling, gameplay that’s akin to LARPing, and exercise tutorials. In a nutshell: You’re made to run from imaginary zombies, which is a formula that seems to work better for many people, including myself, than your standard couch-to-5k course.

As I’ve become more familiar with the app — which has just published season 8 of its main storyline and now contains around 400 episodes you can run/play — I’ve been thinking more and more about how what it delivers relates to podcasting. In many ways, Zombies, Run! is a serialized audio fiction show, albeit one often interrupted as the runner requires encouragement or unlocks a reward. It also has some pretty serious writing talent behind it, in the form of a London-based team headed by the games writer and award-winning novelist Naomi Alderman (author of Disobedience and The Power, among other books, and also the immersive podcast The Walk). The app has also started adding non-zombie-flavored narratives into the mix, an effort to diversify the genres and styles the runner can experience, ranging from a historical exploration story set in the U.S. to a hunt for Jack the Ripper.

I recently caught up with Adrian Hon, CEO of Six to Start, the company behind the app and the stories, to find out why they’re expanding beyond zombies and how he sees what they do within the larger audio industry.

“The way in which it’s different from a podcast or an audiobook is that we interleave the story with your own music, which is a really important part of the experience,” he said. “So it’s not just 10 or 20 or 30 minutes of straight story — it’s like three minutes of a story and then one or two of your songs and then another three minutes of story. And so we found that works out to be a really good mixture of motivation and story. The other part of it is that you collect items as you run and that’s something that also exists in some of the new adventures.”

Hon started Six to Start in 2007 after studying neuroscience and psychology at Oxford and Cambridge. He abandoned a Ph.D. partway through to pursue his love of making video games, which led him to start this outfit. “It was the 2000s! You could do anything back then,” he said. The company now has 10 full-time employees who work remotely from all over the world.

Naomi Alderman is a long time collaborator — they’ve been friends for years, Hon said, and the pair first worked together on an alternate reality treasure hunt game called Perplex City in 2004. The idea of a zombie-based running game came up over lunch in 2011, when Hon was pondering the idea of developing a fitness game and Alderman had just joined a running group. One of her fellow runners said that they were there to run “because they wanted to survive the zombie apocalypse.”

Hon was initially skeptical — “I was sick of zombies, they’re overdone, they’re a fad” — but he was persuaded to see that “they’re just such a good story engine” because “they provide a castiron solid case for why you actually need to run.” Plus, he pointed out, “there’s a reason why The Walking Dead just keeps on going on forever.” People just really enjoy stuff about zombies.

Zombies, Run! now works on a subscription model — the app used to cost around $8 to download, but in 2015 they switched to a subscribe-to-unlock system, partly because of changing smartphone user behavior meant that focusing on new downloads was less viable. “The average number of apps that users download in a month now is zero,” Hon said. “Basically people don’t download new apps anymore…Even if you get your app featured on the App Store now, it’s not worth anywhere near as many downloads as it used to be.” They’ve never paid anything to advertise or market the app, he said — it’s reached people entirely through word of mouth.

The subscription costs $35 a year to unlock everything in the app (free users have to accrue credits and wait to access new episodes, and also sometimes hear ads). The app has over 200,000 active monthly users and nearly 50,000 paying subscribers. “They’re really loyal as well,” he said. “Most of them remain subscribed after the first year.” He also pointed out that the app’s position at the meeting point of fitness, gaming, and storytelling is really useful when it comes to monetization, because people are completely used to the idea of paying for a gym subscription or to unlock more levels of a game, even if paying upfront for podcast episodes isn’t quite so standard (yet).

They’ve experimented with delivering podcast-style ads and sponsor reads to free users at the start of missions in the last couple of years. “We sell them via Midroll, although we have had some companies come to use directly.” They’ve had some success with this, Hon says, but have found the fact that they can’t report direct episode downloads like a conventional podcast makes it a bit more difficult.

“We can tell them how many mission plays we’ve had, and we have great stats around that,” Hon said. “We control the app so we know that people are playing them and you can’t skip them…But I think from a business point of view what we found is that obviously most advertisers just want a one-stop shop.” The advertising is a useful bit of revenue, but “we never thought it would be, you know, the primary way we would make most of our money,” he concluded.

Six to Start has done some audio work outside of the fitness apps. They’ve made a 90-minute drama set in the Zombies, Run! universe for Audible. Hon and the team also collaborated with Panoply (back when the company still dealt with content) in 2018 to turn one of their other apps, The Walk (also co-created with Alderman and funded as a fitness initiative by the U.K. Department of Health), into a first-person podcast drama. That was one of Apple Podcasts’ “most downloaded new shows” last year and hit plenty of best-of lists. However, Hon said that in spite of the so-called podcasting boom, he’s always been skeptical about pivoting the company too far in that direction. “We didn’t really understand how most podcasts actually made money,” he said. “It just seemed like a very tricky business to be in.”

Hon’s preference is to stick to the subscription model rather than branch out into pure podcasting for the sake of it. “Fundamentally, we don’t really want to be a content provider to another platform,” he said. “I think that that does work out really well for some people. But we like controlling our own destiny and monetizing directly.” Adding new stories that aren’t set in the original Zombies universe is their next big step, since it keeps them in the fitness zone that has worked for the past seven years but potentially brings in new runners with different tastes.

Hon added: “It’s as if we’re Netflix, but we’ve only had one TV show — one amazing TV show, but only one of them. And now we’ll see what happens if we add some more stories. If people like them, this gives another way in.”

Career spotlight [by Caroline Crampton]. This week I spent some email time with Arlie Adlington, a producer in London with a wide and interesting portfolio, who is also part of the steering group for a recently launched accessibility and diversity initiative for the U.K. audio industry.

Arlie wrote about moving into audio after a career in another industry, working on that work-life balance we all talk about, and starting out with Harry Potter.

Hot Pod: What do you do?

Arlie Adlington: I’m a freelance producer, and right now I’m mostly working on a branded podcast for a travel company. It’s been fun because I got to visit a few places in Europe that I’d never been to, plus I’m extremely optimistic about the chances I’ll be able to do a lot of the editing while sitting in my garden during May and June.

In my spare time, I’m part of a group of volunteers working to set up a new audio producer fellowship in the U.K., called Multitrack 2019. This will be the pilot year and the fellowship aims to offer two months of paid work, training and networking to up and coming producers who are struggling to get a break into the industry. We’re really hoping it’ll be a good opportunity for the people who get to do it.

I’m also thinking a lot about work-life balance and how it’d be nice to have some. I’m planning a holiday and putting some time aside to work on ideas for stuff I’d like to make and pitch.

Hot Pod: How did you get here?

Adlington: I spent most of my 20s working in marketing and not feeling very inspired by it. Then in 2016, my friend CJ and I started a podcast about Harry Potter called The Boy Who Hasn’t Lived, and I realized all I wanted to do all day was make audio things. So I started trying to work out how I could make that happen. I ended up doing an M.A. in radio and then started freelancing when I finished last summer.

I think I’ve been really lucky because I’ve had the chance to do lots of things I’ve really loved, and I kind of feel like my dreams have come true. My favorite thing is that I got to co-produce a podcast called NB for BBC Sounds, with Caitlin Benedict (a badass radio producer at the BBC). It’s all about non-binary gender identity, and it ticked so many exciting boxes for me: (1) make audio things all day; (2) work in a very collaborative, creative environment; (3) make joyful queer content that fellow trans people actually enjoy listening to.

In terms of where I’d like my career to go…I’m hoping the second half of 2019 will include getting to make some things I’ve pitched. Also, I really like helping total beginners learn to make creative audio things, so I’m hoping there could be more of that in my future.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Adlington: When I didn’t care for my job, it just meant “the thing I do so I can pay my rent and buy pizzas.” Now I think I can see my career as something I can draw meaningful life-satisfaction-feelings from. I always hoped I might be able to have a job that gives me that, so it’s really cool. It also makes me feel weirdly pressurised because now I have discovered the joy of really liking my job, I never want to lose it. But that’s quite a nice place to be, so I’m not complaining.

Hot Pod: What did you want to do when you were growing up?

Adlington: I remember wanting to be an archaeologist for ages.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to right now?

Adlington: I really, really like The Cut On Tuesdays. I’m listening to the podcast Tell Them, I Am, which is releasing one episode a day during Ramadan. My usual stance on daily podcasts is that they come out too often, but this one is a real joy and I don’t feel like it’s hassling me. Also my friend Ari Mejia (who’s a producer in Chicago) sends me links to her audio experiments on SoundCloud, and TBH that is the thing giving me the most inspiration right now.

Hot Pod: What’s the most unusual thing working in audio has led you to?

Adlington: Probably recording a podcast episode in a toilet. It was quite cramped in there. I had to make the ultimate sacrifice and sit on the floor.

Find more of Arlie’s work on his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Against the show art. And now for something slightly different.

In case you missed it, Michael Lewis has a podcast now. (Separate and apart from The Coming Storm, of course, which wasn’t a podcast but an Audible Original. Before we split too many hairs, let’s just move on.) It’s called Against the Rules, it’s distributed by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries, and it features a series of Lewisian stories about the notion of rules and referees in society and what happens when they lose their power. The production just wrapped up its seven-part debut season last week, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s all there for you.

I plan to discuss the actual podcast elsewhere, but today, I’d like to talk about the show art, which kicked up some amusing discussion — and in some corners, wry derision — when it first dropped:

Kinda wild, huh? Not as wild as, say, the original art for The Worst Idea of All Time, but it’s trending in that direction.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to get some insight into the design from the person behind it: John J. Custer, who had already worked with Pushkin to produce art for another of its podcasts, Broken Record. He’s a veteran designer whose client list includes Nike, the Google Creative Lab, PS212, and Nickelodeon, among others.

I initially planned to run this piece as a Q&A, but my line of questioning was all over the place, so I’m reformatting it as an “as told to” piece, which I think works a lot better. If this goes well, I might flip this show-art focus into a recurring feature. Let me know what you think.

Okay, here’s John:

My background is in traditional branding. I’ve been doing this shit for about a decade now, working with Fortune 500 companies and mom-and-pop coffee shops and everything in between. I’m also a freelance art director at The New York Times, working within the Op-Ed and Editorial Opinion section. That job involves really quick turnaround times. I can commission an artist in the morning, have it filed six hours later, and that’s it. No time to think about anything. So I generally balance those two things: high-brow corporate identity on the one hand, and the lowbrow quickness that comes with editorial illustration on the other.

There wasn’t really a design brief for Against the Rules. [Pushkin] just reached out and said, “Hey, we need art for the stuff that usually appears on iTunes and Spotify — podcast tiles, promo banners, etc.” I was sent the first episode and some background on Michael’s work, which I didn’t really know much about specifically. We got the concept pretty quickly. The podcast is largely about unfairness and inequality, and what happens when people take advantage of a lack of referees.

The pitch I had in my presentation was based on the idea of going against design rules. First, let’s use Comic Sans, which is just hilarious. Some people have called it the worst typeface in the world. Two, let’s stretch the type so it looks weird and even more wrong. That choice also makes the design somewhat idiot-proof; you could mess the delivery a whole bunch of ways but the idea is still there. And I had this third idea — which some people at Pushkin were really into, but ultimately thought that it was too much for Apple — to turn the art completely upside down. (We considered other possible directions. One involved a large crying baby against the title, going with the notion that, well, when things don’t go your way you’re just a big crybaby.)

The design came out from my own personal frustrations around the design community. There’s a hoity-toity-ness with design that can even appear in the podcast world, and my personal feeling on design and brands is, like, as long as the art communicates what it needs to do, then it’s successful. If it does its job, it does its job. They also come from my personal emotional interpretation about what I can’t stand about design right now, particularly how brand and design agencies charge a lot for these perfectly little things. With podcasts, there should be a little flexibility. People get upset because design is supposed to this perfect, clean thing. Screw that; my mom and dad know what Comic Sans is, and I think that’s great.

Pretty much the only rule we had was the main color scheme: black and yellow. That’s inspired by caution signs and roadside construction signs, hardhats, things like that. It could have been black and white, but we wanted to push away from the color palette of the other Pushkin shows [i.e. Broken Record and Revisionist History]. And there’s a little more consistency, since it does live on the screen so often. I mean, I’m sure it will be printed out and be on posters here and there, so we do expect to see it out in the world. But I would guesstimate that 80 percent of its life is going to be on a phone, on a TV screen, on a computer screen.

You know, corporations spend millions of dollars on advertising and identity systems so they can create a specific niche in whatever market they’re a part of. So it’s completely purposeful, and I completely understand it on the corporate, but luckily for me as a creative, I’ve been able to move a little away from that kind of clientele. Being able to come on and work for Pushkin, which isn’t a fully consumeristic endeavor, has been pretty great.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion [about the art]. None of it is going to hurt my feelings. You just have to kind of brush these opinions off. I trust my gut, and I trust my clients that trust my gut, and I think if the choices are established within reason and are considered from every standpoint, it’s as good as gold.

You can check out John’s design portfolio on his website.


Release notes

  • Leon Neyfakh’s Luminary show, Fiasco, drops this Thursday.
  • has a writeup on a new narrative sci-fi podcast built around the actress Jenny Slate called Earth Break.
  • The TED Interview has returned for a second season.
  • WNYC drops a new show, Adulting, today.
POSTED     May 21, 2019, 11:27 a.m.
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