“So I’ve identified some calculations and KPIs that I’m going to start tracking to improve my overall life experience,” Farbod Nowzad says, seemingly seriously, into his phone microphone.
He lists his KPIs, or key performance indicators: the number of smoothies he drinks per week, how much time he spends listening to live techno music, and the number of rooftop bars he visits. I tap through to hear more. Someone named Nikolai advises people to maximize “the number of water fixtures that come into your field of vision each day”
This, for several founders and investors, is the future of sound: short-form recordings that are social, divisible and thought-provoking, or at least make you want to listen and say something.
Several startups, including Beams, Quest and Nowzad’s app Pludo are betting on their efforts, and investors’ cash, for there to be business to be gained in this user-generated sound. Even the world’s largest social platform sees this as an opportunity; Facebook announced Soundbites earlier this year, an upcoming product also built around shareable, short sound clips. They all see what is happening on TikTok – many people making viral videos – and want to repeat the success with just sound. It could be the next viral frontier, and a medium that pops new stars and gives everyone lots of money, if any of these apps actually take off.
The best way to think about this effort is as voice memo apps, except that your voicemails have a time limit, and people can respond to them with multiple voice memos that also have a time limit. Oh, and the voice memos are not edited either. It’s like taking the social aspect of the clubhouse, but limiting it with a time limit, even though the analogy that keeps coming up when I talk to the founders is Twitter, and blogger.
“[Once we had blogs] then we had tools like Twitter and Tumblr that removed all the complexity and just said, ‘You don’t have to think of yourself as a blogger, just type words in the box and press publish,’ and that led to this unlocking of so much creativity, says Austin Petersmith, founder and CEO of Racket, another short-form audio platform that is currently in beta and has collected a first seed round of funding, although Petersmith would not disclose the amount.
Giving people an online microphone and a time limit, he says, makes podcasting easier to approach.
“Hundreds of millions of people actively engage in TikToks, hundreds of millions of people actively blog, and less than a million people actively podcast,” he says. “I don’t think it makes sense.”
The racket limits people to nine minutes of recording, which right now they can only do online. However, an app is under development, as are plans to make the platform open to everyone. Petersmith says 18,000 minutes of audio have been published since the company’s launch this year; 70,000 people have listened to a racket, that’s what they call the audio excerpts; and 17,000 people have signed up.
But why the sound mania now? Alan Sternberg, co-founder of Beams, which he and his co-founder say has raised $ 3 million, says the apps come from a confluence of factors: improving the phone’s microphones, clubhouses that popularize the idea of social sound, and fast speech-to-text transcription.
In particular, none of these apps offer RSS feeds to distribute content to other apps, and essentially configure them as proprietary vehicles through which people can consume and create content. They are very much not podcasts. Sternberg says that RSS is a problem, even because it does not allow a social network to grow in an app.
“I think the problem with RSS, when you look at podcasting, is that it’s a decentralized technology that was not designed to be a social network,” he says, suggesting that is why apps need Beams to exist.
Meanwhile, for investors, the short-lived sound trend makes sense as a way to build on the success of live social sound apps and improve them, at least in an investor’s thoughts. Jake Chapman, an investor in Racket, points out several issues he sees with live audio. Conversations go off the rails from the promised space topic, as the character of the conversation, and because they are live and not recorded, at least in the Clubhouse case, the app can not be optimized for discovery.
“I believe that audio companies with short excerpts have a much better chance of success [than apps like Clubhouse]”I think they can itch from the same kind of itching. So the racket, for example because rackets are pre-recorded, so they are asynchronous, and because they are short, the signal-to-noise ratio is completely reversed.”
He also says that apps that specialize in long-form sound will have higher costs when transcribing hour-long conversations and optimizing the discovery around them, versus short form.
Of course, podcasting has been around for years and has been it is Big Tech moments now too. Amazon recently acquired a podcasting company, in addition to the podcast network Wondery, and Spotify has spent upwards of a billion dollars on exclusive content agreements and acquisitions of companies across the site. No one really thought podcasting was ruined, but Big Tech saw an opportunity to monetize it, mostly by showing and targeting ads to shows, and grabbed it.
Spotify especially bought Anchor in 2019, without a doubt the app that was groundbreaking for the idea of mobile audio recording. However, it did not focus on short-form sound, and was more designed to democratize podcast creation, as it still tries to do today. Anchor tried to make his app a place to listen as well as create, but never managed to make it a goal.
That is the real obstacle for these startups. Podcasts thrive when they are available across platforms – some shows do well on YouTube, others find audiences on Apple Podcasts, and others do well on Pocket Casts. But these new apps and their founders see locked content as the way forward.
However, these startups face two main obstacles: Facebook, which will soon enter the room and plans to pay out $ 1 billion to creators across the platform next year, and the outstanding question that exists, whether people will hear this audio format. Will someone actually listen to a stranger give them ideas about KPIs to optimize their lives? Or would they just prefer a tweet?