Music and Podcasts: The Thousand Fruit of On-Demand Music

15.07.2021, by Giacomo Luperini

Music-centered podcasts represent the bulk of the current podcast market, but their listeners seem to be much more dispersed than for any other kind of podcast, creating a vast, complex and ever-changing universe.

Syracuse University, in the state of New York, is home to one of 12 trees created by sculptor Professor Sam Van Aken. A Tree of 40 fruit is a real-life chimera, created by grafting together parts of every single species of tree from the Prunus family. Prunus trees are common worldwide, and include (among others) almond trees (Prunus dulcis), cherry trees (Prunus avium), apricot trees (Prunus armeniaca) and peach trees (Prunus persica), thousands of cultivar scattered around the world, many of which are increasingly threatened by the looming global uniformity of our food habits. Professor Van Aken has chosen to create a piece of art as an answer to this issue, grafting together 40 species of fruit trees that have almost disappeared from our tables and orchards, all on a single rootstock. The result is surprising: a colorful tree, capable of growing just the right amount of flowers and fruit throughout most of the year.

Something similar to Aken’s tree is happening in the world of music today. The new on-demand model has radically changed the concept of art and property of artistic creations: We went from owning physical objects to owning digital bits, to being granted access to online databases.

First we used to buy CDs, then we learned to download our favorite music, and now we pay a fee to subscribe and have access to digital platforms. The new model is simple, increasingly cheaper, and allows us greater freedom to access a wide range of content and artists. A single tree with a million branches, often rare and hidden, in constant communication with each other. It would have been strange if this new, unlimited access to musical content had not been joined by an in-depth analysis of the history of artists, genres and specific sectors of the global music business. This development has been further encouraged by the extremely low cost of creating a podcast, by the increasing availability of “smart” speakers and sync technologies, as well as by new-generation smartphones offering easy access to high-quality audio recording apps. Podcasts satisfy a need for community fed by a kind of peer-to-peer communication, in which listeners often suggest and make content as well as consuming it, effectively becoming creators themselves.

The concept of “podcast” was born from this substratum. The initial idea referred to audio or video clips that were digitized through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) coding, pre-recorded, released at regular intervals and downloadable onto a device through a dedicated program. Today the definition of podcast has become much wider, and it no longer necessarily involves downloading or pre-recording. Their range and diversity of topics grows by the day, and while references to pop culture seems to be the only winning strategy in mainstream media, a niche, rare and innovative content is often a podcast’s ace in the hole.

Podcasts are growing more than exponentially. From 2015 to 2018, the number of podcast listeners grew by 270%, and during the first lockdown alone the number of podcasters worldwide rose by 500%. The bulk of these staggering numbers is composed of music-centered podcasts. 45% of all podcasts worldwide are about music, even though not a single music-centered podcast is among the 10 most successful podcasts in Italy or worldwide. Why? One reason is the fragmentation of the genre into millions of sub-categories and cultural niches. Music podcasts can be broadly divided into three main categories: podcasts about music, podcasts about musicians and podcasts streaming the musical tracks themselves.

Among music-centered podcasts, the most popular in the world and a recipient of numerous awards is Song Exploder, in which musicians narrate and answer a host’s questions about the creation of their most famous songs, their comments interspersed by short audio clips.

Among podcasts focusing on individual musicians, we cannot fail to mention Experience, entirely centered around the music of Ludovico Einaudi and stories from directors, performers and other musicians, who recount coincidences and anecdotes connected to their discovery of Einaudi’s music.

When it comes to music podcasts, the range on offer is so huge it makes it impossible to choose the “best”, but we strongly recommend the well-known NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and their extremely successful format, featuring a simple, streamlined production and a diverse and sophisticated artist choice.

There are multiple advantages to creating a podcast: it allows creators to satisfy their need for connection and communication, without having to invest too much time or resources; it helps them reach a wide audience easily, creating or solidifying a community that engages in peer-to-peer communication. Another important factor is a podcast’s direct earning potential: as well as being paid by their host platforms, podcasters can earn direct revenue from sponsors or be financed by listeners through subscription systems such as Patreon.

This sort of Frankenstein creature of modern communication seems destined to rescue and highlight, in a way that was unthinkable just a short while ago, a range of cultures and subcultures, stories, legends and anecdotes connected to music, giving them new depth, complexity and evolution.

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