Much of Clubhouse is boring — or, at least, disproportionately filled with the awkward in-between of group interaction.
This is far from a novel observation, and it’s an observation that continues to be made even as the attention and discourse around the audio chat app rose to fever pitch over the past few weeks. Pulling data from Apptopia, the New York Times reported that the app had been downloaded over four million times in the past month alone, which broadly corresponds with my own immediate networks. I started out the year with few outside my professional circles knowing what the app was; now, it’s something that gets brought up in my various Whatsapp groups every few days.
That I personally find much of the app boring is a subjective contention, of course. I’m certain a substantial portion of the app’s user base would passionately differ from my assessment, and perhaps rightly so. I’ve only been on the thing for about a week, and I get the sense many users have cultivated a different relationship with the platform than I have. I, for one, picked up the app in search of experiences that justify time away from other things I could be doing: watching a movie, chasing my cat, lurking in far-flung subreddits, plowing through more podcasts. On that front, I often find little of comparable value, even when there is spectacle.
Yet I am compelled, because there is something genuinely compelling about the Clubhouse experience. I keep dipping back into the app when I have a few minutes to spare, leaving it on in the background as I do other things — cleaning the house, making lunch, figuring out tax forms — when my brain is tired from listening to podcasts demanding close attention. Again, I rarely find anything worthwhile, but that’s part of the pleasure I get from it. And let’s be clear: Boringness is not antithetical to pleasure. It’s kinda why I’ve developed great affinities for lo-fi hip-hop and environmental sound ASMR YouTube livestreams.
Part of the positive feedback loop here is rooted in novelty, I reckon. I’m a citizen of a few Discords — and have voice-chatted with enough randos while gaming online, abuse and all — so I’m broadly familiar with various forms of social audio interfacing, but there is something that feels alluringly new about being able to slide between various pop-up communities you didn’t intentionally seek out. (Put crudely, it tickles the voyeuristic part of my brain.)
Some part of this also surely has to do with the pandemic: It’s been a full year since I and many others have been in a big room full of strangers, so yeah, it’s kinda nice to half-listen to subpar conversations while virtually simulating the feeling of being in a big room full of strangers. But it’s not lost on me that both of these appeals are temporary in nature. At some point, the novelty of the app will fade, and at some point, we’ll be back in big rooms full of strangers. Whether the Clubhouse experience is scratching a fundamental itch remains to be seen. Clubhouse is broadly exciting as a concept now, but I’m eager to see what the argument for its value will be when it’s normalized and taken for granted.
There are, in truth, two stories about Clubhouse. The first concerns the specific app itself: its manifold contemporary composition, its seemingly explosive growth, its command over an increasing number of headlines, its potential as a business (which, to be clear, is all potential at this point), its close affiliations with the Silicon Valley elite, and its many, many, many points of controversy.
The second story is about Clubhouse as the face for what could be argued as a new layer of media: Let’s call it “live group audio.” Clubhouse is by far the most prominent representation of this archetype for now, but it will soon face intensifying competition. Twitter has Spaces (an effort aided, in part, by its recent acquisition of the team behind Breaker, the social graph-oriented podcast app), Facebook is customarily working on a clone, Mark Cuban is co-founding something called Fireside that carries shades of Twitch, and one imagines there will be a range of more specific, niche-oriented alternatives that will emerge down the line.
In the face of all this, a fair few podcast operators wrote me posing the pertinent question: Does Clubhouse mean bad things for podcasting? And to extend the inquiry: Will this new “live group audio” format affect podcasting in either direction?
Well, the answer is yes, of course, probably. For one thing, on the consumption side, all media formats ultimately compete with each other for minutes of attention in a day, and within the specific frontier of audio, one could make the case for thinking in zero-sum terms: Time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces or whatever is time that could have been spent on, say, Apple Podcasts or Spotify. (It’s also, for that matter, time that could’ve been spent digitally streaming the radio, or listening to music.) But there are also non-zero sum possibilities: Time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces could theoretically increase affinity for audio experiences that can be trickled down to elsewhere, which in turn grows, to borrow Edison Research’s terminology, the overall “share of ear.” (Product and M&A possibilities abound for the audio-streaming platforms.) In any case, this isn’t an unprecedented competitive cluster: Think about how Twitch relates to YouTube relates to Netflix relates to cable television. They compete, sure, but they also co-exist.
(For what it’s worth, podcast folk seem pretty mixed on the matter when I asked around. The majority believe it’s a fad; others believe it’ll stick around and will offer strong marketing opportunities. None of them believe Clubhouse to be a meaningful competitor to their interests, though this is to be expected.)
More interesting impacts can be theorized on the creation side. I’m partial to thinking that the “live group audio” format is a better fit for a specific type of audio creator than podcasting could ever be. Much of Clubhouse is boring, yes, but it’s boring in the same way that much of a certain kind of podcast is also boring. I am, of course, talking about the vast universe of barely edited conversational chat-casts — and I say this as a genuine lover of the genre — where a good deal of the value lies not in the effective delivery of information or narrative, but in simply cultivating a sense of hanging out. There is a possible future in which people who would otherwise start a podcast to shoot the shit and maybe get famous would instead move to Clubhouse to shoot the shit and maybe get famous. Assuming these “live group audio” platforms will eventually roll out quick monetization tools on their closed centralized environments, these audio creators may actually end up being materially better off plugged into those spaces than into the existing podcast monetization stack. (Though, with the on-going rise of programmatic advertising options in podcasting, who knows?)
On that note, here’s a hypothesis: The rise of this “live group audio” media format could lead to a deceleration in the number of new podcasts created (which, in turn, may prove to be a material problem for podcast hosting companies and, I guess, Spotify’s Anchor division). Personally, I don’t necessarily interpret this as a negative outcome. Sure, the wholesale volume of new podcast creation might slow down due to losing out on this specific creative use case, but the end result is podcasting becoming more defined and specific as a media category (i.e. the scene where you get purposefully crafted, on-demand audio experiences, among other things), which may well prove to be a net positive thing over the long run.
I’m hedging a lot in this analysis, of course, because much of this feels really early, and much about Clubhouse itself is up for grabs. But say you held me at gunpoint and asked the doomsayer’s question: Could Clubhouse and the rise of “live group audio” options pose an existential threat to podcasts? I would say no, because there are enough portions of the podcast ecosystem that has sufficiently formalized an economic basis and a differentiated value proposition. I’d wager that enough listeners already internalize that they can access media experiences from podcasting not attainable anywhere else, whenever they want, and podcast publishers have already set up various monetization structures for their troubles. Furthermore, the distinction between live and time-shifted modalities are meaningful in distinguishing between the use cases of the two categories. If anything, Clubhouse and its competitive set is more likely to further disrupt traditional broadcast radio than contemporary on-demand audio, particularly if we use the term “disrupt” in the original sense, which is to say Clubhouse is establishing a foothold in a newly formed low-end “live audio” market that sets it up to pull value away from traditional broadcast talk radio over the long run.
But if you were to refine the question and ask: Does Clubhouse and “live group audio” experiences pose a threat to podcasting’s growth? Now that is certainly possible, particularly if the audio-streaming platforms and advertisers become more materially interested in that category over on-demand audio and allocate their efforts and dollars accordingly. And that’s certainly what I’ll be looking out for.
The more interesting question, to me, is this: What is Clubhouse supposed to be, anyway? The difficulty of answering this question stems from the fact that Clubhouse is still at a point in its pre-revenue life cycle where its internal universe is filled with abundant potential futures, operationally capable of accommodating a variety of different metaphors about its product experience and its theoretical place in the market. For the most part, the app feels like a virtual approximation of a live conference with occasional good discussion (though without recreating the real value of conferences, which is the provision of networking opportunities and theoretical proximity to power), but that’s not all you get from the app. Some rooms effectively replicate the feel of a live events space, complete with open mic nights (in all its glorious agony). If you know enough people on the app, there are ways that hopping from room to room can approximate the feeling of being a social butterfly fluttering from party to party. I’ve dipped into virtual watch parties for the NBA and the Premier League, semi-amateur takes on American Idol, user-generated attempts at the call-in radio show. There are even rooms replicating lo-fi hip-hop YouTube livestreams, opening up questions about the potential for music distribution.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t also bring up the fascinating instance in which users in China and the broader Chinese diaspora briefly used the app to speak freely about the Chinese government. The app would eventually get banned in the region shortly thereafter, and I’m reluctant to read too much into what that episode says about Clubhouse’s material possibilities. It’s stuck with me, though.)
Clubhouse’s current state of housing a vast universe of possibilities seems untenable to me, particularly once the app starts having to grapple with monetization. The history of digital and social media tells us that incentive structures drive content forms, and whenever Clubhouse slaps on its first business model at a wide scale, I think we’ll see its internal universe of possibilities narrow quite dramatically as user-creators cluster towards content forms better compensated by the implemented monetization tools.
As that happens, the lanes of competition will open up, and that’s where things can get interesting. The future of Clubhouse specifically is unclear to me, but the future of the “live group audio” format is slightly less so. It’s fairly easy to imagine a future in which competing entities move to claim any of the metaphors left aside by Clubhouse, and a kind of Great Sorting begins: the virtual conference angle claimed by LinkedIn or Microsoft, for example; the virtual live events idea by Patreon or, oh I don’t know, The Knitting Factory; next-generation call-in radio shows by Spotify or Pandora or Apple Podcasts; virtual sports watch parties by ESPN; and so on.
In that imagined future, what will Clubhouse look like when all that sorting is done?
How Sex Workers Try to Make Podcasts Work for Them
By Aria Bracci
Did you know that when you apply for a relief loan through the Small Business Administration, you have to certify that you don’t “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature”?
I sure didn’t.
This is one of almost innumerable obstacles for the modern sex worker; it’s also one of the topics Parker Westwood hopes her podcast will offer a place to discuss — “hopes” being the operative word.
On A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which launched the first week of 2021, Westwood plans to speak with workers who provide such things as escort services, stripping, and video performances, to name a few, much of which constitutes legal activity but all of which is susceptible to sundry forms of stigma. Shows like Westwood’s, along with other podcasts like Sapphire’s Earplay, are noteworthy for their attempts to both reduce stigma and carve out a place for sex workers to authentically connect. In this instance, “attempts” is the operative word, because, even in the audio sphere, neither is guaranteed.
The open nature of podcast publishing has recently attracted concerns about the harms it could potentially facilitate. In recent months, the medium has been increasingly identified as a new vector for misinformation and hate speech, with bad actors taking advantage of the fact that anybody can publish on the open podcast ecosystem with little gatekeeping or regulation. But it should also be noted that the relative freedom of the open podcast ecosystem is also what allows actually marginalized and suppressed communities like sex workers to discuss their circumstances more or less openly. Many have turned to the medium accordingly.
Beyond the obvious anonymity that podcasting provides, “another benefit of audio is you don’t have to get all dolled up if you don’t want to,” says Westwood, a Detroit-based sex worker for whom “Parker Westwood” is a work name. “The conversation can be more casual and open.” This dynamic yields a more workable space to discuss complicated topics, and there are many Westwood hopes to tackle, like the livelihoods of Pornhub contributors and systemic racism.
Mehgan Sapphire has explored similar topics and beyond on her show Sapphire’s Earplay, which has existed in various forms since she started it as a college radio program in 2008. Sapphire is a radio reporter for the Black Information Network, owned by iHeart Media, and she considers her podcast a passion project, one where she can guide people through “sex, safe sexuality, and Black sex identity.”
However, even though Sapphire has been in the audio world much longer, she’s harder to find online than Westwood. Namely, if you were to Google Sapphire’s Instagram handle, @msradiosapphire (@mehgansapphire is a back-up account), the results might not lead to her page. She thinks something’s afoot.
In an Instagram Live video, which was recorded even before this update was supposed to take effect, Sapphire is seen using the search function to find her Instagram account, turning the phone to face the camera, and revealing that her profile counts of followers, following, and posts all read “0”. (This phenomenon is characteristic of what has been referred to as a “shadow ban.”) A Facebook spokesperson initially responded to a request for information but at the time of publication had not offered a comment.
Sapphire describes feeling similarly frustrated with the Spotify app, where her podcast does not display category tags that she says she submitted and which Spotify itself encourages podcasters to add in order to improve the discoverability of their shows. I’m told that the tags a podcaster submits should indeed display. A Spotify spokesperson was unable to comment on why Sapphire’s tags have not gone into effect.
Ostensibly in response to recent laws such as FOSTA, which could hold such companies legally liable for instances of sex trafficking on their platforms, companies like Facebook explicitly state that it is precisely those actions they are trying to prevent through content moderation. But even with such explicit guidelines, the actions they inform can feel sweeping and indiscriminate, making many people in the sex industry wonder if they will be considered complicit. This unites some; it divides others. And thus, even on relatively “open” audio platforms, sex workers can be even further marginalized.
Take Clubhouse, for instance, where Sapphire thought she’d feel more comfortable than she has on Instagram. But, she says, “there are women on there who have Only Fans, are webcam models, are catering to the adult audience, but they say, ‘I’m not a sex worker.’” Sapphire laughs: “If you are offering any type of sexual pleasure [or] offering entertainment in the sexual atmosphere, whether or not you want to call it porn, you are a sex worker,” she says. “Sex work is not — and shouldn’t be — a disgusting word. It’s an umbrella term,” she says.
But fear, whether of stigma or retaliation, is real, says Westwood. Many workers may keep to themselves; after all, they’re just trying to make a living.
“I had the privilege of having a conversation with a sex worker who had literally never spoken to another sex worker in the six years she’d been working, because she was so afraid to be outed,” Westwood says. “The relief that I felt from her — that’s what I’m looking to have on the podcast.”
Some sex-industry-related podcasts, like The Escort: Deconstructed, speak outward to address this context, attempting to dismantle stigma that non-industry workers (and some industry workers themselves, as Sapphire notes) might hold. Westwood credits the creators who’ve preceded her for testing the medium as a place to have these kinds of un-stymied conversations about the industry; Sapphire herself recalls people listening to her show and saying, “I never knew that porn stars are just like us.”
In that way, Sapphire’s Earplay and A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy touch this goal of destigmatization. They also deliberately serve their peers in the field, creating networks that aren’t otherwise possible, whether because of bureaucratic restrictions or the intra-industry divides those restrictions appear to be feeding.
“I feel like my podcast is an outlet,” says Sapphire. “It’s almost therapeutic for people that feel like they don’t have other outlets to go to.”
In addition to enforcing the restrictions noted above, the U.S. Small Business Administration also stipulates that applicants for Economic Injury Disaster loans not “derive directly or indirectly more than de minimis gross revenue through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.” That makes its exclusions apply not only to escorts, for example, but ubiquitously legal business, such as sex toy shops or strip clubs (which, in turn, include behind-the-scenes staff, management, and families, as this BuzzFeed piece notes).
To debate whether or not sex-related work should be illegal is moot, Westwood says; there is work that is both criminalized and stigmatized, but even those acts that don’t bear the former still carry the latter.
“I still work in the adult industry,” says Sapphire. “I edit porn in the morning, and I report traffic in the afternoon.” She aligns herself with the sex industry both because of the broadness of the field and her willingness to explore the parts that are distinctly different from hers, which are often also the parts that make the broader public squirm.
“At the end of the day, sex work is work,” she says. “With podcasting, for as long as it can hold out, yes, I think that it is going to be the only outlet that I can spread the message.” And this extends to folks in the sex industry who might like to come on the show; “I make it my mission with my podcast every Sunday to hold a safe space,” she says, so reach out — if you can find her.
Westwood is only on the sixth episode of A Sex Worker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though she and fellow sex workers have already used it to address such topics as BDSM, curated date experiences, and disability. She hasn’t noticed any pushback, but she’s keenly aware that she’s greener to the game, she says; things may be still to come.
“I’ve just been kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
The Joys and Opportunities of “Passive Podcasts”
By Kevin Cortez
Generally speaking, it’s usually assumed that podcasts require us to give them our attention. But what about the ones that don’t?
Even a cursory glance at the podcast charts would reveal that the bulk of popular shows tend to center around storytelling, informational, or educational experiences. And so, when we see something like WALKING — a podcast created by Jon Mooallem, the author and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large, which features him walking around Bainbridge Island with a voice recorder inside of a repurposed sock — rising to critical acclaim (however defined), it feels sort of eccentric in a pleasantly unfamiliar kind of way.
I’d argue that the concept of WALKING is broadly antithetical to what we usually think about when we think about podcasts: an audio show containing various blocks of information, narrative, advertisements, segue music, banter, and personality, sequenced and chopped up in some sort of aesthetically pleasing order. Instead of engaging the listener with news, story, or information, Mooallem’s podcast gives us crunching leaves, the sounds of footsteps in the snow, and the murmur of Pacific Northwest breeze. Hardly anything ever happens.
“I started it for my own amusement,” Jon Mooallem tells me when asked about the creation of WALKING. “So, it was extra enjoyable when people actually listened to it, and [I] found it to be worthwhile in situations I couldn’t have imagined, like while commuting, or in an office, doing physical therapy, or playing it to calm down their dog.”
The act of “passive listening” is nothing new, but its rising popularity is noteworthy. Today, you can find thousands tuning in daily to voiceless lo-fi hip-hop stations on YouTube to set a “chill” mood as a backdrop while they work or study, while millions rack up views of ASMR videos or hours-long footage of YouTubers simply walking through the streets in locales like Tokyo and Venice. Just last week, Lego dropped a “White Noise” playlist for fans who find comfort in the sounds of people building, dumping, or searching through Lego bricks. A few months ago, Netflix revealed an audio-only component to their platform, perhaps leaning harder into the notion of television as background noise.
All of these developments in other media suggest the question: Why hasn’t podcasting embraced this minimal, audio-forward content yet?
Last year, when the global market research firm Nielsen conducted a survey study on the pandemic’s recent wave of newly remote workers, they found that most remote workers tuned into podcasts, talk radio, and news radio on a weekly basis. They also reported that, of those surveyed, four out of ten people listened to “spoken word” audio –– that’s current-event podcasts and news/talk radio stations –– on a daily basis. As Nielsen saw it, these listeners seem to relate to such audio content as a reliable form of companionship. “Brands may want to tailor their messages to better capture the attention of multi-tasking listeners,” advised Peter Katsingris, Nielsen’s SVP of Audience Insights.
But should the emphasis be on “capturing attention”? Sleep With Me, a twice-weekly podcast that debuted in 2013 in which host Drew Ackerman bores his listeners to sleep, embraces the fact that most people multitask while listening to podcasts… or might not even be paying attention at all.
“More and more people are listening in 2020 and 2021,” Drew Ackerman tells me of Sleep With Me’s experience over the pandemic period. “I’ve had people who are coders or crafts people listen to the show as background noise or distraction while they’re working. And more people during 2020 were telling me, ‘I need something as a mental break from the day.’ Audio really excels at that.”
He continued: “I know people repurpose television, and there’s various platforms looking to kind of repurpose their content, but when I think audio-first content –– especially headphone-first content –– the intimacy is a huge strength.”
It only takes a quick glance at Sleep With Me’s podcast reviews to see how thankful the show’s fans are for Ackerman’s intentional boringness. ”My cat has learned that it’s not really bed time until he can hear Scooter’s voice,” says one reviewer. “I have been listening for the past year, and have never heard the end,” says another.
A bonus of creating a podcast intended to be background noise is that it’s often timeless, which is to say, there’s a very long tail to its value. Some shows are able to provide passive entertainment for years after publishing, despite a lack of updates. Dormant shows like PERSPECULUM, a short-lived podcast that, according to creator John Bauer, was a “reflection and a collection of real-life sounds,” and David Weinberg’s assortment of audio curiosities turned podcast, Random Tape, still stand the test of time in terms of conceptually interesting background audio. They’ve left behind dozens of episodes ready to be discovered by a new wave of listeners looking for passive audio.
Meanwhile, Field Recordings, a project helmed by Eleanor McDowall that showcases lengthy and uncut sounds sent in by various audio makers around the world, features a dense collection of timestamped moments from cities some of us will never visit. The episodes play out as a sort of audio travelogue, scratching an itch much like YouTube’s phenomenon of walking tour videos as well as Hulu’s open take on the genre, Vacation In Place. These beautiful, lush soundscapes are comparable to how ambient musician Brian Eno saw his first album Ambient 1: Music for Airports: “as ignorable as it is interesting.”
“Maybe I’m just very vulnerable to anything that [the poet] Mary Oliver says, but I like her reminder that, ‘To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work,’” McDowall tells me on the creation of Field Recordings. “I love that image of her starting each day, waking up and standing outside with her notebook, listening to the world. So, I think there’s a personal reward just in taking that time to listen, I guess? And then a joy if it means something to anyone else –– however they hear it.”
The passive listening space seems to be overwhelmingly white. (No pun intended.) When looking for any BIPOCs who create soundscapes or raw field recordings on a platform like, say, Bandcamp, I’m struck by how options are limited. There’s the inventive Manchester duo Space Afrika, who creates music by directly sampling and responding to their surroundings, ambient artist Imka who crafts dreamscapes fitting for the cinema, and, according to a crowd-sourced list of Black artists on Bandcamp, BlackBandcamp.info, not much else can be found under the tags “field recordings,” “ambient,” or “found sounds.” Even within lo-fi hip-hop, an aesthetic-based genre of music whose artistic grandfathers are considered to be Japanese producer Nujabes and Black Detroit beatsmith J Dilla, there appears to be a clear lack of creators of color. Lo-fi hip-hop generally seems to take a surface approach to its aesthetic roots — whether it’s J Dilla flipping soulful samples of Black artists of yesteryear or Nujabes paying homage to the warmest palettes that jazz has to offer — watering them down to some faceless form of YouTube Muzak. In other words, lo-fi hip-hop is boneless jazz rap instrumentals by way of weeaboos.
It may be in ethnomusicology, the study of music from cultural and social aspects, where we can distinctly hear diversity within the field recording sphere. In the case of the album To Catch a Ghost: Field Recordings from Madagascar, producer Charles Brooks traveled to East Africa and lived among some of the nation’s most talented musicians. His work presents audio documentation of the musicians he encountered, who improvised their sounds in both formal and informal settings for Brooks to capture recordings of in their natural element. These aren’t passive listening experiences per se, and they were captured by a white man with expensive equipment, but they suggest a sort of cultural aspect as to why there may be a lack of non-white people within the field recording space in general: Both music and art aren’t typically passive in other nations.
Mara Tatevosian, an Iranian-Armenian radio host who presents Persian Rug: Sounds of a Different SWANA, which explores the regional music of Southwest Asia and North Africa, posits a similar theory. “My initial instinct –– entirely based on my own listening experiences; I’m sure others might disagree –– is that BIPOC from the SWANA region don’t indulge in passive listening, or even passive musical creation,” she told me. “Particularly because music is so ritualistic in these regions and often tied to ancient tradition, it seems unfitting to translate them for a passive setting.”
“With that being said, to a Western audience, I think there are many pieces of music that can be considered passive,” she continued. “Like the Armenian duduk is a deeply ritualistic instrument, but to many in the West, it’s a great instrument for ambient listening.”
There are shades of that idea in McDowall’s assessment of passive audio’s appeal. “I think a lot of the things we make –– regardless of whether or not they are ambient –– might be listened to quite passively,” she told me, while on the topic of her podcast. “As noise to fill an empty room, to help someone sleep, to offer a feeling of companionship… I love the multitude of ways audio can hold meaning to people.”
However those meanings may be defined is entirely up to the listener.
In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod… Travis McElroy is on the show this week.
So, I have a theory that the McElroy Brothers are among the most famous people in America. This, of course, is a contention I haven’t gone very far in trying to prove quantitatively, but it’s one that’s rooted in just how prolific they are — with a podcast portfolio that includes My Brother, My Brother and Me; The Adventure Zone; Schmanners; The Empty Bowl; Sawbones, and Til Death Do Us Blart, among others, and that’s not even the half of it — and the sheer number of times they get brought up whenever I tell someone new what I do for a living. (The only other podcast person that gets brought up with that frequency is Joe Rogan.)
Anyway, the McElroys have a new book out now, called “Everybody Has A Podcast (Except You),” which is the occasion for the conversation, but I took the opportunity to ask about the way Travis thinks about his current level of fame, what it’s like being in business with his brothers, and the notion of there being “too many podcasts.”
You can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, so on.