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What Will Amazon Do With Art19?

Photo: Amazon Music

This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.

The move was announced on Thursday, further underlining the platform’s intent to match its peer competitors, most of which are variably deep into their respective efforts in building a podcast position.

For the unfamiliar, ART19 is primarily known for operating a podcast platform that’s meant to do all the things you’d want from the model of a modern major podcast platform: host content, generate trustworthy analytics, deliver targeted ads, optimize the delivery of those ads, and so on. The company was founded a decade ago, in 2011, by Sean Carr and the podcaster Matt Belknap, who, as the story goes, were trying to figure out how to help their L.A. comedy friends make money off all those comedy podcasts they were starting at the time. ART19 proceeded to live through multiple industry cycles over the course of its life as a startup: as a contemporary to the original founding of Midroll, through the Serial boom, through the entrance of Spotify, and, most recently, through this immediate consolidatory phrase. In 2017, it raised $7.5 million in a Series A round led by BDMI and DCM Ventures, with participation from UTA Ventures, among others, and last fall, as the dust seemed to settle around the podcast M&A market, the company launched an original content division as well as a podcast-production and direct-sales division. Those machinations suggested the beginning of an expansive diversification pivot, perhaps as a hedge against the possibility that there might be no meaningful buyers left for a startup that’s just specialized as a hosting and monetization platform. Good thing, then, there’s still Amazon Music belatedly trying to push its way into the podcast ecosystem, and now ART19 has a definitive end to its story.

The terms of the deal were not publicly disclosed, which I’m told is typical of Amazon, though the Wondery deal — Amazon Music’s last podcast-related acquisition that essentially served as its statement of entry — was said to be valued at around $300 million. The ART19 deal is expected to be smaller than that, mostly because $300 million is an excessively large number.

With ART19, Amazon Music will be getting a veteran team of podcast executives. There’s Carr, of course, who has served as CEO throughout the company’s entire existence. Its C-suite also includes Lex Friedman and Korri Kolesa, both former Stitcher execs who abruptly departed that company in early 2019 to become Chief Revenue Officer and Chief Operating Officer, respectively. (Though Kolesa appeared to have left the role in February and is now listed as an Advisor to ART19.) Also in the mix are EVP of Digital Technology Dan Jeselsohn, a former exec at WNYC; VP of Advertising Sales Josh Davidson, a former VP at Midroll; and President of Partnerships Roddy Swearngin, former EP of the now defunct Sideshow Network.

At this writing, Amazon Music now has a scaled-up content factory in Wondery and an underlying backbone for distribution in Art19. And earlier this morning, the division also announced that it has secured exclusive rights to the popular Smartless podcast hosted by Will Arnett, Sean Hayes, and Jason Bateman, for which it is reportedly paying $80 million over the next three years, according to Bloomberg. (Well, semi-exclusive. The deal apparently only requires the podcast to be exclusive to the Amazon Music platform for one week before going wide, which really raises some serious questions about the business development acumen of this team. Anyway.) With all this in mind, should Amazon Music be a platform of concern for podcast publishers? As always, the answer for a corny question like this is pretty much the same: maybe, probably, it depends on whether the platform will really move the needle for a strong enough constituency of podcast creators and publishers, and we’ll only truly know about that over time.

In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that all this is part of a broader audio-streaming competition between Amazon Music and other platforms. With that in mind, a quick landscape check: The last time Amazon Music disclosed user numbers publicly was in early 2020, when the service announced the 55-million user mark in an interview with the Financial Times. On a platform user level, Spotify remains in the clear lead, reporting 158 million premium subscribers and 345 million active users in its last earnings report. Though not the podcast-relevant platform when it comes to that company, Apple Music is thought to be in second place, last publicly disclosing more than 60 million subscribers in the summer of 2019, according to Music Business Worldwide. Meanwhile, SiriusXM reported around 34.5 million total users in its last earnings report, and claims that Pandora, its music streaming service, has about 55.9 million monthly active users. (There is, of course, a level of trickiness involved in comparing these numbers against each other. Audio-first companies like Spotify and SiriusXM do clearly demarcate their audio-user numbers, while bigger diversified tech corporations like Amazon and Apple tend to announce new public numbers only when prudent to do so from a marketing perspective, and, even then, there can be imprecision.)

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I continue to be tentative on Amazon Music’s relationship to the podcast world. Audible, its sister Amazon division specializing in audiobooks and subscription-based original audio programming whose machinations appear to be independent from and perhaps even competitive to Amazon Music, still strikes me as loads more interesting, and potentially loads more disruptive.

Selected News

Starting today, Spotify is expanding the Spotify Audience Network to Australian, Canadian, and UK publishers. The network is its audio advertising marketplace offering, in case you need the reminder. More details here.

Last week in Clubhouse. The maybe-fading, maybe-not social audio app announced a Brazilian version of its creator accelerator program, plus a partnership with the NHL timed with the Stanley Cup final that’s playing out this week. Best of luck to the *checks notes* Canadiens? And the Lightning? Sorry, not a hockey household. Go Whalers, though.

Meanwhile, Edison Research is releasing its second annual Latino Podcast Listener Report on July 13.

Solidarity with the WHYY Union.

Bitcoin More Than You Could Chew

Nothing is certain in this world other than death, taxes, and the sweet allure of true crime — or a scam story, for that matter, which is a shinier subgenre of true crime. The summer of scam, as it were, never truly ended; it just graduated into every other Tuesday. Frankly, I find this to be a pleasing development. I’ve been on the record taking a moral high ground on true crime stories, generally finding the genre to be more distasteful than not. Give me a scam story, however, and I’ll give you all the time in the world. (On a separate note, I am a hypocrite.)

Exit Scam tells one of those scam stories, as you can probably discern by scanning the podcast’s title. Independently produced by the Longform co-host Aaron Lammer and former New York Magazine culture editor Lane Brown, the series wrapped up its eight-episode run yesterday, concluding its journey through a byzantine story about cryptocurrencies, apparent fatalities, and what may very well be a Ponzi scheme.

To lay out the gist of the premise: In 2019, QuadrigaCX, a cryptocurrency exchange thought to be Canada’s largest, came to a crashing halt after its 30-year-old founder, a Zuckerbergian type named Gerald Cotten, died unexpectedly from health complications during a trip to India. As it turned out, Cotten happened to be the only person in the world with the passwords to the exchange, meaning that, upon his death, over a hundred thousand people suddenly themselves unable to access their assets. They essentially saw their money, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars, evaporate overnight.

On the surface, the QuadrigaCX situation seems to be a particularly modern financial horror, equal parts a byproduct of the anarchy around crypto’s newness as a technology and what is simply a bad, unforeseen situation. Or is it? I mean, clearly there’s some mystery around the truth, and the series is called Exit Scam after all, so here’s the turn: Dig a little deeper, and you’d find some evidence supporting a belief that the entire debacle — Cotten’s death, the loss of the passwords, the sudden cessation of the exchange — could very well be a staged scheme, and perhaps more preposterously, that Cotten might have faked his death to abscond with all the money that had been stored on the exchange.

I’ll leave the premise there, because to push a little further would give away certain discoveries in Lammer and Lane’s investigation. Instead, let’s talk about Exit Scam’s crypto-world milieu, which makes for a huge part of its interestingness. For those unfamiliar, crypto is a catch-all term referring to a cluster of technological innovations meant to… you know what? Let’s glide over this part. If you haven’t already spent a bunch of time reading explainers in an effort to figure out how to make money off this thing — as I have, unfortunately, compulsively — there’s no real way for me to efficiently and effectively describe the phenomenon without sounding crypto-pilled myself, and that is not my intention. (On a separate note, I am a degenerate.)

That challenge, though, is something that’s very much present in the perspective of Exit Scam. Over the course of its narrative, Lammer and Lane sought to negotiate the internal tension of trying to tell a story about the crypto world without being too of the crypto world.

“It’s probably the hardest thing about making the show, honestly,” Lammer told me when we spoke about the series recently. “I’ve never really had a topic where there’s such an imbalance between what one tiny pool of people know[s] about it and what the larger world’s comprehension level of the subject is.”

Of course, Lammer has long developed some experience on the topic. For one thing, he dabbles in the crypto world himself, even going as far as considering participation in a project that involved purchasing a defunct hydroelectric dam in upstate New York for crypto-mining purposes, as he told Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast last month. (Also, he went on Odd Lots to talk, at mind-boggling length, about the blockchain technology Ethereum and decentralized finance.) Additionally, he used to co-host a weekly conversational podcast called CoinTalk™️, with Jay Caspian Kang, which chronicled their ill-fated exploits at making money off cryptocurrencies and their related technologies. (That show is largely defunct these days, though it does occasionally drop new episodes depending on the news cycle, the price of various cryptocurrencies, and the latest scandals.)

All of which is to say, the crypto world is a subject that Lammer has thought a lot about, both as a participant in what’s being touted as the Great Financial Revolution and as an audio producer figuring out how to talk about it. For Exit Scam specifically, the team felt it was important to lift the story above insularity. The strategy, he tells me, was to largely eschew the crypto focus altogether. “The scam itself had little to do with cryptocurrency,” he said. “In many ways, it was a classic pre-20th-century Ponzi scheme.”

The decision to pursue the Quadriga collapse as a story came organically, a natural extension of his own interest in the scandal. “It was just the king of all crypto stories,” he said. “There was just so much mystery to it.” Already well obsessed with the situation, he decided within a few months of the collapse to build a podcast series around it. At that point, in early 2019, it wasn’t yet clear what was going to happen, or how the scandal was going to eventually resolve (if at all). There were federal investigations into the matter already ongoing at the time, but the timeline for those efforts was unclear. “Honestly, it wasn’t a great candidate for a project that we could be like, ‘Yeah, let’s sell this and put it out there,’” said Lammer. So they decided to work on the story independently without a definite goal or clear endgame, playing things by ear and seeing what happened.

They wouldn’t be the only ones taking that path, as they turned out to be part of a cohort of nonfiction projects dedicated to unpacking the Quadriga story. At this writing, the CBC has also just wrapped up its own competing investigative podcast series on the subject, A Death In Cryptoland, hosted by its technology columnist Takara Small. There is also at least one visual documentary in the market as well, including Sheona McDonald’s Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery, which premiered at the Hot Docs festival earlier this year.

When asked how he felt about the competitive landscape around the story, Lammer waved away the premise of the question. “It wasn’t a major thing on my radar,” he said. “We knew there was some competing stuff coming out… in my opinion, having overlaps isn’t a huge deal. I think most people come to these things through their own path.” He pointed out how there had been a Vanity Fair feature by Nathaniel Rich on the Quadriga scandal, from the fall of 2019, that well predated his and all other efforts.

“The only thing I was really worried about was whether one of these other projects had stuff we didn’t have, or would come to an entirely different conclusion,” he added. “There’s just a lot of anxiety when so many people are telling the same story, although it’s also kind of exciting.”

Of course, such competition does bring potential complications, especially if were talking about a longer-term realization of value within the context of a broader entertainment industrial complex that’s heavy on intellectual property farming these days. Consider the GameStop moment, and the frankly bizarre nature of the way a wildly bloated bundle of film and television projects sprung up around that story, each typically packaged around the most threadbare of intellectual property hooks. On the flipside, perhaps the fast and furious quality of the GameStop IP slinging is actually another data point in favor of Exit Scam: They could well end up functioning as the basis for one of many Quadriga projects to be adapted for more lucrative mediums over the long run.

In any case, Lammer and Lane had more fundamental concerns during their production process, like trying to figure out how to best navigate telling a story about a world that can be impenetrable to normal people, perhaps intentionally so. Now, I would never consider myself particularly well versed in this ecosystem, but speaking as someone who’s spent quite a bit of time indulging his interests in the subject and in the kinds of strange characters it tends to draw, the crypto world often strikes me as having a pungent performative quality to its collective persona. I find it hard to shake the feeling that much of what civilians like myself see of the crypto world from the outside is actually a gambit by people on the inside who only have a marginally better understanding of that world than everybody in order to lure more people into the mix that they can extract value from. A kind of comprehension arbitrage, one that trickles down to the way the crypto world is covered and talked about in the mainstream: The outsider journalist or documentarian might think they’re telling the right story, but maybe they’re only telling the story that the shitposters want you to tell, ultimately contributing to the expansion of the scheme themselves.

Lammer feels he’s well equipped to navigate these tricky waters, largely because he sees himself as operating as a semi-insider semi-outsider that’s familiar with the stakes involved on both sides. “If you’ve ever listened to CoinTalk, you’re already aware that I own some, but generally speaking, when I get involved in crypto media, it’s not me giving buying advice. If anything, CoinTalk was a cautionary tale: Don’t do what I do,” referring to the fact that he’s been pretty transparent about losing gobs of money on bad trades.

For some, Lammer’s positionality might be a contentious one. “There’s a schism within the community, in that some people believe if you participate in crypto — say, owning some assets — that you shouldn’t be covering it,” he explained. “But it’s hard to cover this world from the outside because, honestly, it would be hard to understand the underlying motivations from that perspective. People don’t exactly say what they mean with this stuff. A lot of it is weird posturing. It’s a culture that takes place entirely on Twitter and in real time.”

With Exit Scam, Lammer is acting upon something that he thinks is much needed in the crypto-related media space. “News in this space tends to have a short shelf life,” he said, noting that much of it tends to be dominated by weekly and daily news-cycle material, because that format meets the underlying incentive of those who are most in search of such information. “It’s like sports. You can’t be writing about round one of the playoffs right now if you’re interested in the NBA. People wanna think about last night’s game.”

“There’s an opportunity right now to tell the story of crypto for people who are interested in it” — which, at this point, is a lot of people — “but at whatever beginner or intermediate level of knowledge they’re at,” he added. “Good entry points for people who are like, ‘Hey, I didn’t know anything about Bitcoin before, but I’m interested now, and I’m curious about what’s really going on over there.’”

Audio and the Queering of Gender, Part II

By Aria Bracci

Last week, I wrote about the idea that, within the context of audio, the separation that happens between a person’s voice and their visual appearance can eliminate some of the nuance they may use to signal their identity — including their gender. At first glance, this may seem like a kind of harmful reduction, denying a person their complexity and collapsing them down to the way that sound waves reverberate in their body. But that’s not necessarily the whole story.

As I explored in my column about a theater company experimenting with audio-first experiences, using only one’s ears to make sense of an entire scene requires some imagination; by extension, the person behind a voice may be able to take on more forms and identities than they could if they were standing in front of you, not fewer. Whether in the context of animation or podcasts or audiobooks, every step one takes away from live-action portrayals increases ambiguity and allows creators who use audio — from hosts to voice actors — to be different things, moment to moment and listener to listener. While, in this audio-first context, this may specifically mean that folks who aren’t cisgender have their voice perceived as a gender other than their own, that in itself may, in some circumstances, be its own opportunity.

Voice acting isn’t all sunshine and daisies, of course. The characters that voice actors might portray, such as for animated shows, are still cisgender by and large, says the agender voiceover artist Socks Whitmore (who you first heard from last week), and embodying such roles might ordinarily be dysphoric for some. But lending only one’s voice to a cisgender character may feel more comfortable for a non-cisgender person than would embodying that character entirely, which they may be made to do on screen or on stage. So while Whitmore might “do a lot of cis-female [voice] acting because those are the roles that exist,” it isn’t all that taxing. “It takes up so much less of me,” they say. “I feel like I’m completing a puzzle that’s already started.”

To be clear, simply portraying a different gender isn’t the thing that’s uncomfortable, or at times a dealbreaker, for Whitmore — they are an actor, after all. Rather, it’s the blurring of lines between character and actor that tends to happen offstage and in rehearsals, they say, as was the case for several productions they were a part of in college. For one particular show, Whitmore says, “because it was a quote-unquote, ‘majority female cast,’ the director would use ‘ladies’ a lot” when referring to the actors, including Whitmore, who is markedly not a lady. What’s more, “the director had decided to interpret the text as being about motherhood,” Whitmore laughs. “This was the director’s choice that I was not made aware of in advance.”

In another show they performed in, in which they portrayed a cisgender woman, Whitmore was able to to establish a comfortable level of distance between actor and self, such as by insisting that “if you’re saying my name, you need to use my pronouns” to the production team, and “most times it went very well,” they say. “In other spaces, it’s been more challenging.”

When someone in Whitmore’s position is able to translate their in-person acting chops to audio, there may be fewer challenges with establishing distance, since the medium offers some baked-in separation between a person and the tiny slice of them — their voice — that’s captured in a recording. Take animation in particular: Giving voice to characters who have already been animated and are nearly complete on screen is “much easier to disidentify with,” Whitmore says. “It’s bigger than you.” They’ve consequently felt empowered to take on an audio role described as a mean “gossip girl” (“even though I don’t identify with her at all!” Whitmore laughs) as well as a cowgirl in a video game.

The possibilities of this realm have come as a surprise to Whitmore, who fell into voice acting somewhat accidentally and who had previously thought that traditional acting was a true love of theirs. Now, says Whitmore, “if I had to stop doing stage performance to do voiceover, it wouldn’t be an easy sacrifice, but I would do it. I don’t think I could do it the other way.”

Avi Roque, a trans and non-binary actor and voice artist, had a similar career trajectory. Stage performance, while anchored in the act of imagination, has historically felt stifling to them, particularly because Roque was made to feel like the self they inhabited in their daily life was somehow wrong. Particularly in the context of college acting classes, in which Roque still used she/her pronouns, “I was being groomed as the female actor, and it just felt so inauthentic,” they say, and the feedback they received extended to how they presented themselves offstage: A professor even told them that they “needed to find more graceful ways of moving.”

Roque was taken aback, thinking, “I’m too masculine in the way I move? And that’s not right?” Even non-cisgender roles that they eventually filled on stage could feel limiting, Roque says, because such roles may emphasize the physical body as part of the character’s story; particularly while a person is actively transitioning, such visual attention can be unwanted. As a result, acting on stage continued to be unsatisfying to them. “I started to question, why am I doing theater?” says Roque.

They were doing theater, it turned out, because there was a part of performing that spoke to them — they just hadn’t tapped into it yet. Audio work, which they’d tried years before but had abandoned, ended up being a much better fit, as it allowed them more piecemeal and controllable opportunities, as a newly transitioned actor, to try out different roles. Years passed since they first attempted to book voiceover work (at which point Roque says they were “still using she/her pronouns and my birth name”), but they eventually thought to themselves, “Wait — I’m trans. I’m gonna start hormones,” and after that point, they say, “my voice, it changed, and it came into more of what I say is my ‘authentic voice.’” Since then, booking audio gigs has felt productive for Roque, not only because their identity feels more aligned with the way they sound, but because there are roles for precisely the sound they’ve come into but don’t require a particular appearance, like the book Cemetery Boys, a story about a young trans character that Roque narrated as their debut gig in the audiobook world.

Whitmore had a similar experience: “I voice Narwhal in the Penguin Random House audiobook series Narwhal and Jelly, and I actually got offered to audition,” they say, recalling that they were approached precisely because the character in question wasn’t cisgender. “A gender-fluid narwal… ” they say, reflecting. “Is that not everyone’s dream?”

To be sure, non-cisgender roles for non-cisgender actors do exist on stage and on screen, and Roque credits the transgender director Will Davis and several others for scripting nuanced queer narratives for theater in particular, some of which Roque has been a part of. It’s just that audio, precisely because of how it dis-embodies the voice, can inherently present more opportunities because of how it removes the associated appearance of a character. Beyond trans-specific projects like Cemetery Boys, Roque says, “I can also do more than that — I can also narrate a medical book.” Lost in the Never Woods, another audiobook that Roque narrated, centers the cisgender Wendy of Peter Pan lore, meaning Roque has also voiced a female character in addition to that book’s narrator. They even once voiced the role of a father.

This flexibility also extends to non-theatrical contexts, which brings us back to Steffi Barnett from my column last week, who produces and presents the “LGBTQ magazine show” ShoutOut and broadcasts two music-centric radio shows in the U.K. It was Barnett who first got me thinking about how audio impacts the way gender is perceived, and it’s Barnett who, alongside Whitmore and Roque, adds support to the idea that audio may also impact the way gender is personally experienced. And that experience can be rather positive.

Upon beginning to transition around 2003, Barnett says she “was very, very nervous.” Even years later, working at a coffee shop, she says, “I was petrified. I was sometimes sick with panic because of people staring.” Now, Barnett says, the possibility of being misgendered still exists, but the combination of increased confidence and working in an invisible realm — audio — makes for a dream job. In this context, she isn’t on high alert, no longer feeling constantly tasked with proving her womanhood.

“I feel relaxed when doing radio,” she says, which is true even with an outstanding factor: “I’m perceived as being male for people who can’t see me, because my voice is quite low still.”

And that perception, she says, doesn’t phase her.

“Regular listeners know that I’m trans and don’t give a damn,” she says, and those who are more transient and not as familiar with the particulars of Barnett’s life and identity are probably not paying any mind, since their focus is the music at the center of her shows. “They’re popular, and whether I’m trans or got a Bristolian accent, it doesn’t matter,” she says. Perhaps more so than in her previous jobs as a production manager or a barista, “it’s more about entertainment — how I do the job.”

“I’m not there as a female or a male,” she adds. “I’m just there as Steph.”

What Will Amazon Do With Art19?