When Songs Meet Podcasts

Music streaming and podcasts used to be two distinct things. One had songs, the other had people talking. Radio of course has successfully combined both, but this was in another century. Now music streaming and podcasting are increasingly  converging and the developments could eventually be very interesting.

As Apple Music acquisitions of Primephonic made the news earlier this week, this Music.ally bit on  the classical streamer from September 2020 caught my attention:

“Primephonic is one of the streaming services focusing on classical music, with a comprehensive collection of albums and playlists. However, neither of those are its most popular format with listeners. It’s podcasts.

The company has been producing its own shows blending interviews with classical music artists, composers and conductors with their music.

“These podcasts are our most popular content. They are more popular than playlists, and more popular than normal albums,” said Primephonic’s CEO Thomas Steffens, in an online panel session organised by his company this week.

Steffens suggested that it’s been a helpful way to connect the interviewees with their audiences, at a time when classical music concerts – like the rest of the live music industry – have been shut down in many countries due to Covid-19.

“It doesn’t substitute for a live performance, but it does close the gap between remote, home listening and the live performance,” said Steffens.”

Certainly, classical music is a peculiar niche and the general shutdown of concerts may have had a disproportionate effect to the relative popularity of ways to listen to classical music, but the fact that “podcasts blending interviews with music” were more popular than playlists and albums is a bit of a surprise.

Apple Music and Spotify both offer distinct, exclusive formats mixing music with talk, but I believe their results have also been quite ‘mixed’ so far.

Apple Music has had its Radio service since launch in 2015, featuring both live and prerecorded shows. It is more of a direct replication of the conventional radio experience, with great content but a quite frustrating user experience. Perhaps the upcoming integration of Primephonic may result in interesting podcast services trickling down (up?) to the main Apple Music app. 

Spotify on the other hand is developing its “Music + Talk” podcast and this is an interesting story go into detail. It begins when Music + Talk was announced on October 14th 2020, still with another name (“Shows with Music”).

“Everyone loves both a great playlist and a highly engaging conversation. Today, we’re beginning to test a new listening experience that brings together music and spoken-word content in an easy and elegant package, allowing full songs and talk commentary to live together wrapped up in one show.”

How it works

Think of your favorite drive-time radio show, that music journalist whose insights help you appreciate a band’s leap forward, a DJ whose perspective makes that next track hit perfectly. 

Now imagine that you’re able to enjoy that perfect blend of music and commentary whenever and wherever you want, interactively and on demand. With shows that use this new format, listeners can interact with the music within the episodes, in the same way they interact with all other song tracks on Spotify (for example liking, saving, and reading more information about a track) without having to leave the episode page or search for it manually.

For any episode of a show with music, hit “Explore Episode” on the episode page, or tap the play bar at the bottom of the screen to pull up the episode track list. From there, you can skip around to different segments and songs and save songs for future listening.

Shows using this format are exclusive to Spotify because they rely on Spotify’s music catalog licenses and compensate musicians and songwriters just like any regular stream of a music track on Spotify. Spotify Premium listeners will hear full tracks as part of these shows, and those with the Free tier will hear 30-second music previews.”

Spotify also encouraged music artists to start their own podcasts:

“Spotify for Artists wants to help you make that deeper connection with our newest content format, an audio experience that brings together talk commentary with music. Now, you can record talk segments and integrate them with tracks from Spotify’s catalog of 65 million licensed songs to make your own shows…”

Several topics were suggested: 

“Play and discuss the music that inspires you… Tell the stories behind your songs… Spotlight your collabs and collaborators… Let fans know what music you have in rotation right now…  Engage with shows that feature your music… Feature shows on your artist profile… Share your most memorable backstage… Show your extracurriculars….”

Direct interactions between musicians and users are typically very constrained in Spotify. The service has historically focused on the interaction of users with artists catalogues and the universe of playlists, both functioning apart from the podcast content. Musician-hosted Talk + Music podcasts could certainly be an innovative bridge between the silos.

Music.ally provided some context on the feature:

“This isn’t the first example of a hybrid podcast/music format. In February 2019, Pandora launched its ‘stories’ feature, inviting artists, influencers and celebrities to create playlists blending their song picks with spoken-word intros and explanations. Classical streaming service Primephonic has recently been producing its own podcasts mixing interviews with musicians, composers and conductors with the music itself, too.

Further back, in 2014, Spotify worked with artist Billy Bragg on a series of ‘talking playlists’ with Bragg’s introductions to some of his favourite tracks interspersed with the songs themselves.

More recently, Spotify algo-personalised playlists like ‘Your Daily Drive’ and ‘Daily Wellness’ have mixed podcast clips with music, although these are clearly still playlists, so different from what’s being announced today.”

And some commentary on the implications:

“Another reason today’s news is significant: it could create a proper network of on-platform music influencers on Spotify. At a stroke, it’s created a platform for anyone (well, anyone using Anchor) to play radio DJ, hosting their own shows with music…

YouTube, Instagram and TikTok all have their communities of native creators – people who found an audience first on that platform, with content honed for its culture and features. Could Spotify’s new podcast format nurture an equivalent community for the streaming service – a native tribe of music podcasters?”

Still, one limitation to the service then was geographic. Only Anchor users in US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland were permitted to create M+T shows and episodes. (For listening though the episodes were available globally).

The release highlighted seven “Shows with Music” at launch, and a new hub in Browse:

All of our Spotify Original Shows can be found in the “Shows with Music” hub in Browse, or in a programmed shelf on your Home tab. Ready to experience the future of audio? Get started with one of these:

10 Songs that Made Me

Rock This With Allison Hagendorf

60 Songs that Explain the 90s

Conspiracy Theories: Music Edition

Our Love Song

Halleloo Happy Hour with DJ Shangela

Murder Ballads

How many of these shows have been successful? To my certainly limited knowledge, only Ringer’s “60 Songs That Explain the 90s” gained some traction in the general world of music Twitter, sites and newsletters. 

Other than that, I can’t recall any more news about Music + Talk . That is until two weeks ago, August 18th, when there were some big news. First, some international expansion: “Our catalog of Music + Talk Spotify Originals will also get a boost across a number of markets as new shows from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, India, Japan, and the Philippines join our library today.”

There was also a quite odd way to express to that the product had become more ‘usable’:

Since we rolled out Music + Talk last year, we’ve learned from the needs and behaviors of listeners, as we always do with new products. Savvy streamers will notice that we’ve implemented small tweaks to improve the listening experience and reflect those needs: clearer visual distinction between the music and talk segments of an episode and music previews on episode pages.

Anchor blog provides more details on the changes: 

“The feature also has a new look that makes it stand out more to listeners—and with listeners able to easily identify and discover Music + Talk shows on Spotify, the format is optimized for creator success. An updated color palette, visual identity, and new shapes (plus the official name!) are all meant to increase awareness for the format across audiences, as well as give creators a clear, tangible way to talk about their show. 

And whether you’re a listener or creator—or in many cases, both!—you’ll notice some improvements to the overall experience. First and foremost, creators can now connect their Spotify playlists on mobile and desktop web for easy creation and access to their favorite songs; previously, this was available only on desktop web. Listeners will see clearer distinctions between the different segments of a Music + Talk show, as well as a preview of the artists featured in the episodes on the show page. We’ve also added a helpful tutorial video to walk creators through the Music + Talk process and answer any questions that may come up.

‍Finally, we’re excited to launch a Spotify-branded show called “Music + Talk: Unlocked”—which will showcase five independent, innovative uses of Music + Talk, and illustrate all the creation and consumption possibilities. Hopefully, it’ll serve as all-around inspiration, too!”

The scale and scope of the issues addressed in this first revision seem substantial: making it easier for listeners to search and find those shows. Easier to distinguish shows with music from regular ones. An “official name!”. A visual identity! Easier ways to create those shows, even on mobile. (Creating a podcast demands much more work than a playlist, obviously). “Clearer distinctions between the different segments of a Music + Talk show”. “A preview of the artists featured in the episodes on the show page”. A tutorial video. A Spotify-branded podcast showing possible uses! 

One can certainly say that creating a new audio format that mixes two other existing audio formats, provides great authoring tools for a large number of creators and an exciting user interface for a even larger number of listeners to find, discover, experiment and return to these shows is no small challenge!

I am really curious about what further changes, improvements and refinements will still be made to the format in the future. I bet there will a lot. More than that, I hope that many great podcasts will make use of this format eventually.

Thinking about all of this, I look for a starting point of what a great music + talk show of the future could look like.

A very recent, very good article comes to mind to use as an starting point. It basically continues the path of “60 Songs that Explained the 90” but is a bit less sprawling. And instead of being a series  of 60 distinct episodes about every kind of genre, it would be one show, and a bit more personal.

The article is “The Best Songs By The Who, Ranked” by Steven Hyden at UPROXX. It features “only” 50 songs, but this is far from a listicle. At 7,500 words, this is more an essay about a monumental band by an excellent writer deeply connected to the band. The ranking scheme is a creative way to structure the writing and the fact that it provides a great playlist is just a bonus. 

There is a lot of good stuff in there: great songs. A meaningful criteria for sequencing. Interesting content professionally written but shaped by a very personal, emotional connection to the music, the artists, the history and the culture around them. What more can you ask from your podcast?

What could be the length of the show chapters? A huge single session alternating the text and the songs? A series of 45-minute episodes? 5 blocks of 10 songs?

Now let’s throw another idea. Maybe evolve it into “Music + Talk + Text”?? All integrated inside the Spotify app.

You could go through the show in different modes. In the “lean in” mode, you are likely in front a PC or holding an iPad, and so text and why not images too gets prominence.

The “lean back” mode, when you are driving, walking, cooking etc and keeping the device in your pocket or using a smart speaker, has no visual component and the show sticks to to the pure audio format.

There could be some mixing of modes. You could read the entire article while listening to your preferred lo-fi beats list, and check-marking some songs to listen on gym session

There could be two versions of the “talk” part: full sections and abridged versions, to be served depending on the context as well. If you are in the mood for music you get/choose the short talk. In the mood for stories, get/choose the long version of the talk. 

Going further, what if the “lean in” mode also had videoclips??? Either featuring whole song performances, or historical footage or even talking heads. 

That’s quite a tall challenge, but the same show could be a podcast, a playlist, an audiobook, an article and even a documentary. 

No need to read the text on the browser, see performances on YouTube, watch the doc on Netflix and listen to the podcast on Spotify. 

Of course this mix of songs, text, talk and video looks like those multimedia CD-ROMs of the early 90s, but the key difference is that the music remains the anchor. Our The Who multimedia stravaganza is happening right on top of the user’s music library and along her listening history. The music is provided with an abundance of context, but all this auxiliary context is shaped towards the user attention, not against it. The experience can be truly immersive instead of all-over-the place as currently is. 

And this super “Song +” format could serve for so many (most?) music topics. For example, another great, massive article by Steven Hyden that I recall promptly: the greatness of Queen, as explained by their discography, album by album in chronological order, as a detailed riposte to the controversial biopic. Imagine navigating all the albums by Queen guided by this perspective, focusing on either highlighted songs from each album or in their entirety. 

I would definitively read/watch/listen “All 213 Beatles Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best”, by Bill Wyman on Song +.

Books could become Song + shows too. The whole 33 1/3 Series. A highly interactive “1001 Albums You must Hear Before You Die” (you may have read this before). Bob Stanley’s great Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop.

This is all very far-fetched, but doesn’t also seem an exciting possibility?

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