Numlock Sunday: Ashley Carman talks tumultuous times for the audio business
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Bloomberg’s Ashley Carman, who writes the Soundbite newsletter. Here's a recent thing what I wrote about it:
The hottest thing in music touring right now is selling affluent 30-somethings their old eye shadow and tight pants back for a considerable markup, with alt-rock bands making a killing on the road. The forthcoming When We Were Young festival in Vegas has sold 160,000 tickets, Blink-182’s North American tour just wrapped with $85.3 million gross on 564,000 tickets, which follows a 2021 outing by Weezer, Green Day and Fall Out Boy that grossed $67.3 million on 659,062 and an $88 million My Chemical Romance tour. Anyway, if any bookers want to take a look at my high school iPod Mini, I have absolutely categorically figured out exactly what the next three years of successful concert tours are going to be.
Right now the podcast industry is in utter chaos, the music industry is beseiged by an enigmatic TikTok and the rise of AI, and the main things that appear to be working in the record business are unexpected niches, like country music and Mexican regional music. Ashley’s covered it all, so I wanted to have her back on to chat about it, in audio no less!
Carman can be found at Bloomberg.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Ashley, thank you so much for coming back on, it's a pleasure to have you.
Yeah, happy to be here.
You cover audio; it's a big beat, it has a lot going on, and it's been a really dynamic couple of months it seems, in your field. What's been going on?
Basically my beat, I started out covering the podcast industry over at The Verge for a number of years, then came over to Bloomberg, still with that intention to cover the podcast world, but also add in some of the music industry, really getting both sides. Obviously, audio can also include audiobooks, all the various genres of audio that exist in this world, but primarily focused on the podcast space and music industry. What's been going on? Podcasting has been having a little bit of a market correction reckoning. The music world is pushing for a whole new streaming model and wringing their hands over generative AI. So, busy dynamic moments on both sides of the industry.
I recall reading a little while ago that the audio slice of the pie, so to speak, is increasing, but the individual groups within it are rising and falling pretty dynamically. I guess let's talk a little bit about what hasn't really been working super well lately. You've written a lot about the podcast industry and the consolidation that we've seen in that. What's been going on in the past six months; it seems like there's been a serious contraction?
Yeah. So, essentially the very sped up version of the podcast world up until now is, starting around 2019, you had Spotify enter the space, spending a ton of money, which basically set off this huge gold rush around podcasts. Amazon entered the world with Wondery, adding it onto Amazon Music, Spotify obviously making its acquisitions, SiriusXM, iHeart, which of course has been in audio, and SiriusXM having been in audio, but really in earnest signing big lucrative podcast deals. And that goes on for a few years. You have the live audio craze of Clubhouse, and then this past year, really what's happened is this moment of, okay, we spent a lot of money on these podcast deals and locking up some of these big names in exclusive partnerships, but are we actually making our money back on those deals?
I think that's what we're starting to see now is this correction of, hey, what were these deals really worth?
Was this just a super frothy, hyped ecosystem that got us into some financial troubles? So, now, with that in the rearview mirror, some more awareness around the smart deals that could be made, you're seeing some consolidation in the space, even on the smaller network side, who were maybe benefiting from that frothy environment. Now they're like, okay, we need to figure out how we're going to survive in this ecosystem, especially when there's a broader ad pullback in the market. So, they're starting to consolidate, the bigger companies are laying folks off because they just got over their skis, as far as the investment, and yeah, it's just been a rough time, honestly, but I'm hoping that it turns a corner soon.
Yeah, it seems like frothy is a good word. What companies, what kind of podcasts and what industrial organization structure has been the most durable? It seems like the big guys who put a ton of money into recruiting maybe a lot of talent from movie and television, those haven't necessarily done as well, because they were very ad sensitive, but that's not everything. There are still a lot of things that are working in podcasts, it seems.
Yeah, and I guess the important caveat here is that podcasting is growing. Audio companies’ revenue is growing in the podcast world. It's not the type of downturn we're seeing where all of a sudden it's like we lost 7 billion listeners this month. It's not like that. The space itself is actually growing, it's just when it's in relation to the deals themselves and how much was spent for the return, it was maybe just a little too early for that moment. So what's working is people do enjoy listening to podcasts. I personally, I see it in my friends, which granted, I have the bias of being a media reporter, and my friends are also media people, but they buy stuff from podcasts. They enjoy engaging with it.
So from that perspective, I actually think podcasts have a lot of might, and there's been a lot of stuff written recently, not from me, but other great reporters, who have covered just how important podcasts are in the political landscape, as well. You can really see the impact and the amount of conversation they can drive and really bring people to make certain decisions. So I think that actually the spotlight is on them; it's just the business has been a little tricky.
Yeah, it's weird, I've seen a lot of podcasts that had been very ad supported for a while often start pivoting toward live events and whatnot, which is what music acts do historically as well. You don't always need to make all your money off of the physical sales, it can also just be actual events.
The podcast touring definitely still exists. I don't know if it's the biggest slice of the pie, but there's of course Patreon and subscriptions, which have been a success story for the podcasters that can make it work. So, there are alternate avenues for success.
What else isn't really doing all that swell when it comes to audio right now? I know that podcasts have had a hiccup, but you've also run a couple of times about how Spotify is looking to raise prices, potentially, and you're looking at some of these larger companies that have tried to really control a lot of the audio pie that might not be doing as well.
Yeah. So, I think what you're hinting at maybe is just the streaming environment for music. Really what we're seeing there is, it's really obviously reversed the trend of piracy, back in the day, and we're streaming now, companies are doing great, the music companies are growing, they're public, all of that. But what we're seeing in that world is a little bit of concern over the potential future, which is how do they continue growing? How do they maximize the dollar from the streaming services? You've seen price increases. And then also, even more somewhat forward facing, just how do you deal with generative AI when maybe that would lead to an influx of content out there?
How do you actually allow artists who do this for a living and maybe aren't necessarily totally financially motivated by it to actually have their music be heard and make money off of it? And then of course, in the music world, you also have the struggle that TikTok runs so much of this now in the conversation, so what do you do? How do you break artists? How do you make superstars when a lot of this is at the whim of an algorithm?
Yeah, I don't have it in front of me, but I feel like you wrote something a little while ago about how some of the major music companies are even starting to invest in some of these streams, whether they're the lo-fi or high-pitched streams, to capitalize on some of that social. Am I remembering that correctly?
Yes, and I also need to put myself back in that story. The piece that I wrote was about sped up songs, which is a TikTok trend; it's like chipmunk singing, it's just sped up tracks. And what the major labels have covertly done is run Spotify accounts that have all those tracks on there. So, it kind of gives off this veneer of, oh, this is some low-key TikTok DJ who put this up here, and I stumbled upon this big secret, when actually it's totally blessed by the labels and ensures that when you're listening to that song, they get paid the proper royalties.
Because obviously if some random person uploaded a song, I guess we would say illegally, without the proper rights, and they don't properly tag the rights holders, the rights holders don't get paid. So you could see the incentive to be like, here's your cool thing, but we're actually going to make our money off of it.
How widespread is that? That's wild.
I wrote about, I believe it was a Universal account that I wrote about, and I think I wrote about a Warner account as well. So, in those two cases, there were two different accounts. And then, gosh, I would need to check, but one of them actually put out an official compilation of sped up songs.
There are ghost kitchens for music now, that's amazing.
So let's talk a little bit about what's hitting.
A story that you wrote fairly recently, that I really enjoyed because it struck me directly on target, demographically and generationally, was about how one of the biggest hits on the road these days, and one of the biggest tours out there, and one of the biggest odd successes that we've seen in the live events industry, has been the late aughts revival of rock, whether it's Blink-182 or any of these other emo-related bands. I dug that because obviously everybody likes reading about themselves at times, but this seems like it was a little unexpected, that it really is hitting. Why is that?
Yeah, so what I wrote about — you did a good job recapping, but just to cover even more so is that — yeah, you have tours like Blink-182, they got back together, their tour is massive. I have the exact number: The North American leg of their tour grossed $85.3 million and sold 564,000 tickets according to Billboard. Yeah. So they've just had this massive success, which has also translated to streaming, and then you also have tours like My Chemical Romance, who reunited, that did also amazingly well. They grossed $80 million on their tour last year. And then, additionally, there's just this When We Were Young festival, which maybe you've heard of, in Vegas, which is a who's who of that era and rock bands. And so, really what we're seeing is these bands command an audience, even though their heyday was 2004, or even the late ‘90s.
And I don't know exactly what's causing it. Obviously, it could be that folks like us, we're older, we have jobs, we can afford to go to concerts, we have a disposable income, maybe we're going to see it. Maybe the torch is being passed from our parents' generation of rockers down to them, and they're going to become the big rock stadium X, that everybody goes to see in the summer, or whatever it is. Or, this is kind of the X factor, is maybe it's the Y2K interest from Gen Z, and this resurgence in that aesthetic and culture. It could be that, too; it could be all those things. But yeah, it's cool to see, and it's definitely a trend that people are banking on.
Yeah. And again, the numbers here are wild. You mentioned Blink-182, I think they have the fifth- or sixth-highest three-month live grosses. They are genuinely one of the most competitive acts out there per that ranking in that post.
And they're touring a ton. I mentioned the North American numbers, but they're going around the world. It's almost a year-long tour, so it's going to be massive.
Great. Yeah, it's definitely a cool trend, because one thing that you've written a lot about is that what's hitting now is really inconsistent. We can talk about a couple of things; one thing I want to talk about is Mexican music, one thing I want to talk about is country music. Where do you want to go first with this? Because the things that are doing really, really well are fairly eclectic.
Yeah, we can start with any of them. I think the story of country music is pretty interesting.
Morgan Wallen has just been a force who, without getting into the full story, he was caught on camera using the N word — not great, a lot of issues around him. Also, there was some COVID stuff, back in the COVID days. So, really, he's just had this moment where his fans are committed, they love him, he's selling out stadiums, doing really, really well.
His story of the country music is interesting, because you have these acts who are starting to be, I guess you would call them crossover? They're starting to reach into a pop audience, even. And also you have this sort of cultural shift that some people would like to see in country, which is maybe more voices from women, or Black artists, or LGBTQ artists, and the struggle between that and the reality that Morgan Wallen is the biggest country star in the world right now.
So, that's the story of country, and it's an interesting one, because there's definitely some tension there.
Wallen is interesting for a lot of reasons, but his album, One Thing at a Time, has been topping the rankings for quite some time. He did some interesting stuff with that. He clued in on a trend, on how to, not manipulate per se, but how to use streaming incentives to their advantage. Because a 36-song record that is almost two hours long, which you rarely see, but if you're thinking of a streaming thing, that could make sense, right?
Yeah. If you want to give fans a lot to listen to, you definitely could. Although, I do think a lot of it is probably all going to his singles. I hear them everywhere I go, and that's even in New York.
Yeah. Taking another step, Mexican music in particular, you had this really great story, I want to say beginning of June, end of May, that was all about that niche in general, and there's been a lot of regional music that has succeeded. That's riding a couple of different other trends, right?
Yeah. Obviously, Mexican music is sung in Spanish most of the time, and so what we're seeing there is just a continuation of growth in the Latin music broader genre, which is Bad Bunny, obviously huge, Rosalía, lots of others. So, with Mexican music, we're seeing artists like Peso Pluma, who is 23 years old from Guadalajara, he's also just been this huge act, and really the sound is truly a regional sound.
And there is controversy with that, as well, around this genre called narcocorridos, which are stories around drug cartels, just Wild West stories, almost. And obviously, there's been some pushback on that, but once again, this music is really reaching people regardless of whether they speak Spanish or not.
And I think the story with Mexican music is going to be, can it become as big as Reggaeton or Dembow, or something that really translates across the world? Right now we're seeing it in Mexico, obviously, the U.S., but can it really go to Asia? We're starting to see hints of it. But that's the next turn of the screw for that genre.
Really? So, it does make sense that it could succeed in America because there's a large Spanish-speaking audience here, but the next marker of success is, is it going to be played in Japan?
Anywhere in the world. But yeah, obviously Asia would be amazing. I spoke to some people who were like, yeah, we have listeners in Japan, which is so cool, but yeah, you want to see it succeed in all sorts of different regions that maybe don't necessarily have that direct tie to Mexico or Spanish language.
Yeah. I know that they've done phenomenally well in North American tours. Bad Bunny's tour was huge.
Yeah. Bad Bunny was huge, and all these Mexican artists have also been touring for years. The U.S. has a huge Mexican population, or descendants of Mexican people, so it definitely does very, very well in North America.
That's exciting. It's a really great newsletter, I enjoy it a lot. And I'm interested in the space, and it's just been very cool because this seems like a very transformative time, where finally the music industry has, as you mentioned, put piracy at bay, but at the same time, there are still some issues lurking.
I remember you had a story a little while ago about how people are concerned about streaming fraud, and some of the numbers that are out there when it comes to possible streaming fraud are pretty remarkable. What do you make of that?
So, streaming fraud is an interesting conversation because that's one that I feel like for years wasn't really widely acknowledged, it was just maybe discussed behind closed doors. But more and more now companies are discussing this. I believe Universal talked about it, or at least nodded to streaming fraud as an issue that they're trying to handle, on their earnings call.
It's just a bigger conversation in the space now, and I think part of this does come from that urgency of, okay, again, assuming there will be a future where generative AI puts a lot more music on platforms, how do you know who is there authentically? Who's getting fake streams? How do you qualify that? And quantify that? I think there's just this motivation to really crack down and make sure everyone's getting paid their fair due, and obviously the labels don't want to lose market share to what they would consider either outright fraud or just not human artists, or I don't even know, not real artists, I guess.
What do you mean by that? That's interesting.
It's kind of talked around, sort of this idea of real artists who are artists, musicians that are like, “This is my career, this is what I want to do,” versus someone who might be financially motivated and goes to an app to generate a song, and is like, “This is a way for me to make money.”
Or, UMG has talked a little bit about noise, like white noise, for example. Is that worth as much? Should that be worth the same amount as, I think Warner famously said, "An Ed Sheeran song?" Should those be counted the same and be worth the same amount of money? The labels would obviously say no, and I assume people who make white noise would say yes. So, this is the dynamic right now.
And the entity that currently gets to decide that is Spotify.
Yeah, the DSPs.
That's an interesting one, I feel like I'm going to see more of that in the future. So the newsletter is Soundbite. It's a Bloomberg newsletter, and it's very, very cool.
Before we wrap it up, anything else that's been on your mind lately? Any stories from this summer that you feel folks should maybe be paying more attention to, whether they're inside or outside of the music industry?
I think the one that everyone's watching is the generative AI story. The thing I'm watching there is it's a lot of theoretical conversation, a lot of talk, and then you have some actors being like, okay, we're going to not allow any AI-generated songs on our platform. I'm curious what the policies look like around that; I'm curious about how they define an AI-generated song. I think that is going to be a big part of the conversation, definitely the legal side and then maybe even the government side. I just think that story is going to keep snowballing into something.
Obviously this is not the only industry that is reckoning with the potential for AI. A lot of it comes down to just who gets to use it and when. Can an artist use AI during the creation of a song, versus can a label use an AI to make the song, versus can a DSP use it to flood their network with stuff? It's a weird peculiar question that, you're right, is entirely theoretical in so many ways.
Cool. Well, Ashley, thanks so much for coming on. Where can folks find you?
Yeah, it's great.
So that's exciting.
You got some really good data in there, I'm very fond of it. Anybody who listens to stuff should definitely check it out. Ashley Carman, thank you so much for coming on.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.