It has been a few years since I was able to attend the Founder Camp, an annual celebration and gathering of founders backed by True Ventures. The global pandemic and travel restrictions made it impossible for us to host the event, but we found a way to gather outdoors and enjoy each other this year. While we call all work from remote corners of the world, there is no joy more than being in each other’s presence. IRL, rocks! 

I didn’t do any work yesterday other than attending various conversations. The energy from the event kept me up late, and I spent a lot of time on my iPad, reading and catching up on my massive “read it later” list. In doing so, I found some interesting nuggets that caught my eye. 

  • Spotify launched the Car Thing. It likely will try and hasten what insiders already know: radio listening is going down in the cars. New technologies, bigger screens, and transition to EVs mean that the “radio” won’t be at the center of the entertainment experience — our phones are. 
  • Remember streaming was supposed to kill the music business? Quite the opposite is true, actually. In 2021, the global revenues were $25.9 billion, up by $4 billion over 2020, according to IFPI’s Global Music Report. Streaming accounted for 65.0% of recorded music revenues, up from a 61.9% share in 2020. Revenues from ad-funded streaming services (including video services) matched physical sales in 2021. There are 523 million paid subscribers. 
  • Cord-cutting continues unabated. Pay-TV providers in the U.S. lost about 4.69 million net video subscribers in 2021 versus 4.87 million in 2020, and Comcast lost over 1.6 million in 2021. 
  • Oura, the sleep tracking and health-focused ring maker, says it has sold a million rings. For context, Apple has sold upwards of 50 million watches in 2021 alone. I have ordered an Oura — it is a less intrusive way to track sleep than Apple Watch. 
  • Starlink has 250,000 subscribers. That didn’t stop them from raising prices for its kit – $599 for new orders. 
  • AT&T has cut prices on its 5G and has launched a new value plan. Let me remind you that their 5G is pretty shit, and thus there isn’t much value in it. OpenSignal, a market research and analytics company points out that if you want 5G in the US, you have to go with T-Mobile USA.

WORTH READING

March 24, 2022. San Francisco

Spotify is buying Chartable and Podsights, two podcasting-focused analytics companies, for an undisclosed amount of money. Spotify said it would use the Podinsights technology in its broader advertising-oriented network in a news release. 

For those not familiar, these companies work with podcasters and networks to include unique tags that give them insights into podcast listening behavior. Podsights help advertisers understand the effectiveness of their advertising, while Chartable provides valuable insights into the listeners and their behavior. 

Both these acquisitions add up to a smart move by Spotify. The company is trying hard to become the most significant player in the “hearing” attention economy and build a sizeable advertising business. Podcasts are a vital part of this business as they cost less and allow the company to keep a significant chunk of its revenues. In comparison, it has to share the money with record labels, who continue to have a draconian hold over the company.

The record labels get about 70 cents on a dollar from Spotify. In a way, Spotify is smartly using music as lead generation. It takes the user’s attention because the listener wants to stream music and channels it towards other audio forms. It is podcasts today and AI-generated sounds and audiobooks in the future. The longer people stay glued to Spotify’s stream, the more opportunity it has to sell some advertising against the stream. After all, advertising-monetized attention doesn’t discriminate between Joe Rogan, Michelle Obama, Neil Young, or machine-generated lo-fi sounds.

“We want to be the No. 1 global streaming audio player, and that means having everything as much as you could possibly think in audio,” Spotify CFO Paul Vogel said at the MIT Sloan CFO Summit. “In the next five to 10 years, there’ll be 3 [billion] to 4 billion smartphone-enabled phones — why shouldn’t every one of those phones have a streaming audio app on it?” “And if they’re going to have a streaming audio app, let’s make ours the best.” 

In many ways, Chartable and Podinsights acquisitions remind me of Facebook’s under-the-radar purchase of Onavo, the VPN/data tracker. It paid $200 million in 2013 for a company that allowed it to gather deep intelligence into what was happening with various apps — who was hot, who was not, and what was going to be hot. Many sources over the years told me that Onavo allowed Facebook to figure out the potential of Snap even before Snap founders knew what they had on their hands. Onavo data was crucial in making deals for Instagram and Whatsapp, amongst other things.

Podsights and Chartable would allow Spotify to know which podcasts are most effective or have tailwinds and could get famous shortly, giving them an excellent opportunity to either lock up that content into exclusive deals or bring them in-house. And remember, they could use the same data to create copy-cat podcasts — much like how Netflix creates copypasta versions of hit shows from other networks that get popular on its platform. Since Spotify controls the “attention spigot,” it can direct it at in-house podcasts and turn them into big hits. 

“Spotify isn’t just trying to become the biggest name in podcasting (which has heretofore been, but may no longer be Apple),” writes John Gruber. “They’re trying to usurp podcasting as we know it — one of the last and brightest bastions of the open, simple, private, transparent internet — and turn it into a privately-owned, gated, complicated, invasive, utterly closed platform. Spotify is trying to do to podcasting what Facebook did to “having your own website.”

The flipside of the argument is that podcasts and all audio content are existential for Spotify, where the larger platforms, Apple and Google, see them as “nice to have a feature.” Apple, which for the longest time was the leader in the podcasting space, was lazy and never took podcasting seriously. It is not surprising that we are all waking up today and finding Spotify determines how and what we will listen — Neil Young, notwithstanding. 

Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify, and Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix, have learned from the master — Mark Zuckerberg: attention is a zero-sum game. If you have it, hoard it, and most importantly, use it to grow your business and destroy your competitors. In a few years, we will wake up and realize the immense impact of these two small tuck-in deals announced today. 

It is always the little things that have a significant impact.

February 17, 2022. San Francisco.


Additional Reading:

  1. Why Spotify needs Joe Rogan and podcasters. Ironically, the Spotify share price has halved over past 12-months and that makes it an acquisition target for a larger company
  2. Young vs. Rogan: Spotify chose audio over music, but even bigger decisions lie ahead [Mark Mulligan]
  3. After reading his 24 points, I get a feeling Anil Dash is talking about Spotify, but in fact, it applies to pretty much every major “platisher.”
Photo Unsplash

Another week is in wind-down mode. I hope your week was more productive and bountiful than my continued struggle with finding a writing rhythm. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t write much this week. I have been caught between the urgent requirements of work and a nagging (and now prolonged) writer’s block. I have a growing pile of proverbial unfinished posts — thanks mainly to shifting attention from one topic to another. It is an affliction that most of us suffer in today’s hyper-information environment.

I read that a crypto-billionaire is buying a big piece of Forbes’ for about $200 million, just ahead of its public offering. Forbes, where I worked, is not really Forbes, and it is hardly a magazine worth its name. It is nothing more than a marketing site for arrivistes and self-promoters to give themselves some imprimatur. I mean, it published articles from Heather Morgan, one-half of the $4.5 billion crypto-scammers. Weirdly, the dots connect. What was I going to say about this $200 million investment? I thought no matter the source, the new money is always used to buy things from the past — art, buildings, vintage cars, and vintage publications and brands.

Like it said, swimming against the tide of information is hard, and you tend to get swept away. When I mentioned this to my friend Pip Coburn, who is in the investment advisory business, he said when it came to making investing decisions, he doesn’t look at day-to-day gyrations of the stock price of the company he likes. He suggested a similar approach to information consumption — and as a result, I am trying to check Twitter, newsletter subscriptions, and RSS feeds at the end of the day. Hopefully, this would allow me to ruminate on topics and wake up with a spark for writing early in the morning.

The entire week wasn’t a loss. I read some good articles this past week that are worth your time.

February 12, 2022. San Francisco

Worth Reading

  1. The best way to prevent blackouts and save the power grid is by embracing the packetization ideology that is core to the Internet. [IEEE Spectrum]
  2. How Telegram became the anti-Facebook [Wired] This is a good story about chat-app Telegram, though labeling it anti-Facebook is lazy headline writing by the editors at Wired. The story, however, takes a look at the rise of this application and its growth despite the existence of WhatsApp. I was an early adopter, and I have found it to innovate faster than any other chat app.
  3. The rats nest that is the life of the couple that stole $71 million in Bitcoin now worth $4.5 billion. This story is crazy! Vice (Also, this isn’t the first or the last crypto-scam.)
  4. The web starts at page four is short personal reflection by a long time web developer who bemoans the web has morphed into a “consumption machine that creates bubbles and assumes new users to be incapable of making own decisions.” I was nodding my head in agreement when reading this piece.
  5. Why did Microsoft spend $69 billion to buy Activision? One-word: metaverse.
  6. Why Spotify needs Joe Rogan and podcasters. Ironically, the Spotify share price has halved over past 12-months and that makes it an acquisition target for a larger company.
  7. After reading his 24 points, I get a feeling Anil Dash is talking about Spotify, but in fact it applies to pretty much every major “platisher.”

Etc:

Apple now dominates the US headphones business. Talking about headphones, John C Koss, the man who introduced consumers to the idea of using headphones for music, recently passed away at 91.


Oh-oh! Solar storms can not only bring down the satellites but also the entire Internet. Light reading has the details based on research by Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California Irvine. The full paper is available here!

Now that it has stopped growing in a few decades, it is very likely that there will be more dead people on Facebook.

While I was away, Spotify released its annual “Top Songs of the year” list. I quite appreciate this feature from Spotify. Music, at least for me, reflects one’s state of mind, and the list gives you a window into your inner self. My musical tastes were biased towards jazz, blues, and electronica in the past. However, this year, my top songs list is dominated by what one would call “ambient music.” 

An unusually large number of pianists feature on this list, along with the likes of Mary Lattimore and Roger Eno. My top artist of the year is a Japanese musician (saxophonist and pianist) Akira Uchida, and other favorites include Rose Riebl, Nils Frahm, and Brambles. Uchida has 114 listeners on Spotify, which is such a shame. 

Why ambient? And why these artists? And what do they say about the year that was? After a challenging 2020, I thought of 2021 as a year of contemplation, paring down and stripping down life, ambition, and outcomes to bare essentials. Just as in winter, you let a field lay fallow; this is all in preparation for whatever is the next chapter in life for me. 

This continuous elimination of excess — whether it is superfluous ideas, possessions, words, or choices is reflected in my photography and writing (which has become more private and inward-looking.) The musical choices of 2021 created the soundtrack for this contemplation and this discovery process. 

Many of the artists I preferred in 2021 are “minimalists” and allow a handful of instruments to speak in a manner that conveys the feelings. I am grateful they created the music that helped my soul searching so pleasant. 

If you are interested, I created a playlist for your enjoyment