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Quick FYI for folks new to Audio-First:Read and/or listen - the audio version is great & has bonus clipsAudio is also available on all the podcast appsThe Audio-First Charter (why we’re here)Finally, this post may be easier to read on my blog___________________“Who controls the memes controls the universe” tweeted Elon Musk, referencing a line from Dune. Somehow it feels both trollish and profound.If you live on the internet, you know it when you see it. Memes are everywhere. More importantly, it feels like memes matter today. A well-crafted internet joke like Musk’s can yield more attention than a well-funded PR campaign.Lately, I’ve been reading a fascinating book on the topic. First, I learned the academic definition of memes is far more expansive than just internet jokes. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme to refer to fashions, ceremonies, customs, and technologies that spread across human brains. The mechanism: mimesis, better known as imitation.[Dawkins] discussed [meme] propagation by jumping from brain to brain, likened them to parasites infecting a host, treated them as physically realised living structures, and showed how mutually assisting memes will gang together in groups just as genes do. Most importantly, he treated the meme as a replicator in its own right. Everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme. But we must be clear what is meant by the word ‘imitation’, because our whole understanding of memetics depends on it. Dawkins said that memes jump from ‘brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation’ (1976, p. 192)…Everything that is passed from person to person in this way is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others and the games you like to play. It includes the songs you sing and the rules you obey. So, for example, whenever you drive on the left (or the right!), eat curry with lager or pizza and coke, whistle the theme tune from ‘Neighbours’ or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behaviour to get itself copied.Susan Blackmore “The Meme Machine”Think of memes as the smallest atomic unit of culture. Some memes are funny, some are relatable, and some are not very useful and don’t spread widely.Memetic theory says these mind-viruses compete against each other for their slot in the next human brain. Some memes make it. Others don’t. (Even more interestingly, some memes make it without regard to their real-world usefulness—only their ability to replicate most effectively.) Memes, they argue, are part of a Darwinian system. This is all rooted in the idea of Universal Darwinism, which says evolution applies to any “replicator” with the following conditions:selection – the fittest survivevariation – there are slight changes between copiesheredity – the offspring inherits characteristics from the parentMemes satisfy these conditions and replicate “cultural instructions” just like genes do.Of course, our lives are increasingly digital. Arguably, more culture is mediated through media and tech platforms than in real life. Thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett were talking about cultural evolution and the theory of mind abstractly more than, say, lip-syncing TikToks. Even so, types of social media posts—as digital shipping containers for memes—help them propagate.To social media’s credit, they’ve taken the Darwin-governed world of memes and built fairly Darwinian systems around them. Now, a retweet button here or a like button there governs how memes spread (or struggle for life). Digital memes satisfy all the evolutionary pre-conditions:selection – some posts get comments & likes, going viral and becoming part of public awarenessvariation – every story gets told slightly differentlyheredity – Meme image templates, quote tweeting, TikTok duets all derive from existing contentYou can expect a lineage to form from the most “successful” genres of social media posts. Viral templates survive for a reason.Seeing social media through a memetic lens is, admittedly, a bit confusing. It’s hard to know where the shipping container begins and ends. In theory, they’re merely vehicles for culture to hitch a ride on. (As Blackmore wrote, memes are “substrate-neutral.”) But the mechanisms are worth studying. The difference between a Twitter meme (e.g. “Time for a thread”) and a newspaper meme (e.g. “Area man…”) is the memetic evolution has been turned up a few notches. It spawns imitators way faster. Anyone can chime in with their own version.If memes behave like genes, perhaps the various tech platforms resemble the different climate zones, where possessing a certain trait is highly adaptive. (Aside: Is Facebook akin to a tropical rainforest, enabling the most memeo-diversity? It might not be provable or even helpful to ponder.) The point is certain memes are naturally selected based on their product choices.Finally, and most notably, memes travel across regions at a startling pace. Like an invasive species caught in a ballast tank, digital shipping containers spread memes farther and faster than ever. Every human brain is now a potential target.The first great meme machineIn 2006, internet analyst Mary Meeker was asked how Google could justify its acquisition of YouTube for $1.65B. Meeker made the bull case and pointed out that YouTube felt like a natural evolution:“What’s interesting to me about the evolution of media today is that these 3 minutes clips–and I’m generalizing–that are amateur in nature are often times very funny. Because people happen to be in the right place at the right time. When I first watched some funny videos on the internet, I was reminded of the early days of MTV when music was presented in a different way. And I was also reminded of the early days of Saturday Night Live…my hope and my bet is that [YouTube] was an event that will push the traditional content creators to focus more aggressively on monetizing their content on the internet.Mary Meeker (full clip)The analysis still looks spot-on 14 years later.What made YouTube special was its ability to aggregate short, punchy clips that are “amateur in nature.” The rest is history. With time, that ushered in a whole creator economy and encouraged media corporates to buy in. Now, banks value YouTube at $200B – $300B alone, making it one of the greatest M&A deals of all time.YouTube’s scale and early start allowed it to enjoy a near-monopoly on virality, at least in video form. “Damn Daniel” and countless other memes from YouTube have ported over to everyday conversation. Previously, viral internet ideas spread as static images with editable text. Video added a new level of fidelity. Now, YouTube’s scale allows the world’s ideas, jokes, and culture get replicated to the tune of 100 billion hours per day. Like any good social technology, YouTube unleashed an extremely powerful broadcast tool. In its wake, trillions of bits of cultural material spread from brain to brain. YouTube perhaps the first great meme machine on the internet.In terms of meme replication power, YouTube enjoyed the last decade without a credible challenger. That is, until the rise of TikTok.The second great (video) meme machineTikTok has famously taken video virality to another level. There’s some great write-ups about the history of TikTok, and how it pivoted its app into what it is today. Personally, I think the most remarkable feature is TikTok’s explicit focus on memes.TikTok’s main differentiator is audio-related. In every video, the audio itself can easily be “forked”—or copied—into a half-original new creation. All you have to do is film something compelling over it. This is not a huge secret. Every TikTok user knows there’s a song ID at the bottom of every video, and if pressed, will show you all the other videos using that song. From there, it will even encourage you to film your own imitation, lowering the friction to creation.Audio forking spawns thousands of imitationsCurrently, Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams” is back in the charts again thanks to Doggface208 posting a TikTok video lip-syncing on a skateboard while drinking Ocean Spray. Thousands of others have “forked” the Fleetwood Mac audio, and replicated DoggFace208’s video while skateboarding on their own. Other hit songs have minted entire video genres.The platform offers more than just dancing along to famous songs. The same applies to videos with original audio, which also can go equally viral as people iterate on the audio-meme. Often, this is done with the “duet” feature, where creators anticipate remixes on a script they create.TikTok’s chief innovation is often said to be the creation tools, the mobile focus, the constrained time limit, or the superior algorithm. Those are all important. But I suggest the most important factor is this “A/V forking”–splitting audio and video–that encourages imitation.By splitting content into the audio and visual, the hurdle for creating an entertaining video gets (1) easier for the creator and (2) exponentially more competitive in aggregate. Often, the original post of a viral TikTok is outdone by imitators that “perform” over the audio in an even more entertaining way. As a result, TikTok’s native content is far more explosive and gripping compared to YouTube.The way TikTok focuses on memes is intentional and apparently the product of rigorous focus group testing. From The Information‘s paywalled piece:TikTok executives were initially hesitant about the memes. But things changed in 2019, when Tiktok did an in-depth survey of its U.S. users, focusing on groups older than middle-school age. The study, called “tribe research,” screened and analyzed users’ profiles and usage of the app. It found that TikTok’s users felt disenfranchised on Snap and Instagram, according to a person familiar with the study. The people familiar with the study said they were surprised to find that the app was particularly popular among minorities, the LGBT community, and poorer whites. The common ground, according to the survey, appeared to be a fondness for memes.The survey results prompted ByteDance to tailor the app toward memes. TikTok began directing user traffic to more meme-related content and started creating its own campaigns targeting memes. The company added the features that allow users to add texts directly to videos, enabling them to create memes more easily on TikTok. The popularity of memes in the U.S. surprised ByteDance employees. The company’s typical go-to market strategy overseas usually focused on recruiting top influencers from sites such as Youtube and Instagram, sponsoring big offline events and advertising campaigns.This is obvious to anyone who’s used TikTok—it’s the main appeal—but it’s worth pointing out the innovation is audio- and meme-related. And it’s consciously built into the UI of the app.Time for some meme theoryIn TikTok’s case, the inherited meme is often the soundtrack—but includes other behaviors (e.g. skateboarding with Oceanspray while looking blissed out). TikTok memes that survive not only capture the zeitgeist but represent all the things that are selected for as “good” on the platform.Previously, most social platforms innovated on social status & metrics that show a “proof of work,” as Eugene Wei has noted. Broadly, these selection mechanisms translate to things humans care about in real-life (e.g. status). Likes, comments, and superior algorithms have also helped fine-tune the selection process of identifying what content is most “fit.”TikTok seems to be playing a different game, evolutionarily. There’s less emphasis on likes and social capital (selection), and more on spawning new imitations (heredity). Technically speaking, by relying less on 100% original content, there’s increased heredity and decreased variation. The videos—and by extension the memes inside—are extra “fit.” This brings up the average TikTok video’s quality, which, in turn, makes the most “successful” videos exponentially better.The lack of originality doesn’t come at a cost, either. As Jia Tolentino wrote in How TikTok Holds Our Attention, creators have embraced this new evolutionary process. There’s no shame in remixing:“Adam Friedman has begun producing music directly for influencers, and engineering it for maximum TikTok success. “We start with the snippet, and if it does well on TikTok we’ll produce the full song,” he told me. I suggested that some people might think there was a kind of artistic integrity missing from this process. “The influencer is playing a central role in our culture, and it’s not new,” he said. “There’ve always been socialites, people of influence, the Paris World’s Fair. Whatever mecca that people go to for culture is where they go to for culture, and in this moment it’s TikTok.”It’s hard not to compare this to hip-hop production, which was once criticized as stealing from classic songs and only adding a new vocal overlay. But it’s its own art form, and being able to reinterpret existing music has simply created a superior end product. (Not to mention, it’s grown into the number 1 genre in America.)While status is still baked into TikTok’s system, that’s just table stakes now. Heredity—or remixing—seems to be a key new lever for social products. Going forward, perhaps the new playbook will center on designing systems for memetic evolution.Where else could “forking” work?It’s not always wise to pick the hottest tech narrative today and try to copy their secret sauce. In TikTok’s case, A/V forking has been baked into the platform for years. Its head start might actually be unstoppable, even with Facebook in the race. The content is the platform now, and the feedback loops are hard to replicate.As far as I can tell, there aren’t tons of examples of social media remixing-as-a-feature, aside from the Twitter quote-tweet or the Tumblr retweet. The walls between posts are generally rigid. Originality and scarcity work.YouTube is already trying to insert more TikTok-like short videos into its mobile app. But it doesn’t easily allow A/V forking. Instagram might be the best candidate to make reposting easier (for one, it already allows reposting a tagged Story). Allowing this for static posts as well might be more impactful than Reels, its weak TikTok copycat. But it would also inflate the scarce currency of likes, risking their golden goose.Another candidate might be Spotify, which could literally broker music remixing in-app. Spotify recently discontinued support Algoriddim’s DJay, which was a fantastic source for live DJing from the Spotify catalog. Recently, Spotify started allowing podcasters to sample full songs with Anchor, enabling a type of remixing. Allowing professional-quality music to be created in an IP-compliant way could be really meaningful for the future of music, and may be a future goal.Interactive content like Netflix’s Bandersnatch could be forked and crowdsourced leading to better stories and experiences. Or perhaps more feasibly in the world of gaming, allowing user-created worlds be forked more easily (Fortnite does this to some degree with Creative Mode). Finally, I’ve seen some features on Reddit 3rd party app (Apollo) that makes forked image memes more visible. (You can click into the OP more easily.)However, it might be up to startup challengers to truly innovate on content forking in the spirit of TikTok. Apps building in the airpods & audio space are currently hot, in part because they’re unique experiences in a world filled with images and videos.Clubhouse feels fresh because it allows synchronized remixing of live audio (aka discussions – what’s old is new). Riff works as a kind of shipping container for voice messages across different platforms. Shuffle allows snippets of podcasts to get shared easily, and could perhaps add remixing. One interesting app called Voisey has built a TikTok-like video app for submitting hip-hop beats and allowing live-recording over them, creating a highly iterative hip-hop feed. (H/T to Vidy Thatte, who I know is building something cool there.) I’ve covered a few other audio startups in my newsletter here.Beyond audio-first apps and social media, it’s less clear. Forking is a term borrowed from the world of open-source software and cryptocurrency and both remain great candidates. Other crazy areas could include journalism (forking stories based on agreed-upon facts) somehow on the blockchain. Things like legal contracts could also be forked, but that’s getting beyond the original point.In short, the next great meme machine could take forking to another level. Remixing will likely be part of the toolkit, as TikTok proved to have superior memes. Meme theorists like Dawkins might have more to offer than Skinner (and the legion of psychologists employed by Silicon Valley) when it comes to making compelling social products._____________________________________________________________Further reading/listening: Mary Meeker, Eugene Wei, Susan Blackmore, Jia Tolentino, Turner Novak, and Vidy Thatte have all inspired ideas here. Thanks to Brice Gigedot and Drew Austin for seeing early drafts. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
[Listen above (& podcast apps), read below, or both if you’re feeling crazy]Welcome back audio nerds! I hope you’re well in these trying times. I also hope last time’s deep-dive on Brazilian music was fruitful. For me, it’s been very necessary to stay positive.As the coronavirus went from Faraway Problem to Very Real Threat, things are no doubt profoundly weird. But there’s some comfort in the fact that it’s weird for everybody. That we’re all in this.Most of us are lucky enough to be insulated from the real medical emergency, and the relative comfort is eerie in its own right. But you get accustomed to it fast. I mean, last night I ate dinner while in the bathtub. Meanwhile, I have friends working in NYC emergency rooms.Compounding on this bizarreness is the sense of time-travel. If you’re young, this a peek into what life will be like retired. If you’re quarantining with a significant other, it’s like hitting fast-forward to marriage. And then there’s the looming pandemic, which feels like something History Book People agonized over, like Hades or scurvy. (A testament to human achievement, in a way.)We’re living in one giant, collective anachronism. Closed for businessAudio-First has been slowly stumbling towards a Grand Unifying Theory of Media. I’m not there yet, but we previously reduced it to “mind control.” That’s effectively the game for creators: how desirable was your mind control? As the neuroeconomist Paul Zak notes, “A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text. It’s the same kind of activation in the brain.” Recently, hearing Gavin Baker talk about The Metaverse added a new layer of perspective:“The metaverse is simply a series of connected virtual worlds I firmly believe the majority of people will spend a majority of their waking hours within my lifetime. Today, most of those worlds are called video games. And I would say The Metaverse being the culmination of the internet is a relatively accepted opinion amongst early-stage venture investors and large technology you see a DJ named Marshmello did a concert in Fortnite that 40M people watched. There's a special Star Wars event. There’s already events regularly in every video game. I’m more and more convinced that video games will be foundational to the metaverse. One signpost there is we have a lot of data on internet traffic. According to Verizon, Video Game traffic is up 100%. And Telecom Italia saw video game traffic up 75% and social media traffic up 0% because people are connecting through video games.”The full picture here is that audio (and anything Audio-First) is part of an umbrella of media-tech that allows you to enter a virtual world. Listening to a podcast like Serial is quite a bit different than a persistent virtual world like Fortnite. But fundamentally, and neuroscientifically, they’re on the same spectrum. They compete for mindshare.Now if you’ve read Snow Crash, you know there’s 3 different ways to access the proverbial Metaverse: high-quality home VR, grainy public arcade-style VR, or for the real addicts, a portable headset. (Eerily similar to what we have today). What attracted me to audio & audio-first tech is that the third portable option has seen a lot of momentum technologically–airpods, music streaming, podcasting, voice assistants, generative audio, conversational AI–these all seem to be converging on a compelling virtual world that’s portable. Sure, it’s not complete immersion like our home system. But it delivers something that only requires 70%-attention, allowing us to get a taste of the giant computer-storyteller-machine while going about our day. That’s why I wrote in edition #4 that the reason I’m ‘long’ audio is because I’m ‘long’ distracted consumption. There’s just a shocking amount of surface area unlocked.With COVID-19, however, this is short-term a bad break for audio. Music streaming and podcasting and AirPods are built upon the assumption that people can consume on-the-go. Unsurprisingly, podcast listening is already down from the start of March. Similarly, musicians, who rely on tour income and second jobs to pay the bills, are very much affected. I suspect this will all rebound as normalcy returns, but this is a seriously bad demand shock. On the startup front, things are tricky for the time being. Smart guy and friend of the show Michael Dempsey wrote a great summary of why startup funding is still on hold right now. The demand shock, the asset-wide allocation, and general uncertainty has already affected the funding environment. Similarly, Chamath Palihapitiya highlighted on a must-listen pod that companies are now price takers, and said that founders can expect 30% haircuts. For now, the startup go-go days are on pause.Finally, as I hinted in the last edition, COVID-19 is a likely boon for tech giants like Apple. Apple also has a massive balance sheet to make smart acquisitions. With much of the tech industry reeling from the fallout, Apple’s $200B cash-on-hand could buy a wild portfolio of services and hard tech (say sound-producing nanomaterials, h/t Dror Poleg). Already, it’s snapped up Dark Sky and NextVR in just 2 weeks. The NextVR acquisition, in particular, hints that Apple is taking this concept of metaverse extremely seriously.Right now, the world is rife with predictions about what COVID will bring and how it will change our habits. Just by exposure during quarantine, there’s a good chance people see the digital world as “primary” more than ever. That could bring metaverses here even faster. Short term, though, it’s a bad break for audio. Quarantine is showing how audio’s edge is dependent on people being portable. Obviously, our ears aren’t going anywhere and we won’t be sheltering in place forever. So I remain optimistic. As it stands today, though, tech giants seem better positioned than ever.Quarantine DiversionsWhat’s working for me is going deeper on my favorite artists, reading up on music history, and watching any remotely interesting documentary. We’re also living in a golden age of podcasts & docuseries, where I have some recs below. ReadAbout how The Beatles’ Revolver was made, with a fascinating, detailed account their breakupI was curious about the upcoming Fiona Apple album, which included a bunch of salacious facts (ctrl-f ‘Tarantino’).ListenA fairly well-known podcast hosted by Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell called Broken Record has some of the most captivating music interviews I’ve ever heard. You can listen to Nile Rodgers talk about working with Madonna, Diana Ross, as well as a hilarious account of playing with Prince (my personal fav). I learned that Tyler The Creator vastly prefers Igor, and that he’s a ‘chord person’ far more than a ‘drum person.’ You can listen to Flea spill his guts, or hear Andre 3000 explain why he’s uninspired about releasing new music.VCs - Chamath’s other interview with Kara Swisher was good. I’ve been enjoying Geoff Lewis’ video updates. Both investors predict a breakup of the EU due to Covid, interestingly.Yves Tumor’s latest album (must-listen IMO)WatchThe impressive list of artists doing home concertsKurt Cobain Montage of Heck (HBO)Amy (Winehouse) is classic (NFLX)Miles Davis: Birth of Cool (NFLX)My Youtube-famous roomie has a video arguing why Scorcese’s The Last Waltz is the best concert film of all timeThis 3 hr BBC doc on the history of electronic music, which I found very informative (YT)13 live performances and concert films to stream in self-isolation, omitting one of my favs from KhruangbinLiner notesDrake’s “Toosie Slide” Is a Master Class in Marketing, but Nothing Else. The creation myth of Kanye West. If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy. Stay tuned and keep it locked,NickNpappaGPS - I’m doing an upcoming interview with an iOS developer about airpods, audio, and the future of Apple. You can submit questions and talking points here. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
[Listen above, read below, or both!]Hello audio nerds! It’s good to be back. I’ve spent the past few weeks in Brazil for, um, research. And the music there did not let me down. More on that below.If you’re new here, read The Charter. Today we’re welcoming 60+ new reader-listeners, so thanks to Substack for plugging Audio-First on the homepage. One final note: all Audio-First editions are also findable on the podcast apps Apple/Spotify/Pocket Casts/Stitcher/others. (I prefer Pocket Casts because it displays the text fully linked in the Notes section. But you do you.)Onward.Lo-fi ARMagic Leap, the bellwether company in augmented reality, is exploring a sale according to Bloomberg. The report suggests it could be for as much as $10B, which would be a healthy return on the $2.6B (!) it raised in equity financing.But $10B is likely a stretch. Elsewhere, outlets like TechCrunch thinks this will be a fire sale. 2019 was a year of flameouts for well-funded AR startups like ODG, Meta, and Daqri. Additionally, Magic Leap suffered incredibly weak demand on its consumer headset and has since pivoted to enterprise, where it hasn’t found a foothold. If I were a betting man, I’d say this ends closer to a flameout, too. This isn’t to poke fun, either. A lot of this tech will be crucial towards building AR, which feels all but inevitable as the smartphone successor. It’s just the consensus seems to have shifted, conceding that AR is further out than previously thought (more of a 5-10 year range). This is a letdown to the startups and investors in the space. However, if AR’s timeline is now delayed, the opportunity for audio—with more time in the interim—increases a lot. As I argued in my Betaworks presentation last year: AirPods will likely be remembered as our first taste of transhumanism (we wear them all day & the sales are on par with iPhones so far)AirPods could become a lo-fi AR or a low-fi Neuralink (it’s mostly a software problem now)But so far, nothing we use them for is that novel (it’s all stuff we did with wired headphones)Perhaps augmented reality’s current problems are audio’s fortune. As the “interfaceless interface,” audio could offer many of the upsides of AR, except it’s here and now. We’re already wearing them all day long, as AR makers hoped for their headsets. And they can approximate a lot of real-time information from the smartphone (and maybe soon with head angles and gestures).Second, the vision for AR headsets could be achieved, in part, with audio. It’s not difficult to imagine, say, 50% of the Magic Leap demos (like emails, basic search) could work somehow with today’s audio tech. The bottleneck right now is the smart assistant.This is why I’m looking to Apple for any sign about where this goes. As I wrote in a previous Audio-First, the dictation of text messages on the AirPods Pro feels like that first taste of where audio is going:Aside from noise cancellation, the biggest new addition is the native text message reading. (ICYMI - incoming iMessages are read aloud by Siri.) I love it. More and more, I find myself dictating messages out, especially when I’m outside running. It works fine enough, even if the Siri interaction is a bit slow. To me, it seems obvious that Apple will have a Siri-led category of new apps. It’s just a matter of when.So far, Apple’s been quiet and has kept developer features with SiriKit pretty limited. But I suspect this will change in time. Additionally, Apple’s been rumored to be working on an AR headset for the past 10 years, and the reported ship dates keep getting pushed back (currently to 2023). In the near-term, it looks like an even bigger opportunity for audio & AirPods. And amidst a work from home wave due to COV-19, I’d guess AirPods are spiking in demand. Perhaps we’re in a catalyzing moment. Musica BrasileiraOn the music front, Brazil was magical. Granted, my most predictable travel habit is falling in love to the point where I browse Zillow, tell everyone back in NYC that "I could totally live there," and then never follow through. But Brazil, I swear, is a unique crucible for music.My knowledge going in was more around bossa nova, which I understood as a beautiful jazz-samba fusion that pairs nicely with a pina colada. The reality on the ground was that, and a whole lot more. Bossa nova, samba, pagode (pronounced pah-go-jee, a sort of samba-folk hybrid), and tropicalia (psych-rock like Caetano Veloso) are probably the most exported music I encountered down there. Even my local friends there play it themselves. These are the “national” music genres.Brazilian music, from what I learned in a documentary, has had a unique evolution, often fusing American music with its own unique sounds and instruments. To an American’s ears, it’s a wonderful degree of same-but-different. In culture and history, Brazil is not unlike America either. The most well-known genres have African roots and are steeped in a turbulent history of counterculture, political upheaval, and lasting inequality.The contemporary party music, however, was something else entirely. At parties and Carnaval events, people kept asking me what I think about the genre “baile funk” (pronounced “funky”). Baile funk, often just called funk, is basically the local equivalent of hip-hop, and I heard it everywhere. It has a distinctive cha-cha-cha-tik-cha beat that you can’t mistake, and culturally seems to occupy the same space as ratchet dancefloor hip-hop.In a recent Guide to Urbano Music, Felipe Maia summarized funk’s history: Between the 1950s and early 2000s, the population of favelas in Rio de Janeiro grew dramatically—the product of scarce public housing programs and unplanned urban expansion. At street level, the scenario was not so different from a subset of the South Bronx in the ’70s: a large, young, black population that wanted to party despite tough living conditions. This background laid the foundations for Brazilian funk, a genre that from its inception was deeply connected to club culture, also favoring danceable tracks, boiling-hot venues, and heavy soundsystems. DJ Marlboro was a high-profile figure in the early Brazilian funk scene, since he’d performed on many radio shows and gigs in Rio in the 1980s. In these sets, he dropped hip-hop anthems such as Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” or DJ Battery Brain’s “808 Volt Mix,” which became rhythmic cornerstones for Brazilian funk (or, as it’s called in the U.S., baile funk).It also turns out funk has its roots in American hip-hop and is currently going through a slot of the similar debates that hip-hop did:Funk, which has roots in American hip hop, is performed mostly by men. Its critics say its lyrics promote misogyny, promiscuity and crime… A particular target is funk proibidão (taboo funk), in which explicit lyrics both glorify and lament violence. Funk ostentação (ostentation funk), which celebrates money and fame, is especially popular in São Paulo.Sounds like a familiar story. If you really want to see the baile funk scene in action, watch this short documentary from Boiler Room. Some really wild footage.After listening to my share of funk, some of it’s quite good. And some of it’s hard on the ears, or sounds hokey (e.g. the funk remixes of Old Town Road or A Star Is Born). But on the whole, it echoes urbano and hip-hop sounds that I know and enjoy.Since leaving Brazil, I can’t help but wonder if some of this music is going to grow in popularity here. Anitta, who’s probably the biggest pop star in Brazil today, is a trilingual funk singer who’s starting to do crossovers with big names like J Balvin. (I’ve had her song Bola Rebola on repeat.) I also learned Diplo famously compiled funk mixtapes as a way to export the sounds and get Brazilian producers on the map. After a Super Bowl in Miami, featuring Shakira and J. Lo, it’s pretty clear Latin music has arrived. I‘m curious what the future holds for Brazilian music, or if it can even be lumped into Latin trap. In my brief survey of people there, the impression I got was that Brazil doesn’t really consider itself Latin American. “It’s just Brazil,” was the common answer. (And almost nobody there speaks Spanish.) In any event, the country is clearly brimming with musical life. Everyone I met seemingly had music talent. Somehow, I found myself participating in 3 of my 5 lifetime drum circles.If you want a little starter pack, I compiled all my locally-recommended songs and Shazams into a playlist here. If you want to hear more Funk, try this. But if you listen to nothing else, I’d say try out Jorje Ben Jor, Novos Baianos, or Caetano Veloso.Liner notesConcert promoters suspend big shows around the world. New Four Tet and new Jay Electronica (feat. a lot of Jay-Z), making it feel very 2009. An interview with SZA. Apple WWDC will be entirely online.Stay tuned and keep it locked. And stay safe out there!Nick@NpappaGFYI sampled songs: Tudo o Que Voce Podia Ser by Milton Nascimento, Bossa Nova Brasil by Joao Donato, and Marinheiro So by Caetano Veloso, and Bola Rebola by Tropikillaz. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
Welcome back audio nerds! I hope you enjoyed the last interview with Drew Austin. Again, the episode (and all future audio versions) are all findable on the apps Apple/Spotify/Pocket Casts/Stitcher/others.Since I’m currently far away on a trip, and hence without my beloved microphone, I’m recording audio from a laptop. Apologies. This will be a brief roundup things I’ve been listening to lately. Podcasts recsFirst, after years of groaning at Pomp’s bitcoin tweets, I have to say I’m totally impressed with the Joe Rogan-for-tech universe he’s built. His podcast Unchained started more strictly focused on crypto, but in the new year he’s opened it up to to more general tech interviews. Sriram Krishnan & Geoff Lewis had some fascinating parts to their interviews, and tech folks will find them worthy listens.But I was totally floored by Pomp’s most recent episode with Brian Norgard, former CPO of Tinder, which focused almost entirely on the future audio. (Brian’s prescient tweets about airpods were an inspiration for me to start writing on the subject.) Audio nerds, this is a must-listen. Brian drills into why airpods are growing, product opportunities and limitations, and where the medium goes from here. And they stick on this thread for quite a while. I’m still taking it in.Second, I’m hooked on Radiolab’s new series The Other Latif. It’s being hyped as the next Serial, and has some obvious parallels. This one’s about a (potentially) wrongfully imprisoned inmate at Guantanamo Bay. Some other honorable mentions: The Portal, After On (the episodes with Naval are chilling must-listens), and I’m not proud of how much I like Prof Galloway’s rants on Recode Decode.Last, if you’ve never listened to EconTalk, stop what you’re doing. It’s bar none my favorite podcast, and I’m planning to write a little writeup as to why. In a nutshell it’s accessible conversations with the smartest people in the world. I’ve learned so much from it over the years. Maybe I’m an econ nerd, but this is just simply the best.Music recs2020 is also shaping up to be a banner year for music. Some big albums have already dropped, and some of the most creative minds in music will release by year’s end. I, for one, am stoked. I’ll list what I learned from this Pitchfork article.Dropped or dropping soon that I’m excited about:Destroyer - January 31Khruangbin / Leon Bridges - Feb 7Tame Impala (shoutout) - just released Feb 15Grimes - Feb 21King Krule -Feb 21 Caribou - February 28thAnd this year we can expect something from:Angel OlsenBest CoastFiona Apple (love)Frank Ocean (apparently working on a club album with Justice)Lana Del RayNonamePlayboi CartiRihannaRosaliaIf you’re unfamiliar with any of these artists, I’d urge you to give them a try. I can vouch, and I’d probably go see them if they were in town.Liner notesEvery music streaming app is the exact same. Spotify’s in-song facts about the creative process. A totally random article. Fantano blasting my fav band’s new album. Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker with Zane Lowe.Stay tuned and keep it locked,Nick@NpappaG This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
My inaugural interview guest is Drew Austin, (AKA Kneeling Bus). Drew regularly produces some of the most thought-provoking essays about tech and urban planning. I encourage you to check out his weekly newsletter. We dive into everything AirPods, audio, AR, and urban planning.Some audio-related ideas of his to check out:Always in: wireless headphones are AR devicesPaleo Internet, a conception of gourmet internet that made me bullish on audioWhite Noise, which contains a passage I’ve read and re-read many times out loud to friends about digital vs physical life. Must read. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
Hello audio nerds, two big updates for you today.First, Audio-First is now distributed on your favorite podcast apps. At long last, you can enjoy my voice on-the-go, and not just from your inbox. You’ll find the audio versions (past and future) uploaded here:Apple PodcastsSpotifyPocket CastsStitcherOther weirder onesDepending on the audio app (e.g. Pocket Casts), the Notes section will be the fully-linked text that goes out with the newsletter.I implore you to take the 2 seconds to subscribe because…(announcement #2) a number of upcoming episodes of Audio-First will be interviews with audio thinkers, iOS developers, and other tech insiders. Contain your excitement. These will be longer than the fortnightly-ish post I’ve been sending out, so I imagine you’ll want to listen as you would with a traditional podcast.Tomorrow, our first interview drops with the great Drew Austin, aka Kneeling Bus. Drew regularly produces some of the most thought-provoking essays about tech and urban planning, and he makes one of my favorite weekly newsletters. Some audio-related ideas of his to check out:Always in: wireless headphones are AR devicesPaleo Internet, a conception of gourmet internet that made me bullish on audioWhite Noise, which contains a passage I’ve read and re-read many times out loud to friends about digital vs physical life. Must read.Anyway, Drew’s ideas have been very influential for my writing on Audio-First. So sign up on your podcast app, and hear us dive into all things audio, airpods, and urban living. (It’s about 40 minutes). Audio-visualNow that Audio-First is officially straddling both podcast and newsletter distribution, you might be asking yourself: How do I, a faithful reader-listener, consume this content as intended? More than ever, there’s a chance you’ll gravitate toward the audio over the text, or the text over the audio. To me, it makes no difference. I hope it comes down to your own convenience.Perhaps this is grandiose, but I hold a small hope that a few of you do both simultaneously. Realistically most of you don’t, but I love the possibility. Mostly because in college I was forced to read Paradise Lost by John Milton. (If you don’t know, Paradise Lost was written in 17th-century vernacular, in poetic verse.) And I found the best way to absorb it was to speed up the audiobook track to a comfortable reading speed. With the audio and visual experience synced up, I was powering through Milton’s wackadoo language with ease. Every word from this genius was flooding my senses. As a result, the book hit way harder.I’d certainly be thrilled if my writing had sense-flooding. In fact, if it wasn’t so weird, I’d send it out these posts with a Spritz reader. Or I’d hire a video maker to do a whiteboard illustration. Really, I’d try anything up to Clockwork Orange-ing if there was demand. This is all to say, media makers want to have the most engaging tools possible to reach their audience. Sure, Milton was writing one of the greatest works in the English language, and I’m just some techie with a substack. But we all have our aspirations as media makers. And what is media but a momentary hijacking of the mind? It’s just a matter of degree. What’s been disappointing to realize with Audio-First is there’s not much media mixing. Right now, the majority of you are reading this (without audio). A sizable 39% of you will turn on the audio portion. But there’s not much combining. There’s no technology to make this hit harder or differently. The maximum has been reached. For now.Multi-ModalOn a similar note, this week, Pace Capital’s Jordan Cooper penned a new post on this exact subject. Cooper argues that there’s a good chance with the advent of AR that mixing of audio and visual information will increase. He writes:I think the insight that we will use computer vision to augment the way we process our physical surroundings is more or less a given. Cars are perhaps further along than people in this regard. It seems implausible that this assistive capability will not follow us into all realms of our mobility (i.e. when we get out of our car and walk). What I don’t think is a given is a) that the camera we use to capture our surroundings will be on our phone, or b) that the response to a camera based query will be displayed visually.Most read/write situations don’t traverse disparate medium. If you capture visual information, it tends to be displayed visually. If you capture audio information, it tends to be displayed acoustically. Even if you capture tactile information, it tends to be displayed/processed tactilely.But in the case of AR, I see the capture/write function and the read function decoupling as it relates to media type. I think [we] will use a wearable, voice activated camera to capture and query, and I think we’ll listen to the response or results that come from that query.I agree with Jordan that we’re very limited by our media types. Media combinations haven’t evolved. There’s little mixing between these lanes.In a way, Audio-First was born out of this idea of allowing multiple media types. But switching or combining is a whole new ballgame, and I feel like a lot of tech innovations (both voice, cameras, and later AR) will soon enable really novel interactions.(I encourage you to read the full post. Cooper’s earlier writing on AirPods was a big inspiration.)Liner notesShakira, Shakira (feat. Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and J. Lo). Don’t doubt ur vibe, apparently on SoundCloud’s top 10.Stay tuned and keep it locked,Nick@NpappaG This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
[^^Listen above, or read below (or both if you’re feeling crazy)^^]My dear audio nerds, Happy New Year. If you’re new here, read The Charter. We’ve got a ton to talk about. First, my apologies for the holiday hiatus. This won’t be your typical 3-and-done podcast/newsletter, so worry not. After some time off in December, I feel recharged and full of things to write about. And with a steady stream of audio headlines (like Carlos Ghosn hiding in audio gear), Audio-First pretty much writes itself.Day by day, I sense audio hype and investor interest growing. When I wrote this piece last May, there wasn’t much hype here at all. Now, all the VCs are on TalkShow wondering what’s happening here. It feels like a timely discussion. Let’s get right into it.The world’s biggest radio stationWith over 2 billion monthly users, it’s no secret that Youtube is the world’s largest video platform. But could it also be the #1 audio platform as well? In one of my favorite summaries of the audio space, Alex Danco highlighted how YouTube is probably the biggest hub out there. Danco writes:We know that Music on YouTube is huge, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I mean: what percentage of all YouTube content, and of all streaming time, is content that’s mainly someone talking, saturating one single sense – your ears – and not much else important is really going on? If 10% of YouTube consumption falls into this category (and I’ll bet you it’s higher!) that’s 100 million hours of New Radio consumed every day. Clearly, the scale of the platform is bananas. But it’s overlooked that video is often consumed as a “podcast equivalent”—or New Radio as Danco calls it. There are no hard numbers here, but if it’s even 10% of video streamed on YouTube, it’s an astronomical amount (1/10th of the 1B hours watched per day). 10% sounds about right to me, too. In my daily workflow, I constantly start videos and switch tabs to simply listen. It’s the flip side to why you’re seeing viral videos on Twitter & Instagram using closed captions. Sometimes you’re not ready to listen. Other times you’re not ready for video. Inside this podcast-equivalent stew there’s interviews, news segments, comedy sets, vlogs, book readings, explainers and how-tos, radio-video hybrids (like Joe Rogan or The Breakfast Club), and likely more formats I’m forgetting. This spoken-into-your-brain style audio is YouTube’s bread and butter, and it’s often lumped into video when it’s really listened to as a podcast equivalent.Even if you’re looking at traditional podcast numbers, the consumption of this audio is growing wildly. Data from a16z says that 65% percent of weekly listeners came online in just the last 3 years (!). And a really neat sign of the times was this chart from the FT. Publishers’ ebook sales are being cannibalized by the audiobook version. With better audio hardware, software, content, and consumer awareness—and the same demands of commuting, education, & boredom to fill—it’s hard to bet against the trend. Video screens have grown so omnipresent where sleep is Netflix’s biggest competitor. Maybe it’s audio’s turn to fill in where screens will never exist (until widespread AR).We know audio thrives in that 70%-attention realm, where you’re walking down the subway stairs but can handle eavesdropping on a stimulating discussion. My biggest learning as an AirPod owner has been just how much 70%-time there is to fill. This is why I’m ‘long’ distracted consumption—there’s just a shocking amount of surface area unlocked.But wait. Why would audio hold a candle to videos, which are far more captivating and information-dense?As the neuroeconomics researcher Paul Zak said: “A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text. It’s the same kind of activation in the brain” There’s also something magnetic and deeply human about interviews. Breaker, a podcast app, said over half of its most popular episodes in 2019 were interview style. Sometimes you could listen to a person talk all day, based on some combo of style, views, and knowledge. (For me that’s Russ Roberts.)People often slam audio as the lazy version. And they might be right in terms of retention. And there’s a chance it’s leading to never-quiet minds. But, more likely, people are already consuming more information than ever, and this just suits their needs. I imagine most people’s New Radio calculus is justified along the lines of, “If it’s not 100% critical work stuff or for entertainment, why focus fully? I’ve got a million things to do.” At least, that’s my calculus. To tie this all back to Youtube, the point here is they’re sitting on a goldmine. Famously, you cannot play videos in the mobile app with the screen locked (it’s currently a big upsell feature for Premium). But what if you could? What if they added dynamic podcast ads like Spotify is soon attempting? What if YouTube made an audio push? There’s really no telling how they could exploit their scale. The platform wars are far from over.YouTube, the music communityOne of my all-time favorite creators is Anthony Fantano’s channel The Needle Drop. Fantano is a masterful creator at reviewing albums, and I give his reviews about as much weight as Pitchfork, which is the most influential arbiter of taste, periodt. Fantano has done a lot of things right as a YouTuber. He was early to the platform, he embraced esoteric musical genres, and he layers his videos with glitches and meme-y absurdist humor to keep it interesting. And this is all in addition to being a talented reviewer of music. Listen to him talking about Denzel Curry’s insane trap bangers like he’s defending a PhD dissertation. If you’re a creator in the music space, it’s no secret that YouTube is your place to start. For me, I’ll watch Nardwuar and The Breakfast Club for artist interviews, Paul Davids for guitar playing, Tony Holiday for producing in Logic Pro X, Justice Der for guitar inspo, Cercle (a very high-quality Boiler Room alternative), Holistic Songwriting for music theory. The list goes on.But beyond being an excellent musician school, YouTube is the perfect crucible to see mega-trends in action. One big one is artist discovery. In the platform world, there’s new gatekeepers in town. Getting featured by curators like Trap Nation or Chillhop radio’s (maker of the famous ‘lofi beats to study/relax to’ channel) can put an artists’ music in front of millions. And through Tony Holiday, I learned about 88rising, a YouTube promoter/artist manager/record label hybrid that’s behind Asian hip-hop names including Rich Brian and Joji. 88rising’s formula is effectively the 21st century playbook: launch a curated corner on a content platform->build trust in a niche->partner with the artists you promote. Not shockingly, 88rising has its own tastemaker section at Coachella (much like Soulection did the year prior).Another mega-trends is the presence of Latin Trip and Urbano music. In 2019, 7 out of 10 of YouTube’s biggest music videos belonged to Latin artists (as of October - the final list isn’t yet out). And in 2018, the 3 most-streamed artists were Ozuna, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny, with 8 of the 10 biggest videos considered ‘Latin.’ Some music analysts say 95% of the genre is streamed.For any artist, curator, and music-related creator, YouTube is where the eyeballs (/eardrums) are found. Liner NotesThe confusing equity triangle of Spotify has with Tencent Music. How indie went pop and pop went indie (echoing what I wrote this summer). The world’s most infamous audio-equipment case. The black magic of AirPods and urban life.If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy. Stay tuned and keep it locked,NickNpappaGPS - thanks to my music-creator-e-friend Tony Holiday for the YT knowledge. Definitely give him a follow. And thanks to other supporters of this series. You know who you are. I’ve got more than enough love where this feels like a worthy endeavor. Till the next. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
[^^Listen above, or read below (or both if you’re feeling crazy)^^]Hello audio nerds! Edition three has arrived. For those of you who are new, Audio-First is an ongoing series looking at audio, airpods, voice, and music. There’s also big news this week: your humble narrator has invested in some audio equipment, taking advantage of those Black Friday deals. With any luck, future editions will be heard in high-fidelity. In that vein, I’m trying to make the accompanying audio a worthy listen, and I’m finding it hard to speak aloud a pre-written work with gusto. This week, I’ll be giving it more love (and multiple takes).Onward.Software is eating music hardwareThere’s an old chestnut in the tech industry that ‘software is eating the world.’ From snapping photos, to reading books, to watching movies, enjoying media once required a hefty investment. Obviously, breakthroughs in personal computing changed all that. After 10ish years with smartphones, we take software-based photos, publish directly online, and stream video from our couches. Software has ‘eaten’ all of this atom-world infrastructure and replaced them with the best business model ever made: near-zero marginal cost.In terms of audio formats, the arc is just as easy to see. Recorded music began in 1860 by scribbling on glass and tinfoil, and iterated over a century into ever-smaller plastic discs until disappearing completely into the mp3.What’s talked about less frequently is how this transformation is happening on the production side of things. As I’ve gotten more into bedroom music-making, I’ve learned software has eaten a ton of music hardware, much of it pretty recently. Arguably, the biggest game-changer here was the rise of DAWs (digital audio workstation), which are versions of GarageBand on steroids such as Logic Pro X, Ableton, or Pro Tools. DAWs took all the buttons and doo-dads found in a recording studio and made them available to anyone with a laptop. Artists could finally edit, mix, and add effects, with far less hassle. Again, this was niche commercial software well into the 2000s. But now it’s everywhere. The same goes for the instruments. Can’t afford a $5,000 Mellotron (the early synthesizer made famous on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’)? You can buy a software plugin that will turn your USB piano—or even your computer keyboard—into a near-replica. No moving van required. Your favorite tunes are likely made with a mix of traditional instruments alongside dozens of software-based ones. And entire marketplaces exist to trade software instruments and samples. Lil Nas X famously made “Old Town Road” through BeatStars, which links up artists and producers to exchange beats without ever getting in the studio together. Right now, software-based tools and marketplaces are transforming the supply side of music.The changing power lawSo what happens when software ‘eats’ the tools powering art and media?Now that everyone has Abbey Road Studios at their fingertips, there is a conundrum: financially and practically, the barriers to making music have never been lower. But now it takes more than ever to stand out from the crowd. There’s a similar saying in Silicon Valley: “it’s never been easier to start a startup, and it’s never been harder to scale one.” Or put another way, leveraging all these new tools and spitting out success has never been more complex. For areas like movies, music, fashion, writing (and perhaps soon food with Cloud Kitchens), the now-cheaper delivery means we consume to the point of saturation. The obvious example here is Spotify, which delivers so much recorded music that we rely on algorithms just to remember what we enjoy. Over time, we begin to care a bit less who’s making the songs, deferring to playlists and curators. But we’re also listening to more than ever, so in aggregate there’s more consumption—and likely artistic inspiration—than ever. Anyone can indulge in it now. In certain cases, this has been the death knell of industries (for journalism it literally halved newsroom jobs). Elsewhere, in music, fashion, and video it’s completely reinvigorated them. This summer, after going to a music festival, I was struck by how the pop artists seemed better than ever (even compared to the indie mainstays): Thanks to the long-tail effects of the internet, ‘niche’ artists can amass huge followings. For most of my music-snob life, ‘pop’ music had a negative connotation. But the lines of ‘pop’ versus ‘indie’ have blurred so much it’s almost meaningless now. There is no gulf in artistic quality anymore. Any small genre can quickly become ‘pop’ if it gets enough clicks. And conversely, hyper-popular musicians like Arianna Grande are actually making great music now. (Sidenote: I’m still not sure if this effect benefits incumbents or newcomers more, but I think the whole pie is growing.)Maybe I was fooling myself, but I felt I was witnessing firsthand how the internet made things more efficient. 10 years ago, indie music was a cut above pop music. Now, it seems that Top 40 names organically bubble up with far more artistic integrity.I’m still curious as to how tech disruption changes the “odds of success” in the music game and beyond. Especially because not long ago Spotify CEO Daniel Ek made the bold claim that the company’s long-term mission is to empower “1 million creators to live off their work.” Does the rising tide lift all boats equally? Does it favor incumbents over newcomers (or vice-versa)? I dug around for some numbers here, and while this data includes a large cohort of designers, a stable share of the labor force are working artists (either as a primary or secondary job), growing slightly from 1.4% to 1.55%. Other fun fact: 34% of musicians pursue it as a second job, which is the highest rate of all creative fields. Another big consideration here is the hits-driven nature of this world. I came across this excellent data science post by Michael Taulberg called Power Law in Popular Media that explored the competitive landscape of different media types. Surprisingly, the study found video game publishing is the most winner-take-all industry, followed by book publishing. Music, more middle of the pack, saw the top 20% of artists commanding 69.7% of the Billboard success. And newspapers were the least concentrated, with the top 20% seeing only 62% of the circulation.So what can we expect from this recent democratization of music tools? Will gains still go to the big fish? Or will an influx of new artists translate to more success for the newcomers? I couldn’t gather evidence that supports either view. Certainly, though, it stands to reason from long tail theory, that we can expect a nichification of “long tail” music to wrest away power from pop stars. Recent successes like Lil Nas X keep this dream alive for outsiders.But is Lil Nas X part of a growing tide, or an exception to the rule? Or put differently, does being in a saturated, algorithm-driven musical renaissance increase the appetite for the small-time creators? My hunch is it’s never been better for the little guy. Theoretically, the tools are out there and the gatekeepers are less powerful than ever. In actuality, though, it’s not so cut and dry. There’s a strong possibility we prefer a certain ratio of hits-to-weird music in our lives.As that data scientist Michael Taulberg wrote:What is it about media that results in this concentration of success? …   in our networked world people recommend books, movies, and games to each other. These titles will get more reviews, more shelf space, and ultimately, more attention. In this way, success breeds success. It’s a virtuous cycle, a positive feedback loop. The popularity of one work takes attention away from others. It crowds out other media just as giant trees crowds out smaller plants. This process is called preferential attachment and it is at the heart of power law. Is our attention for unestablished creators expanding? Or is there a natural equilibrium that persists? As a once-in-a-while DJ myself, there’s always a tension between playing bangers versus taking a chance on something edgier. Among DJs, there’s an apt and cynical saying here: “people want to hear 2 types of music—songs they’ve heard before and songs they’ve heard before.”Liner notesHoliday must-have: the AirPod carrying strap. The first-ever Spotify Awards will be held in Mexico City, which is apparently the world’s music streaming capital. Apple clapped back with its own event celebrating Billie Eilish. Travis Scott’s Jack Boys, coming soon. How UK garage producer Burial inspired Lana Wachowski. Grimes interviewing Lana Del Rey. A case for Tame Impala as artist of the decade.If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy. Stay tuned and keep it locked,NickNpappaGPS - The audio market map is still on the way. Hofstadter’s law in action :) This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
Hello again, audio nerds! Welcome to the second installment. Lots to cover today. First, it seems like the accompanying audio is a hit. However, it seems like reading the newsletter word-for-word is not. When I was recording the audio for Episode 1, it became clear that I speak very differently than how I write. There’s gap words. Intonation. Even with years of making concise business writing, it doesn’t matter. These are fundamentally different mediums. So my plan this week is to speak more off-the-cuff, and I’ll only loosely outline what I say. I want listeners to get as much or more out of the audio. So I’m sweetening the deal for you, dear listener. Today will also have a few music samples.Second, in order to have future editions straight to your inbox (and not to Promotions/Spam), please add Audio-First as a contact. I hate seeing this “housekeeping item” in newsletters as much as you. So just do it now, ok? Thanks. Moving on. Numbers on the boardJust how big is the AirPods phenomenon? I see varying estimates out there. Apple famously doesn’t give sales figures for nascent products, so there’s a lot of guesswork involved. But multiple sources say Apple will have sold at least 100M cumulative pairs by the end of 2019. I charted out one estimate from Loup Ventures below.Clearly, it’s Apple’s fastest-growing product. The reality on the ground could be even higher than Loup is estimating. A report this week from Bloomberg said the surprise release of the AirPods Pro could put numbers as high as 60M sold this calendar year. Elsewhere, I’ve seen more conservative estimates. Neil Cybart of Above Avalon says we’re only at around 61M cumulative pairs (excluding this coming quarter’s holiday sales, which would likely add another ~10M). Even with slightly conservative numbers, Cybart released a fascinating update this week that says AirPods are exactly on track with early iPhone sales post-launch. See below. You can barely see the AirPod line because it exactly follows iPhone curve.Here’s another look at solely the iPhone vs AirPods. It’s in lockstep. Next month, the AirPods turn 3 years old. Besides being a nice round number, hitting 100M represents significant mainstream success. For perspective, the Amazon Echo hit 100M sold in January with just over 4 years on the market.To risk sounding like a broken record, these numbers support the idea that AirPods are a platform shift. It’s getting easier and easier to imagine these ultra-small, ultra-portable headphones as an essential part of personal computing. As one entrepreneur wrote, “The watch as the de facto wearable was a red herring. The wrist is too far from the brain. AirPods.”Let’s get musical, musicalWith the decade coming to a close, I think about how music from this chapter will be remembered. In my mind, the two biggest stories were the rise of electronic and then hip-hop music, in all their variants. Reflecting on my own listening, here’s roughly how it went down. In 2010 I was graduating from high school and synth-based music was everywhere. Kanye West’s 2008 album Graduation had incredible foresight into the electronic wave that was coming. Soon thereafter, synth-pop names like LCD Soundsystem, The XX, Passion Pit, Beach House, and MGMT were heard at parties, FIFA soundtracks, and in the festival circuit. Meanwhile, EDM was going mainstream, with 2011 marking “peak dubstep.” The data here isn’t perfect, but you can actually see it in the Google Trends data. Meanwhile, on my college campus, weirder strains of synthpop were gaining steam. Chillwave, in particular, was on the rise around 2010-11. If you’re unfamiliar with chillwave, listen to the genre-defining songs Deadbeat Summer or Feel It All Around. At that time, the washed-out vocals and goopy synths captured the post-Recession zeitgeist. One critic called it “a sonic shoulder shrug, a languorous, musical 'whatevs'.” For me, it was front and center, albeit briefly.Then suddenly, as my memory has it, a series of instant-classic hip-hop/RnB albums dropped and the whole world changed. First, it was Kanye, then Kendrick, then Frank, then Beyonce, then Drake all in rapid succession. Only 5 years before, Nas declared hip-hop was dead. By 2012ish, it was the preeminent cultural force. I think most music nerds would agree these titans probably shaped popular music more than anyone else this past decade. And now that hip-hop/RnB is the #1 genre in America, I bet it’ll stay that way. Interestingly, I’ve noticed recent hip-hop incorporating these early-2010 elements of chillwave, synth-pop, and neo-psychedelia. Recently, I came across a Pitchfork article titled ‘How Chillwave’s Brief Moment in the Sun Cast a Long Shadow Over the 2010s,’ which pored over this in detail:Chillwave’s influence coursed through the veins of indie culture throughout the decade, especially as the “indie” descriptor came to be more associated with marketing than ethos...The current prevalence of synth-pop—not rock—as indie’s central sound is owed greatly to chillwave’s sync-friendly style. There’s perhaps no better example of this decade-long transition than Tame Impala, who entered the ’10s as a zonked-out psych act and have since become master purveyors of glassy electronic pop that resembles an ultra-high-definition remaster of chillwave’s faux-analog aesthetic.Beyond indie culture, Travis Scott—whose most recent album, Astroworld, represented a collision of goopy synths and chopped-up snippets of melody, like a screen-shattered iPhone—has essentially brought chillwave’s drippy energy to the center of hip-hop over the last few years. Meanwhile, a new generation of SoundCloud rappers continue to work by chillwave’s always-be-uploading creative ethos.I completely agree with the sentiment. Hip-hop, I learned, has been repping chillwave for a while. Kanye and Diddy were reportedly early fans of Toro Y Moi. I think you can clearly hear chillwave’s trippy repetition in the beats of Playboi Carti’s ‘Long Time.’ Travis Scott has worked with Toro y Moi and recruited Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, who’s easily the biggest name in psychedelic rock, for a song on Astroworld. I’m tempted to make a grand thesis that hip-hop experienced its Sergeant Pepper’s moment. But it’s not exactly true. However, I think you can make the case that like electronic music, hip-hop is splintering into more varied and experimental sub-genres. As we enter the 2020s, I’ll be watching how these waves continue to bounce off each other.Liner notesZuck wants you to pass the aux cord. How Charli XCX optimizes her music for streaming.  Grimes thinks “live music is going to be obsolete soon.” Where “Yo Pierre, you wanna come out here?” is from. Ye and Jay showing Russell Crowe his shoutout on Watch The Throne. 22 musicians’ favorite albums of the decade. A request for industrial AirPod startups.If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy.Stay tuned and keep it locked,Nick@NpappaGPS - I’m shooting to release an audio market map Thanksgiving weekend. Please send companies that might not be on my radar (ie not venture-backed) making a dent in the space. Again, Twitter DM is the best place to reach me. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
[^listen above or read below^]Hello audio nerds! Thanks for tuning into the inaugural edition of Audio-First. In this series, I plan on exploring all of the dynamism happening across audio and music.It’s no secret that for startups and creators riding this wave there’s an unprecedented opportunity. This is because most of the tailwinds are less than 5 years old. In 2016, music streaming overtook physical sales and downloads. 65% of today’s active podcast listeners got started in the past 3 years. Voice assistants are ubiquitous in our homes and smartphones, even if they’re underwhelming. Meanwhile, hip-hop surpassed rock as the most popular genre in America just 2 years ago. Bad Bunny, an artist with less than three years in the music business, just sold out MSG this year.With all these tectonic shifts in audio, there are also new fault lines. There’s a whole new conversation on the economic value of art. There’s an inescapable loudness. In public spaces, I’m in my own world, perhaps to a detriment. I want Audio-First to explore the dark side as well. Now as far as I know, “audio-first” isn’t a common term. But it neatly encapsulates this category of technology putting audio front and center. Originally, I bit the term from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s blog post of the same name. It’s mostly a PR piece explaining why Spotify made big-ticket acquisitions of Gimlet and Anchor. But Ek’s post nicely lays out the opportunity for “audio-first” products:Consumers spend roughly the same amount of time on video as they do on audio. Video is about a trillion dollar market. And the music and radio industry is worth around a hundred billion dollars. I always come back to the same question: Are our eyes really worth 10 times more than our ears? I firmly believe this is not the case.Audio feels undervalued, especially given all this new infrastructure.Fortunately, audio has some big advantages going for it. First, it has unrivaled surface area in our lives. Starting from the oral tradition all the way to the Fortnite headset, it’s the glue of human interaction. Secondly, as Alex Danco laid out in a must-read post, audio has incredible “heat”, meaning it’s information-dense, precise, and high-resolution. Lastly, it’s all here and now. We’re not waiting on another iPhone moment. It’s already happened.For Audio-First, there’s a ton of angles I can take. I’m probably most qualified to comment on the startup market (which I am currently mapping out for an upcoming edition). But as a music lover and guitar player, I plan to explore trends in music as well. More to come.AirPods Pro, like ‘Attorneys General’Since I’ve been a proud AirPod shill for some time, many people have asked me what I think of the new Pro version. In so few words, I love them. The reviews are stellar for a reason: noise canceling is a godsend. Going from V1 AirPods to the Airpods Pro, I’ve realized there’s just a crazy amount of ambient noise in my life. Subways, cars, jackhammers, construction. Urban life has so much noise pollution. We are never going back to the jack-up-the-volume-while-the-bus-is-going-by way of doing things. I bet I won’t use my V1 AirPods ever again.Aside from noise cancellation, the biggest new addition is the native text message reading. (ICYMI - incoming iMessages are read aloud by Siri.) I love it. More and more, I find myself dictating messages out, especially when I’m outside running. It works fine enough, even if the Siri interaction is a bit slow. To me, it seems obvious that Apple will have a Siri-led category of new apps. It’s just a matter of when.Interestingly, I rarely use the much-hyped Transparency Mode. In most cases, it’s simply better to live in my audio cocoon. And if I need to hear someone or something, I just take a pod out of my ear so the music stops.l still think the chief innovation of AirPods is the ability to wear them for 5+ hours, forgetting they’re even there. The newest AirPods Pro satisfy that but add a whole new dimension of immersion. Some smart internet minds are thinking about how noise cancellation could unlock new experiences. Going forward, I’ll be watching what comes with SiriKit intents and noise cancellation. Band practiceTo give the upcoming editions of Audio-First more context, there are a few quick reads that will make future editions even richer. I highly recommend reading:Why I’m Closely Watching (/Listening To) The Audio Space (blog / slides / video) The TLDR - audio seems poised to be a much bigger part of personal computing. In fact, I think airpods could be remembered as our first taste of transhumanism, and will soon work like a lo-fi AR or a lo-fi Neuralink. But right now, it’s just a familiar blend of music and podcasts.Pop Is Now Good, And Rappers Are The New (Indie) Rock Stars (link) The TLDR - thanks to the internet, ‘niche’ artists can amass huge followings. Consequently, the lines of ‘pop’ versus ‘indie’ have blurred so much it’s almost meaningless now.The Audio Revolution by Alex Danco (link) The TLDR - from the lens of information theory, audio is a surprisingly information-dense medium. More than you probably realize.AirPods As The Next Platform (And The Native Applications Therein) (link) The TLDR - AirPods may be the next platform/infrastructure from which apps and businesses could be built. Already, it’s unlocking new forms of presence. Liner notesThe guitarist from Incubus is making a Netflix for live concerts. It’s Unclear Which Beach House Song This Is, reports The Onion. The Phone Call Isn’t Dead, It’s Evolving (featuring some cool audio startups). Musicians on Musicians: Billie Joe Armstrong Interviews Billie Eilish. Searching for deities in Wyoming. When it’s cold, I pretend I’m in Brazil or the 70s (playlists from yours truly). My most-replayed Soulection in months. If you enjoyed this email, forward it to a friend. If you didn’t, forward it to an enemy. Stay tuned and keep it locked,Nick@NpappaGPS - feel free to send me any news, ideas, or playlists related to Audio-First. Twitter DM is probably the best way to reach me. This is a public episode. If you would like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit
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