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Spotify’s audio revolution

Image: Spotify
Spotify

Good morning! This Tuesday, Spotify wants to make audio all about the technology, why there won't just be one Clubhouse, and Microsoft's bid to make Facebook pay for news.

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The Big Story

Spotify's audio revolution

"The bet we're making with the whole company is that audio is now software," Spotify's chief R&D officer Gustav Söderström told me yesterday. "And once it's software, it's going to start moving faster."

Things really are changing at Spotify. The company made a slew of announcements yesterday: more automatic playlists, more dynamic ad tools, a hi-fi version of the service, paid subscriptions for podcasters, a podcast starring Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen that missed a huge opportunity to be called "Rad Dads" and a bunch more.

  • Underpinning it all is the idea that audio can be more interactive and more collaborative. The first iteration of that, Söderström said, came in things like the music-and-talk playlists that users can already make.
  • But Spotify wants to do for audio what TikTok made possible for videos, or Snapchat's AR filters for photos. Söderström is trying to innovate, because there's just more you can do with more flexible tech.

One thing that isn't changing: Spotify's love for podcasts. And a big to-do on its list is trying to figure out how to solve podcast discovery. Its machine-listening tech has been transcribing and summarizing every podcast episode on the platform, to make them searchable but also to make it easier to understand them.

  • The tech isn't perfect, Söderström said, but it's enough to get the gist. It might not help you search for one specific recipe, but it knows when a podcast is about, say, cooking, or even about vegan cooking.
  • And as language models continue to improve — which is happening fast — Spotify's system will get smarter about every podcast it listens to.
  • Listener data is the most important thing, though. The "other people who liked this podcast also liked that podcast" algorithm is still hugely important. And Söderström even said that the music people listen to is a pretty solid predictor of the podcasts they'll like.

Spotify still wants to be a good citizen of the audio world, Söderström said, making podcasts available outside the platform and giving its tools to anyone. But he's really excited about what's possible when the industry gets off open-but-old standards like MP3s and RSS. "You can see it already," he said. "We're adding formats, like you can add feedback and Q&A. We think audio is just going to start evolving like crazy again, because it's now just software."

More Audio

A thousand Clubhouses bloom

Right now, Clubhouse is the talk of the tech world. And tech is the talk of Clubhouse: Most of the conversation on the platform seems to be about cryptocurrencies, venture capital and social media marketing.

Other companies are betting Clubhouse won't be like Facebook, the one place to do absolutely everything. Or at the very least, that live audio will always be bigger than Clubhouse.

  • "We spend a lot of time thinking about what happens in a world where the medium becomes commoditized," said Howard Akumiah, the CEO of a sports-focused social audio app called Locker Room. His app looks a lot like Clubhouse, but what goes on there couldn't be more different.
  • Some users are on Locker Room acting as alternate commentators. Others are hosting their own pre- and post-game shows. And most of the time, people are just in there talking about sports.
  • Community, not technology, will win the day, Akumiah said. For sports fans, having a dedicated place to come for live games is really important, as is organizing the app by team and by league.
  • Akumiah loves the idea of making conversation available to more voices. "We think that expertise here, and quality content, is extremely diffuse in the community," he said, and live audio is an easy way in for almost anyone.

There's also much more to build around the audio experience. Locker Room originally came out of a sports-betting app, and Akumiah likes the idea of bringing more experiences back into the equation.

  • He wouldn't say what, exactly, but you can imagine integrated betting, live stats, ways to share and argue about highlights and much more.

No matter the community, the playbook is largely the same. Build an audience by creating a habit, whether it's nightly shows with tech CEOs or a place to hang during every Warriors game. Then give creators a way to build their own audiences, and make money. And turn to Twitter to find an audience: "We've seen a lot of growth in the NBA Twitter community," Akumiah said. But tweeting just isn't real-time enough anymore.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

Amazon

In 2018, Amazon established a $15/hr start wage for all their U.S. employees, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. They've seen the positive impact on their employees and their families. That's why they're calling on Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

People Are Talking

After a year of too much tech, parents might spend 2021 resetting the balance, Facebook's Stan Chudnovsky said:

  • "Parents will continue to seek ways to maintain connection for their kids through distance until the vaccines are widely available and distributed, but they will want to make sure their children are safe online and will turn to those services that give them that control."

Trying to keep your company safe? Keep an eye on LinkedIn, Katie Paxton-Fear said:

  • "If I'm trying to hack a company, the first place I go is LinkedIn … I look for nontechnical staff such as sales or administrative workers who may be more susceptible and have access to a lot of company data."

Janet Yellen is a Bitcoin bear:

  • "I don't think that bitcoin … is widely used as a transaction mechanism. To the extent it is used I fear it's often for illicit finance. It's an extremely inefficient way of conducting transactions, and the amount of energy that's consumed in processing those transactions is staggering."

Making Moves

Elon is no longer the world's richest man. Musk lost $15.2 billion amid Tesla's stock crash yesterday, putting Jeff Bezos back on top.

David Baga is the new CEO of Even, leaving Lightspeed to take the job. He replaces Jon Schlossberg, who will be chairman of the board.

Xia Yiping is the new CEO of Baidu's electric vehicle project. He has a long history in transportation, including Mobike and Ford.

Allison Miller is Reddit's new CISO and VP of trust, joining the company from Bank of America.

Rumman Chowdhury is Twitter's new director of ML ethics, transparency and accountability. (It's called the META team, which is awesome.) And she's hiring.

Motional, the Hyundai-Aptiv joint venture, just started testing autonomous cars on Las Vegas streets. If you see one, send me a picture!

In Other News

  • On Protocol: Facebook made a deal to get news back in Australia. Proposed legislation will be amended to give both publishers and platforms more time to figure out what to do, and give Facebook more control to decide which publishers it wants to work with, and when. Meanwhile, Alphabet is reportedly in talks with Spanish publishers about bringing Google News back, and Microsoft teamed up with European publishers to lobby for Facebook and Google to pay for news.
  • Google's lifting its ban on political ads, Axios reported, after banning them in the wake of the Capitol siege.
  • Amazon won a Supreme Court battle in India, with the court temporarily stopping regulatory approval for Reliance's acquisition of Future Retail. It said it will hear the case fully in three weeks.
  • A software bug is keeping people in prison beyond their release date, KJZZ reported. The Arizona Department of Corrections' inmate management software can reportedly not interpret current sentencing laws, an issue senior officials have supposedly been aware of, but not fixed, since 2019.
  • On Protocol: Chess.com quietly built a streaming empire. Last week, chess was the most-watched gaming category on Twitch, and 18.3 million hours of chess were watched in January.
  • Lucid is going public via a SPAC, at a $24 billion valuation. The SPAC's shares dropped as much as 27% on the news, though.
  • SoftBank might give Adam Neumann $500 million, The Wall Street Journal reported, in order to settle the pair's legal fight. That would be about half of what it originally agreed to. Meanwhile, WeWork could reportedly agree a SPAC deal in the next few weeks.

One More Thing

The forgotten social networkers

Wang Xing is a billionaire, runs a massively successful tech company in China, and spends an inordinate amount of his free time posting on a social network that nobody uses. It's called Fanfou, and Protocol | China's Zeyi Yang found on Wang's feed 16,000 posts that offer a surprisingly revealing portrait of the man. New users aren't allowed, bots can't scrape the posts and in general it's a far more closed version of social networking. It sounds delightful.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

Amazon

In 2018, Amazon established a $15/hr start wage for all their U.S. employees, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. They've seen the positive impact on their employees and their families. That's why they're calling on Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.

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