The audio renaissance is here

Clubhouse. Spaces. Fireside. Live Rooms. Are audio chat apps here to stay, or just a passing fad?

Many of us have likely downloaded Clubhouse over the past couple of months. Whether we’ve engaged with it or just watched incessant push notifications pop up on our screens is another question.

Jokes aside, there’s obviously real appeal to the audio networking app, which exploded in popularity earlier this year among everyday users and the Elon Musks of the world alike. Clubhouse went from niche Silicon Valley bro app to social media sensation virtually overnight, topping 8 million downloads globally in February, less than a year after it launched.

Breaking through as a new social app is next to near impossible, especially when we’re inundated with content. So why is Clubhouse making such a splash?

Call it the next phase of the audio renaissance.

People have been aware of the value of audio communications since the early days of radio. To this day, radio has the greatest penetration of any medium, reaching 92% of U.S. adults weekly, per Nielsen. That might be because it’s one of the limited options for entertainment in the car, but its staying power over 100 years of media reinvention is noteworthy.

There wasn’t much innovation in audio until the early aughts, when podcasting became a niche trend. But it wasn’t until 2014, when the first season of Serial launched and Apple preinstalled a dedicated podcast app on all iPhones, that the magical conditions were set to help the new audio format take off in earnest.

Podcasts have only growth in popularity since, making up 6% of all time spent with audio in the U.S. last year, according to Edison research. The growth has set off a wave of high-profile acquisitions in the space by Spotify, Amazon and others, who see the potential of podcasts not just as a media format itself, but also as a seed for IP to translate across screens.

At the same time we’ve been introduced to new friends like Alexa, who have kicked off a voice revolution, allowing consumers to interact with smart speakers to explore content, make purchases and control their smart homes.

Consumers have been turning up the volume on audio and warming up their vocal chords for years. That brings us to Clubhouse, which is breaking down audio’s barriers by allowing people to speak in “rooms” hosted by their peers. The app’s popularity has kicked off a wave of copycats from Twitter, Facebook and other tech giants who fear being left behind on a new way to communicate.

Unlike podcasts and radio, which are about entertainment, and voice devices, which are about utility, Clubhouse’s vibe is more akin to a Ted Talk or a panel at an event. It’s replaced physical spaces for some, like Gen Zers, who are using the app to network as they navigate the job market without campus job fairs or summer internships.

But the reason Clubhouse is so popular is exactly what makes me wonder whether the app has staying power after this pandemic is behind us, and we’re able to network and sit in on interesting conversations with interesting people in person. Right now, hopping between Clubhouse rooms is a valuable way to pass a few evening hours stuck at home. But big picture, networking is better done in person.

That’s not to say Clubhouse won’t remain relevant. The ability to hear about any topic, anywhere around the world is not only fascinating, but also democratizes networking in a way only the internet can. The participatory nature of the app is also a trend to take note of, as everyday people become creators on platforms of their choice.

Whatever Clubhouse becomes, one thing is for sure: audio will continue to reinvent itself. While it may have fallen in the background as screens took over our lives, we’ve rediscovered it as a fantastic way to consume media while multitasking. And we’ve all heard a line or two about how audio creates a more intimate experience for consumers.

New incarnations of audio are on the rise. Just look at Discord, a chat app popular among teens and kids where users can post messages and voice notes in Slack-like threads based on topic areas of interest. As people get used to communicating this way, even voice notes on everyday messaging apps like WhatsApp can take on new prominence.

I can’t give you a crystal ball answer about the future of Clubhouse. But I can tell you that the audio revolution has only just begun.

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