Vidya Prabhu, a content and communications professional, started listening to audiobooks back in 2019. “I think it was a BBC audio play production of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. I absolutely loved the dialogue delivery by all the characters. After that, I went on to listen to other audiobooks, including The Martian and Good Omens. My current favourite is Stephen Fry’s narration of Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection,” she says, adding that she has come to prefer audiobooks over physical copies.
Just like Vidya, more than a few people have picked up audiobooks during 2020, the year that demanded us to be hooked to our gadgets because there was nowhere to go. Within the first three months, everyone was talking about the shooting sales of ebooks and audiobooks, lists and lists of podcasts to listen to were being curated, and the general shift to actually listening to content over watching it became a point of contention. Shibin Azad, a senior auditor, was one such person. Azad picked up audiobooks a month after the lockdown started. “Initially, I started audiobooks to listen to something during my walks, as I was attempting an exam, and wanted to listen to some academic books. But then I started buying titles that I already have copies of,” he adds.
Indu Harikumar, an artist who has illustrated and written children’s books, started listening to books on Storytel to read Manu Pillai’s book for research. “The book is so big, and I have it on Kindle, but I didn’t get around to reading it. I started listening to it, and then I also listened to this other children’s illustrated book, and I wanted to see how you can take an illustrated book and turn it into an audiobook. It was wonderfully done and very well produced. I feel like I can retain better when I’m listening to it,” she says.
If audiobooks and podcasts weren’t enough, the latest kid on the audio block — Clubhouse — has everyone hooked. On CH, people host, listen to, and even join conversations within the app’s community. The usual space of a chat room includes moderators, speakers, and listeners. Lubna Salim, a marketing specialist in Delhi, got on CH for a work assignment, but felt comfortable in exploring the app. “I am very conscious on video, but when it’s an audio conversation, the pressure is less. It’s also convenient that you can have that chat from wherever you are,” she says. Lubna has participated as a speaker in a travel chat room, and been a part of diet, nutrition, and other such chat rooms.
Gopal MS, an advertising professional and a Clubhouse user, feels that the arrival of CH is a natural evolution of the popularity of podcasting and audiobooks. “Enough people have become comfortable with listening, and maybe talking, and technology has probably evolved enough to allow this. Facebook has had a feature about creating chat rooms on their app for some time, and it has not taken off. However, CH has cracked the way to use audio as a social media feature. Audio rooms may become a feature on all platforms soon,” he adds.
Charvi Thakkar is a personal shopper and style management consultant who got on to CH to explore conversations on books and reading. She moderates weekly rooms on various bookish topics. “I feel being on the app is like listening to a live podcast of industry experts, but with the possibility of an interactive dialogue in real time. This facilitates interesting conversations and, in my experience, has been quite engaging,” she says.
Mansi Jasani, an artisanal cheese maker, feels the good part about CH is being able to hear some stellar conversations. About the exclusivity of the app, she says, “It does keep the conversation tighter but not sure if it’s a good thing — there are a lot of voices that still need to be heard.”
Podcasters are also going with the flow, and are ecstatic to find more listeners every day. Aastha Atray Banan is a journalist, author, podcaster, and singer, and has been hosting Love Aaj Kal, a podcast about love and relationships, with tech journalist Ankit Vengurlekar. As a podcaster, she observed that people just want to listen to something that matters to them. “For us, it’s been love, which is such a universal feeling. People feel judged by their friends and families, and they have connected with us, as we offer a safe space,” she adds.
Atray Banan also believes podcasts are going to become even bigger. “The fact that Clubhouse is doing well is the sign of its upward movement. Soon, brands will also take note. I just hope audio doesn’t lose its authenticity,” she adds.
Kevin Harding, a brand and business consultant, recently started BagpackerMe, a travel and community podcast. He compiles life stories of people from different walks of life, and how they balance travelling with their hectic work life. “In the future, I would want to dig deeper into more regional places, and do a face-to-face interaction with my guest, which wasn’t possible due to travel restrictions in 2020,” he adds.
While podcasters are creating content, streaming platforms have been busy diversifying content to meet the increasing number of listeners. Vasundhara Mudgil, Head of Communications – India, Spotify, shares that as per the Indian Music Industry (IMI), listenership on audio streaming services grew by 40 per cent year on year in the first half of 2020, and adds that Spotify has seen an increased interest in the creation and consumption of podcasts on the platform. “What listeners want from audio streaming is constantly evolving,” she adds.
The content that is popular on the platform also differs because how we spend time today is very different from pre-pandemic. “As people seek more ways to stay motivated and upskill, we’ve been seeing high consumption of self-help podcasts across age groups, and multilingual content is also seeing high traction. When it comes to music, while Bollywood is extremely popular, international music, especially albums, are streamed in high volume as well. Also, in the absence of film releases in 2020, we noticed a spike in the release of independent and non-film music last year. Here, Ritviz’s Liggi was one of the most streamed tracks on Spotify,” Mudgil shares.
JioSaavn witnessed stark growth in specific playlists such as cleaning, home workouts, kids’ content, and cooking. People also developed relaxation and sleep rituals, where audio has become an important part of the process. Listeners on JioSaavn spent over two million hours streaming podcasts last year, according to a JioSaavn spokesperson. “Listeners who have historically not tuned into podcasts, have experimented with the medium in 2020,” the spokesperson adds. Over the past year, the platform has nearly doubled the total number of originals produced.
Predicting how audio content will become bigger this year, streaming platforms share their perspective on how the shift is happening. “Today, consumers are more aware of streaming, and increasingly desire screen-free moments. Behaviour will pivot towards more regular audio consumption as users not only listen to curated content, but also make their own playlists or create their own podcasts. We’ve seen an uptick in that, as well as the sharing of audio content with family and friends in India via Spotify. This will only continue to increase in 2021,” shares Mudgil.
JioSaavn spokesperson says, “In 2021, we are likely to see more people looking at audio beyond music. We foresee a continued increase in engagement with podcasts within the Indian market on the whole, given that there are more creators invested in creating more culturally relevant podcasts for Indian listeners.”
The audiobook industry, however, seems to be still picking up. Juggernaut doesn’t have audiobooks, and India Bloomsbury reportedly publishes very less in audio. HarperCollins India currently has about 150 titles available across audiobook retail platforms, and more will be available in the coming months. Arcopol Chaudhuri, senior editor-new media at Harper Collins India, says there has definitely been an uptick in listenership in audio content. “ Listenership across our audio catalog including India, UK, and US books has increased by over 70 per cent this past year alone,” he adds. Business books, biographies and memoirs, self-help, books on religion & spirituality, wellness are some of the top genres that people are listening to.
Chaudhuri’s believes the audiobook industry is set to boom. “We’re a culture that has always enjoyed storytelling in its oral form. To build loyalty, publishers and audio producers will have to continue to invest in great voices and compelling stories and productions that will make audio the go-to medium for ‘reading’ books,” he says.
Audiobook listeners, Clubhousers, and podcasters, all unanimously agree that audio content is going to definitely become bigger in 2021. “I’m not a physical copy romantic at all anyway. I am also a person who likes to finish things, so it’s quicker to listen to books,” says Indu. Lubna adds that video content was actually bigger in 2020, given the need for people to see each other. “That need to see people has been relatively satiated, and audio will be explored in 2021,” she adds. Vidya thinks 2021 should bode well for audible content overall, as there’s greater awareness about it now. “Audible content is smart use of one’s time, and it helps that the quality and diversity of it has improved considerably now,” she says.
Thakkar concludes, “Needless to say, the pandemic has changed the way we consume content. I couldn’t comment on the statistics but from personal and anecdotal experiences, it’s clear that text and video fatigue is here to stay till we shed the pandemic routines, especially the work-from-home isolation. But I do believe the draw towards audio content has yet to peak. As we socially distance, the need to connect with others for conversations is increasingly palpable and evident, especially on CH.”
Are you listening?