On the menu of the various things I've been keeping myself busy with is serving as an advisor to a Boston-based startup called koodos. koodos is a venture-backed startup out of Harvard and MIT that’s building tools and incentives for people to curate on the internet. They’ve started with an experience that allows users to curate music and add commentary using emojis, and have reached thousands of users that actively do this every week.
In this week's edition of the koodos newsletter part 1 of a 2-part interview I did with co-founder Jad Esber on the current state of content curation and creation, and how the two are overlapping more than ever.
What does it mean to curate in 2020?
Things have changed dramatically since the top down, industrial strength days of content creation and content curation e.g. I worked in radio in the 1980s and 1990s (yes I'm that old but don't tell anyone, ok?). In those days — and I only think it's worth talking about the 'old days' to the extent that it informs what's going on currently — there was extremely limited access to the system, whether for artists, fans, or people who wanted to be in the industry. Only so many spots were available on charts, only so many jobs were available in the industry. A world of engineered scarcity you could say, but engineered that way because of the cost of taking something from inception to success took a lot of people, and a lot of connections, and cost a lot of money. In those high barrier to entry worlds, whether music, journalism, film, fashion, whatever, there were a relatively small number of what could be thought of as 'tastemakers' and generally broadcast media (whether radio or television or newspapers or magazines) were used to disseminate those tastes. Again, a lot of meetings, a lot of marketing, a lot of money.
In the past 10 years or so things have flipped. No to low barriers to entry. Is that good news or bad news? It's both, because it means nobody can say no to your idea but it also means hugely increased competition. We see things like 50,000 tracks a day, yes each day, being uploaded to Spotify, 4+ million creators on Roblox, over 7 million Twitch streamers, over 30 million YouTube channels. And then there's the world of TikTok, which is harder to categorize as what exactly is a TikTok video in relation to the categories we generally use to think about these things. At any rate, all this is the inverse of the world of a handpicked 10 or 20 bands getting signed every year or TV shows getting greenlit or games getting made.
So the new game is not about getting in the door, so to speak. The door is wide open. But damn that front hallway is packed. The new game is about doing something so new, so captivating, so must see/hear/do that hundreds then thousands and hopefully millions will come along with you. In theory it's a from the ground up system (and certainly was in the early days of online content creation) but in practice it's about building taste communities and fan communities but it's also about algorithms and discoverability and those things are complex and dynamic and therefore require strategies and know how and budgets in order to optimize them.
In terms of technology's role in all of this, it has given us algorithms, it has given us recommender systems, it has given us machine learning and AI, and we need all those things because as the numbers cited above indicate, everything is happening at previously unthinkable scale. But can the technology alone be the curator? Is there a role for human touch in there? We're at the point now, about 10 years into this tremendous flurry of creative activity, that we're only now starting to see the strengths and also the limitations of the coming together of technology and curation. There are all sorts of new categories and new use cases for slicing and dicing things for recommendation and curation, new ways of thinking about end users, and how they may have many different personas at different points in time and therefore there are many different use cases for content for each individual.
Is there a living to be made from curating online?
I think we're already seeing that in various places and ways. The playlist makers at Spotify are effectively curators. When there are 50,000 tracks uploaded daily and something like 50 million in total we need that layer of curation. This is what radio used to do, what music magazines used to do, what the front rack of the record store used to do (for those that remember record stores). Now, the playlist makers that are making a living are generally employees at Spotify, as opposed to independent music curators online, but we also see people like Anthony Fantano and his Needledrop channel on YouTube, which has over 2 million subscribers and about 640 million views and he's one guy sitting at home reviewing albums...he also does live events on Twitch (and used to do live events in person in pre Covid times). Here's a guy who created his own niche, on his own, and it was different enough from what either legacy media or other digital media outlets were doing that he now pretty much owns this space of album reviews. And the new crop of Substack writers is another example. Many are both creating and curating. Adding opinion and expertise to the world of over abundant content and adding enough value that people are willing to pay.
Patreon has been a great enabler of similar activities too. They've paid out over a billion dollars to creators ince their inception and half of that was in the last year or so. I'm also very impressed with what Cherie Hu has been able to build there, as a kind of curator of market intelligence, and generator of insights, about the new, technology-driven music industry. Another example of someone, working as just 1 person, who has been able to build what appears to be a nice cottage industry online, in a space where there was no shortage of 'noise' or conventional (whether legacy or digital) covering the sector but there was a shortage of smart commentary and insights, and people are willing to pay for this. And then in the broader sense there's influencer marketing, which is now a $10B industry, and it could be argued that many of the influencers are performing a curatorial function, of fashion or travel or sports or makeup or whatever their area of interest may be.
Part 2 coming soon!In the meantime if you're interested in more musings on digital communities and internet culture in 2020 there's more to dig into on the koodos newsletter that can be found here.