Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Variety Store That Maybe Isn't

It was one of those places I’d walked past at least a hundred times en route to my favourite tragic east end mall (which just happens to have one of the best dollar stores going). It was called Rayman’s Variety, and according to the sign it specialized in West Indian and African groceries and cosmetic products. It was stuffed to the rafters with boxes and bottles and, well, how do I put this, from the looks of things inventory didn’t exactly turn over quickly. Then one day I looked in and things had changed. But only kind of. The sign was still there, the rusty bars on the windows were still there, but about 98% of the stock had been removed. The tired old walls and floors had been ripped out, but it wasn’t exactly clear what was going on, though something clearly was. Or more like unclearly.

In the weeks that followed I noticed some handwritten signage. It said ‘940 Variety’. 940 was the address on Gerrard Street East and ‘variety’ suggested it was continuing in its convenience store tradition, but in what appeared to be a more customer friendly incarnation.

Earlier this week I was walking by and noticed that the door was open so I walked in. Inside I truly found variety: chips, cold drinks, used records and books, a rack with new clothes, and coffee being sold for $1 a cup. But this wasn’t just one more example of an old place being hipsterized. It wasn’t that straightforward.

There was only one person in the store, and he wasn’t a customer. He was a guy in the midst of some store-related carpentry. I said hi and complimented him on the renewed interior. He seemed like a friendly guy who was open to some conversation so I went with that. I asked him how things were going at the store. He said things were a work in progress. He pointed at the racks of chips and said that they weren’t really making their money on those. Not a big surprise there. He pointed to the opposite wall and said they’d recently added used records and books to their wares.

This was a guy who clearly goes with a flow, as opposed to a plan. And I mean that in the best possible way. He then told me about his idea to do a version of the Tiny Desk concerts, which are exactly what they sound like; i.e. concerts done behind a tiny desk that feature artists ranging from up and comers to stars such as Chance The Rapper and Adele.

His would be tiny counter concerts instead, and he showed me where the singer would be and then pointed to another area where the rest of the band would be located.I asked him about the back area he was pointing to, as it was still being worked on. He told me about some of his plans for fixing it up. He said they had already done a few shows and social events on the premises -- with the appropriate liquor licenses and approvals of course – and said that maybe that would be the way forward for 940.

I was reminded of one of the coolest places I’d ever seen, which was a secret high end sneaker shop in downtown Boston. But this one didn’t advertise, or even have a sign. You had to know where it was, because it was hidden behind an unmarked storefront that was stocked with faded paper towel packages and cleaning supplies. One of those places you would only pick up in your peripheral vision, if at all. But if you knew someone who was in the know you could find out where this place was. But that wasn’t enough. You then had to know where the magical door was, the one that led you to a secret world of sneakerhead riches.

I told the proprietor of 940 about it and he seemed sincerely intrigued. He even had a bit of a twinkle in his eye as he mulled the possibilities. What struck me was how open he was to possibilities. I mean, how many people sign a lease on a retail space and then essentially run a series of experiments, to see what works. It may sound crazy, but it’s the brick and mortar version of the pivot of the startup world. When something doesn’t work in the tech world it’s not seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to correct one’s course. Provided that the pivot is executed quickly enough. It’s all part of the break things, fail fast mindset of entrepreneurs. Failing fast, as has been pointed out, isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It acknowledges that there are many dials in front of you and that you will be tweaking them for a while before things click into gear.

Before leaving 940 Variety I asked the proprietor-carpenter it would be okay if I took a few pictures and he said by all means (those are the ones you see here). Then I told him that the next time I’m there I fully expect to be able to press on the cold beverage case at the back and marvel as it becomes the portal to an as of yet not figured out universe. Or something else entirely.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

How big a business is podcasting?

“We started doing this because too many people thought Toronto hip hop started with Drake”. The ‘this’ in the preceding sentence is the “Views Before the 6” podcast, and the ‘we’ are Big Tweeze aka Anthony Corsi and Thrust aka Chris France, a rapper perhaps best known, to Canadian hip hop historians at least, for his shouted out role in the ‘Northern Touch’ video.  

Tweeze and Thrust were part of a panel called The Business of Podcasting, held recently at Toronto’s Ryerson University. They were among the podcasters talking that night about plying their trade online and seeing where it goes. Despite the title of the event, podcasting is a business for very few. Yes, there is an increasingly brisk business in podcasting in the genre of sponsored, or branded content, but this blog post is looking at the experience of podcasting from the point of view of individual creators not directly affiliated with individual brands.

Podcast panel participants L to R:
Gina Kennedy, Anthony Corsi, Thrust, Lindsay Bess

Those assembled for the panel talked with great passion and enthusiasm for their podcast projects. When asked about how many downloads they get no one was coy. The answers were illuminating: from a few dozen to a few hundred. But it's still pretty early days for these creators. At this level it's obviously not a business, but as panelist Gina Kennedy, host of the Radio Somewhere podcast put it: "it's not a job, it's a lifestyle". Still, the trick with so many digital content efforts is to find, and to speak to, the underserved niche audience and see how far you can take things. (Ed. Note: Though there's variation across genres and topics, a rule of thumb is that advertisers like to see about 20,000 monthly downloads per episode in order to consider putting money into your podcast.)

As pointed out during the panel, in many cities radio never picked up on hip hop, even though the audience grew and grew. As a genre, hip hop is anything but ‘brand safe’, i.e. where major advertisers want to be, so the match between hip hop and mass media like radio and TV was destined to be weak. And this is why, from outside the traditional industries, YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts emerged to serve the hundreds of millions of hip hop fans around the globe, a number of which are operating as profitable businesses. The audience and the demand was too big to be ignored, and in a reversal of the usual processes of 'getting on the air', the creators made the shows, posted them online without the involvement or approval of the usual gatekeepers, the audiences followed and told their friends, and the advertisers came in at the end of the cycle.

Even though as a technology, podcasting has been around for over 14 years, as detailed in this blog post, it is still early days in terms of the development of podcasting as an industry. We tend to think that once a technology is introduced and gets popular then dollars start to flow. The truth of the matter is that it takes a whole lot of infrastructure development until that starts to happen; from reliable metrics, to user-friendly apps to content networks and advertising networks...and we’re only now starting to get there.

So how big is podcasting as both a medium and a market? Last year there were about 30 million minutes of podcasting produced, and as a market it is currently valued at about $200 million. This value is determined by the amount of advertising dollars the medium attracted. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But a number is only big or small compared to other numbers, so let’s look at another number, in this case the value of the radio market in 2017. Over $32 billion. But podcasting’s piece of the pie is only going to get bigger, and radio’s is going to get smaller. It will take several years, and a bunch of new software and hardware developments, like making it easier to listen to podcasts in cars, but it will happen. 

For more on the State of Podcasting in 2017, see this Fact Sheet from the good people at Pew Research.
And for a statistically-based take on the question "Will radio kill the internet star?" click here.