Pure audio content survives video-dominated OTT industry competition

Watchers of the fast growing video content market, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, prematurely declared the “end of days” for radio ― as seen in the surge of subscribers to over-the-top (OTT) streaming service platforms.

Consuming cultural content through audio platforms seemed outdated and old-fashioned; but what’s happening now is defying such hasty early forecasts about winners and losers in the content industry in the post-pandemic digital world.

Recent market trends show that the consumption of video and pure audio content is not mutually exclusive. Rather, they grow together. Commuters, who have no time to be fully drawn into videos, opt for audio platforms, listening to music and sci-fi thriller novels during their rush-hour driving.

Unlike video content, audio platforms allow consumers to multi-task, and this unrivaled strength is helping it survive the tough competition in the video-dominated OTT industry.

“As many people have become used to video content, which has been inundating popular culture these days, they have come to seek something retro, to find comfort in taking their eyes off the screen and to consume content solely through their ears,” said Sung Dong-kyoo, a professor of Media and Communication at Chung-Ang University.

“Audio content allows people to multi-task … So, as they come across pure audio content, many find it more convenient than visual media.”

An official from Millie’s Library explained that subscribers listen to audiobooks the most during rush hour, on their way to or from work.

“Most of our subscribers are in their 20s or 30s ― generally those who live on a busy cycle… Those who only have a certain amount of spare time in their daily lives. So audiobooks allow them to leave the audio on while doing other things, but still make use of that spare time to consume a book,” she said.

The audio content market has grown fast in recent years, and an increasing number of businesses are jumping into the market, allowing consumers to access a wider selection of content.

Tech giant Naver revealed earlier this year that users of its audio platform, Audioclip, had increased by 93 percent this January to 3.7 million, compared to the same month last year. The company has used the platform to offer a variety of different types of audio content ― from audiobooks to podcasts ― hosted by celebrities such as Park Hae-jin and Gong Yoo.

In March, Naver launched a separate company, Tune, to merge all of its audio-related businesses ― music streaming app VIBE, audio content services Audioclip and NOW ― so as to expand its audio content portfolio.

Millie’s Library, a subscription-based e-book platform, launched a new service this January that allows users to self-publish audiobooks. Any user can use its program to create an audiobook with either their voice or an AI voice, which will then be reviewed by the company for an official release on the platform.

According to the company, about 714 audiobooks have been published through this service since its launch, and the number of downloads logged for the service’s program has already reached 32,455.

The company said that the percentage of subscribers who had listened to an audiobook at least once increased from 20 percent last year to 28 percent so far this year, almost double the figure in 2019.

Professor Sung remarked that audio content production is more cost-effective than video content production, giving it an advantage for corporations. “Videos are much more expensive to produce than pure audio content, so in terms of budgets for businesses, audio content is more accessible,” he said.

Music streaming services are trying to target the MZ Generation (a term coined to refer both to Millennials and Generation Z ― all people born between 1981 and 2012), considered “digital natives,” or those growing up during the digital age, and with the most buying power in terms of online media consumption.

Kakao’s music streaming platform, Melon, has been releasing original audio shows through a new service called Station on its app since April last year. The service provides different radio show-like audio programs, including ones co-produced by K-pop agencies, such as SM Entertainment’s SMing and Big Hit Entertainment’s Big Hit Music Record. On the latter, BTS members talked about their new song “Butter” and shared their favorite songs.

SK Telecom’s subsidiary, Dreamus Company, announced last month that it will invest 200 billion won ($179 million) into its music streaming service, FLO, to create original audio content over the next three years. “We plan to scout different categories of content, create original podcasts, and partner up with creators and platforms to produce other audio-related content,” the company said in a statement.

Naver’s streaming service, NOW, which has targeted younger audiences with live radio shows, hosted by K-pop artists such as IU, Winner’s Mino and NU’EST’s JR, saw 20 million listeners in the first year since its launch in September 2019. Its monthly active users ― primarily teenagers ― doubled over the same period.

In the meantime, tech giant Kakao released its new audio chat social media app, mm, last week, as the “Korean version of Clubhouse,” the social network based only on voice that made a huge buzz last year. The new app allows users to openly join any chatrooms on the app and voice-chat with other users.

“This app will provide a platform for the MZ generation, who are familiar with expressing themselves, and prefer interacting with others based on their personal preferences and interests,” the company explained.

Kim Bo-kyung, a 23-year-old frequent user of a podcast platform, said that she prefers pure audio content as it allows celebrities to communicate more comfortably with their fans.

“Compared to TV shows or videos, in which celebrities seem to be stiffer and tense as they stand in front of a camera, I like how they get more natural and sound more comfortable on audio shows,” she said.

Professor Sung added that the audio content produced by corporations especially meets the needs of the MZ Generation, who are unfamiliar with radio, in their search for something refreshing. “They are stirring this generation’s curiosity to try out different varieties of media content.”