Issue 281,  published November 3, 2020

Audio Art: Podcasting’s Pressure Valve

In search of an occasional break from all that listening to people talking generally required to keep up with podcasting, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in the more experimental, “sound art” corner of the audio universe. The term “sound art” is a broad one, of course, and can be stretched to include everything from soundscape-dominated shows like Field Recordings and Jon Mooallem’s Walking to found tape or archival pieces such as those put out by Centuries of Sound, along with straight up audio collages and installations. All of these feeds and more have become remarkably important to me in recent months, and I prioritise new episodes from those projects in much the same way that I used to drop everything to listen to my favourite comedy podcasts back in 2009.

Beyond just the sheer pleasure of listening to someone silently taking a walk in a place I’ve never been (as in the case of Field Recordings), I like the way these shows prompt me to think differently about the podcast business. Monetisation, audience, and IP potential are usually top of mind for me when assessing a new launch or acquisition, but none of those approaches really seem to apply to this corner of podcasting, which nevertheless cultivates a strong base of fans and dedicated practitioners. More than that, it seems to function in part as a counterpoint to everything else that is going on with podcasting: a kind of pressure valve for the industry.

Accordingly, when I was asked to guest on the BBC’s Podcast Radio Hour recently I chose this very idea of audio art and found sound as my theme for the programme. One of the interviews that I conducted for the show, with Michelle Macklem, the artistic director and co-founder of Constellations, really stuck with me, so with permission I’m going to unpack it in more detail here than was possible in the time available on the Podcast Radio Hour.

Macklem explained that Constellations had its origins in conversations between herself and co-founder Jess Shane when they were both living in Toronto and working at the CBC. (Macklem has since relocated to Melbourne, Australia.) “We were finding that with a lot of our peers who were working and podcasting as the industry was becoming more and more commercial, there was less space for experimentation and less space for thinking about sound critically and how we experience sound in the world critically,” she said.

This fed the desire for a project that stood apart from the commercial pressures audiomakers were experiencing elsewhere in the industry — a refuge from the increasingly homogenised sound that was developing as podcasting grew in popularity in the US and Canada. Macklem and Shane started asking friends and contacts if they could release their audio art on a new feed, and found that creators were enthusiastic about offering work to such an outlet while they worked in a very different way for their day jobs.

Another driving force behind the founding of Constellations that really intrigued me was burnout. Longtime readers will know that I’ve been tracking this phenomenon with respect to podcasting for some time now, and it was fascinating to hear that Constellations was in part an expression of the fact that while demand for audio content has been ramping up everywhere, key things like compensation and healthy working practices have remained out of step for many creators. “We saw a lot of our peers becoming really burnt out,” Macklem said. “We work and need to make money and do our jobs and stuff, but I think that something about the creative aspects were feeling a bit lost for us.”

Constellations has now put out four seasons of work since it launched in July 2017, as well as organising a physical exhibition in Toronto and arranging various remixing projects. It has remained a non-commercial outlet for the creators involved, a dispersed network of people who want a home for their audio experiments.

I asked Macklem about how listeners respond to the works, since it is a feed primarily conceived with creators rather than the audience in mind. “We have really varied listener feedback and I think that’s exciting because I think Constellations being a non-commercial space can be a space where people can actively dislike the works, and that’s totally fine and great,” she said. “I think the joy in that is being able to talk and discover why you don’t like things rather than trying to fit a mould of things that you think you should like, which I think culturally is something that we all do because we, you know, want to get behind things that seem great and critically robust.”

I’m very familiar with this dynamic. It’s perhaps less noticeable these days, but when I first started writing about podcasts there was very much a sense that it was necessary to be mostly positive so as not to denigrate this up-and-coming medium in case it put off new adopters. Even now, I think podcast critics are perhaps less willing to write off a show they have issues with than their counterparts in film or book criticism might, for myriad understandable reasons such as scarcity, the amateur/professional crossover, and more. As a space where listeners are free to just… not feel positive about everything, Constellations also seems to offer a respite in that sense too.

Of course, commercially funded work elsewhere is what makes a feed like Constellations possible on a practical level — the creators who release their audio art through this show are also using their skills in other directions that pay the bills. The show does do some crowdfunding, but it mostly leans back on the ethos that getting paid matters less than releasing ideas into the world that wouldn’t have a home anywhere else. For those efforts, and how it hopes to expand the horizon of what could be, Constellations deserves our attention.

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.