Welcome to the Earbud Society
On the Future (and Radical Potential) of Audiobooks
We now live in the Earbud Society. You see them dangling from ears in cars, all over college campuses, in Starbucks, and even the workplace (especially on elevators.) Social avoidance has never been easier, and yet research is showing that this audio-revolution is a great boon to society. And audiobooks, as a subset of “earbud content,” are only getting started as an art form.
Back in the dark ages of 2006, when I was attending broadcasting school, we didn’t have an agreed-upon name for them. The most established phrase was “books-on-tape,” which had a pretty good vernacularic run of it in the culture for a long time. It seemed daunting back then to even try to dislodge it from English usage. And how, exactly? Audio-stories? Mp3ater? Books-on-Mp3? Digi-books? Podiobooks? Digital books-on-tape? The possibilities seemed as endless as they were stupid-sounding.
Now, of course, the word “audiobook” has emerged as the preferred nomenclature for any “book on tape,” or the digital version of such at least. After I graduated from broadcasting school, it seemed a logical move for me to combine my English Lit degree with my shiny new broadcasting certification to create these audio thingies of public domain stories and poems. I posted the Mp3 files to my website, where they were immediately ignored by everyone. Then I combined them with a picture and posted them to YouTube, where the search function and massive user base made them discoverable. Now, I use the word “audiobook” for all of the “audio-literature” I produce, whether it be a short story, novella, poem, whatever. And it seems to be increasingly valuable for consumers to know what they are getting when a standardized word like this is used to describe these products.
One of the more intriguing aspects of audio for me is just how much you can use it to enhance boring-old, just-sits-there written text. Prominent examples of the practice of this most modern of arts are: the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast, Scott Sigler’s podio/audiobooks, and the entire growing catalogue of online retailers like Audible, Apple, and others. According to Forbes magazine, 37% of Americans listened to audiobooks in 2011. That number has probably grown in the 5 years since. (Survey Monkey says that 33% of “young professionals” listen to audiobooks, so if you broaden that out to the population at large, it’s probably between 40–50%.) One of the biggest reasons for this, as summarized in that Forbes article (with the links to the research) is that for people who primarily learn through listening, audiobooks have been a God-send.
Beyond the whole debate over whether listening to audiobooks is better or the same as reading, I think we may find that audiobook performance as an art form could hold a lot of promise moving forward. On my YouTube channel, for example, I have posted videos of many different kinds of public domain stories and poems. Some listeners love my performance style, while others hate it. (A couple of quotes from the haters: “You sound like a fat drunk.” And: “Your reading absolutely RUINED this story!” Fun times.) But what I’ve been able to ascertain over the past five years is that if you do like my general style, voice, etc., the performance becomes its own thing, almost like a movie adaptation of a novel, although way more faithful to the original text, obviously. Music, sound effects, and even a full acting cast can be used to enhance the story. Here is an example of something I worked on a few years ago and then abandoned. I don’t think the plot of the story is necessarily all that great, but you can hear just how I’m trying to make it more of a production than the standard dry read (which some listeners would certainly prefer, I realize.)
With how convenient and portable audiobooks are, they seem like they’re here to stay. I think as their popularity grows, so will the diversity of styles that creators use to produce them. And that will certainly lead to a furtherance of audio awesomeness in the future, even if it means we’ll all have earbuds permanently super-glued to our ears. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut’s Gramps Ford, I can’t wait to hear what happens next.