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Podcasts always had instrumental music — now some have singing, too

It ain’t over ‘til the podcaster sings

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In the podcast series Forever Is a Long Time, listeners hear a man gently ask his relatives about the details of their failed marriages. Then, they hear him sing a song about it. 

Host Ian Coss was a musician before he started producing and sound-designing podcasts, and he has long used songwriting to make sense of his life. When he needed to process the messy, emotional topic of divorce, he started by singing. Then, he interviewed his family to get more of the answers he sought. Neither would be complete without the other, he said — he “wanted it to feel like an integrated whole.” From there, a hybrid of an album and a podcast was born.

Lots of musicians have translated their skills to podcast production, creating the instrumentals and original theme songs heard in many shows. But songs with lyrics? Embedded right there in an episode? There hasn’t historically been a place for them since they compete with the words being spoken. But a desire to incorporate singing anyway has led several creators to reimagine the structure of the shows they produce, crafting songs that are meant to live right alongside interviews and discussions. As with Coss’ creations, their songs become just as important as the speech that surrounds them.

Speaking and singing have already mingled in the context of podcasts, but mostly fictional ones. The scripted series Electric Easy guides listeners from speech to song by featuring musical performances right in the plot; same goes for Halloween in Hell, which is about a singing competition hosted by Satan. But it’s less intuitive to follow along when songs are slipped into something like a chatcast or an interview-based show, which might not have natural segues between the two formats. Listeners may be turned off when they’re jolted from one to the other, especially since they can’t be walked through the transition by visual footage the way they can while watching movies or TV. 

Beyond fictional podcasts that roughly follow the Glee format, the interplay of song and speech has mostly been limited to things other than podcasts. Think hip-hop and rap albums, which swing from musical tracks to spoken interludes and scenes. Another example is the FM radio model, where DJs surface between songs to banter, often about things other than the music. Coss says he couldn’t find podcasts that achieved the balance he was trying to strike, where the songs deliberately pertained to the discussions or vice versa; instead, he drew inspiration from musical concept albums, like The Point by Harry Nilsson, as well as Woody Guthrie’s “three hours of song and conversation,” housed by the Library of Congress.

With these examples in other audio fields, audiences have had years to warm up to the idea that mediums will mix; to avoid turning off listeners within podcasts, producers aimed to be as unsurprising as possible with how they presented the music. In the scripted series Here Comes the Break, the show’s narrator interviews real-life musicians for a fictional podcast (within this real podcast), on which the artists debut actual tracks they recorded in the real world. To prevent listeners from being disoriented by the otherwise unmusical plot suddenly switching to song, the music is always placed at the end of an episode; the same is true of Coss’ show. Both podcasts also keep their content the same length episode to episode — roughly 30 minutes —which, as a standard length in the industry, provides listeners with a familiar element within an otherwise unfamiliar concept.

One musician and producer has experimented with how far podcast listeners are willing to go to hear the songs she wants them to hear. The movie-discussion podcast You Are Good, hosted by Sarah Marshall and Alex Steed, features both covers and original tracks by the musician Carolyn Kendrick (who, using her technical skills, also produces the show). In a given episode, listeners hear a chat between Marshall and Steed, a song that Kendrick has recorded to complement the discussion, then a return to the conversation.

“I definitely make the songs much shorter than I would if I was making a regular album,” Kendrick says. Creating songs for the middle of an episode, as opposed to the end, also requires generalizing lyrics and “trimming the fat” that doesn’t directly support the discussion, she says. “My number one fear is that the music will be distracting, and hopefully it’s not.”

Far from being distracting, given that You Are Good is both silly and serious, lyrical music can be a helpful transitional tool. After the hosts joke around in the first few minutes of an episode about The Shining, the listener hears low, spooky notes on a piano, with Kendrick repetitively singing the phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” which she says “conveyed the creepiness of that story.” It works as a transition into the markedly heavier conversation between the hosts that follows.

The music in these podcasts can be their selling point, says Brady Sadler, CEO and co-founder of the audio company Double Elvis, which produced Here Comes The Break. In that show in particular, which was branded as a “music-breaking podcast,” songs debuted exclusively in the episodes, and the musicians acted as a “built-in influencer base” to hype up the drops on social media, Sadler says. “Having the exclusive music definitely achieved what we were hoping for,” he adds: getting people excited to hear a song within the context of the podcast and its characters, even though they knew they could hear the song via wide release the very next day.

The generally positive reception to these shows may be due to listeners’ expectations already beginning to shift. As Coss points out, Spotify has published “Daily Drive” playlists for years, mixing music with reported news, and Sadler speculates that, more broadly, many listeners have gotten used to going to one place (e.g., Spotify, Amazon Music) to hear both music and podcasts, even if the two mediums aren’t often played in quick succession. 

Maybe Spotify knows something these creators can only speculate: that listeners do indeed want content that combines speaking and singing. That would make it seem as though projects like You Are Good and Forever Is a Long Time have popped up in response, taking cues from the industry’s biggest players.

“The timing is interesting, right? That I would be drawn to this kind of project in a moment where musical and narrative audio are crossing over more and more,” says Coss. He laughs, “I certainly don’t want to give Spotify credit.” 

The “longer arc” toward this moment, he says, is likely more personal. He, like Kendrick, was a musician before he was a podcast producer. “I brought those skills with me to narrative audio as a new place to explore and create,” he says. “I think there was always a desire to bring those things together.”