A recent survey conducted by National Public Radio noted that, five years ago, 80% of the U.S. population’s listening hours were spent on music, with 20% dedicated to spoken word; this past year, music’s share is down to 76%, with spoken word growing to 24%. Credit the latter’s growth in part to the podcast boom.
While some doom-and-gloomers look at the commitment to podcasts by tech giants like Apple, iHeartMedia, Amazon Music and Spotify as a threat to the continued dominance of music on streaming sites, others see a happy medium, where personalities and untold stories can continue to thrive and grow.
Despite the unique challenge music-themed podcasts face – the high cost of licensed music, unaffordable for many independent podcasters – 2019 saw a slew of compelling music-driven podcasts find audiences. Here are ten of the best from this year.
And the Writer Is… (Big Deal Music / Mega House Music): Hitmaker and creators’ rights activist Ross Golan hosts this weekly series which has featured the likes of Shane Mcanally, Paul Anka, Teddy Geiger, Oak Felder, Mike Posner and many more successful songwriters. Currently in its fifth season, each episode delves deep into a writer’s process while also providing a career overview. Golan is uniquely positioned to get the most out of his interview subjects, having had multiple record deals of his own in addition to credits on hit songs by Selena Gomez (“Same Old Love”) and Ariana Grande (“Dangerous Woman”), among others. He’s also the creator and developer of one-man musical “The Wrong Man,” which made its Broadway debut this year.
“Bear and a Banjo” (iHeartRadio): An ambitious, eight-part throwback to the golden age of radio was the brainchild of Jared Gutstadt, the founder of music production house Jingle Punks, and Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd, best known for co-writing some of Justin Bieber’s biggest hits. Each episode tells a fictional musical tale based in history during which an original song is created, bypassing licensing obstacles and coming together for a T Bone Burnett-produced album at the finish. (Pictured at top from left: Dennis Quaid, Jared Gutstadt, T Bone Burnett, Rosanna Arquette, Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd.)
“Broken Record” (Pushkin Industries): Self-dubbed the “liner notes for the digital age,” this collaboration draws equally from the strengths of podcast gadfly Malcolm Gladwell and producer guru Rick Rubin. The result: a blend of curious fanboy enthusiasm and knowing investigation. An added bonus: being able to listen to Rubin ply his buddha-like producer powers to create a safe space where artists share their love for craft and really get into why a songwriter writes.
“Disgraceland” (iHeartRadio): One-time Boston punk-rocker Jake Brennan combined two of podcasts’ enduring tropes – true crime and rock ‘n’ roll – into a compelling whole. One of the few podcasts to actually spawn its own book, which was released in October, “Disgraceland” devotes episodes to a variety of topics including Norwegian Black Metal, Fat and Skinny Elvis, as well as the notorious legends behind the steeped-in-mythology deaths of Gram Parsons, Sid Vicious, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Sam Cooke, as well as the notoriety surrounding Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, Axl Rose and Chuck Berry.
“Hanging Out With Audiophiles”: Studio wizard and “Future Soul” singer Jamie Lidell cranks out this sonically ambitious biweekly interview series aimed at true headphone heads. It started with Lidell’s musician friends and freaks, like Patrick Carney and Mark Ronson, but has grown to feature musical intermission submissions from listeners, weekly studio technique investigations (called “Nitty Gritties”) and Lidell’s uncompromising efforts to amp up the “pod.”
“The Joe Budden Podcast with Rory & Mal” (Spotify, YouTube): This one-time rapper turned hip-hop pundit is among the linchpins of Spotify’s aggressive podcast strategy. If you want to know what it’s like to scrap with Nicki Minaj in real-time, or what the scene was like inside Diddy’s exclusive 50th birthday party, this is your listening destination. Budden has inflamed any number of rap beefs and hip-hop controversies, including the latest feud between Nick Cannon and Eminem, which only adds to the podcast’s reputation as the most influential rap show on any platform.
“Popcast” (New York Times): Insightful music industry analysis is the through-line to this weekly podcast hosted by the New York Times’ pop music team. Whether deconstructing the charts, explaining the latest pop culture trend or debating the merits of an artist’s catalog, expertise meets wit in a thoroughly entertaining and engaging way. Among the highlights from 2019: September’s “How Does Post Malone Sound Like Everything and Nothing” and November’s “Taylor Swift, Lizzo, Lana Del Rey: Pop Stars (And Their Fans) Clap Back,” which looked objectively at the pros and cons of fan armies.
“R U Talkin REM RE: ME?” (Earwolf): The perfect example of podcasting’s narrowcast possibilities, this full-on blast of all things R.E.M. is hosted by “Parks and Recreation” star Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman of “Comedy Bang! Bang!” From album analysis to interviews with those who were a part of the R.E.M.’s extended circle, this is the place to discover a follicle history of Michael Stipe, Peter Buck’s Top 10 Garage Bands and the mystery behind Mike Mills’ cowboy suits, if you’re into that sort of thing.
“Song Exploder” (Apple, Spotify, Amazon): Started by musician/composer Hrishikesh Hirway in 2014 (and hosted for the last year by musician Thao Nguyen), this straightforward deep dive into the creative process offers an immersive look (and listen) at the genesis of songs in the musician’s own words. The sort of discussions pop aficionados of all stripes can appreciate, “Song Exploder” has featured such artists as Meek Mill, Bat for Lashes, Slipknot and Raphael Saadiq over 175 episodes.
“Who Cares About the Rock Hall?” (Stitcher): A disclaimer: I’ve been a guest on this thoroughly entertaining podcast, hosted by Los Angeles stand-up comics Joe Kwaczala and Kristen Studard, dutifully filling out my own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot amid many deep dives and heated barroom discussions. Other guests have included RRHOF Poobah Seymour Stein, PR veteran Bob Merlis and his son Ben (talking about T. Rex ahead of the 2020 ceremony), Matt Pinfeld (Nine Inch Nails) and Janiss Garza (Motorhead). Sure, it descends into deep nerd talk on occasion, but Joe and Kristen approach the topic with the right amount of shock and awe. If you want to know why the New York Dolls aren’t in the Rock Hall of Fame, or why Todd Rundgren should be, this is the show for you.