Sean Cannon Interview

Last week, I talked a bit about the trend of music labels and publishers getting into the world of podcasting. Soon after I hit send on the newsletter, the man behind the new White Stripes podcast, Sean Cannon, responded to say that he had a lot of thoughts on this topic (and more). I sent him over a few questions to tease out what compelled such a quick response.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in audio.

After spending time at a small-town newspaper, doing the MP3 blog thing, and toiling in the AOL content mines, I found myself at Louisville Public Media—secretly one of the most important public radio shops in the country. I didn't know that at the time though. I was just excited to live the dream as a radio DJ five days a week.

Like any small shop that punches above its weight, folks at LPM performed many different jobs. The multi-disciplinary environment provided an opportunity to hone my chops as an audio producer. During my eight-year tenure, I hosted/produced the syndicated interview show The Guestlist, created the Elliott Smith anthology podcast Say Yes in partnership with Kill Rock Stars, oversaw digital operations, and served as the de facto "podcast guy." That culminated with my role as creative director/executive producer of the investigative news podcast The Pope's Long Con, which won a Peabody Award.

I hung out at Discogs for about a year after that, and now I'm doing the podcast production thing full time.

Can you talk a bit about how the White Stripes project came together?

In early 2017, I released the aforementioned Elliott Smith podcast miniseries to mark the 20th anniversary of Either/Or. Then in late 2018, Salon editor-in-chief Erin Keane and I produced These Miracles Work as a passion project to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Hold Steady's Stay Positive. A few months ago, Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records and I batted around the notion of producing something similar for The White Stripes' debut album, which turns 20 this year. The initial idea was small-scale and self-contained.

After we finally decided to start the project, it became something much bigger. I realized that, even though many books were published when the band was blowing up, none of them looked at The White Stripes story in light of their legacy and influence. While it might seem like a distinction without a difference, those books were more "history" than "story." Every tiny tidbit and piece of minutiae was thrown in with no eye toward an overarching narrative or underlying themes. It's not a knock against the books. They came out before "the story" was finished and before the band's legacy could be understood. But there was definitely a story to be told inside all that history.

Before long, Blackwell and I were looking at a multi-season podcast with dozens of interviews from all over the country alongside studio tracks, live cuts, archival audio, and Blackwell's photographic recollections.

Shameless plug alert: Even though this podcast really digs into the history of The White Stripes, it isn't just for super fans. Season one is a compelling story for music nerds and podcast aficionados.

For those who aren't aware, talk a bit about the difference between an interview podcast like Marc Maron's WTF and a more produced show like the White Stripes one.

Until Serial hit, most people thought the word "podcast" was synonymous with "ambling, longform chat shows." The main difference between those chat shows and highly-edited reported podcasts is time. For the former, you can set up some mics and roll. If it takes an hour to record and sounds alright, then just throw it online. That's an hour of work.

With high-end reported podcasts, it's more complicated. You have the reporting, hosting, editing, sound design, scoring, mixing, mastering, and a host of other ancillary tasks. Sometimes it can be as complicated as a TV show. All that work takes a lot of time from a lot of people. Even if you can do every bit of that yourself, it's a maddening process. I know from experience!

The other big difference is impact. A decade ago, you could make a real dent with a chat show if you had a modest network of fans and were decent on the mic. There was a low barrier to entry and low barrier to success. Today, the barrier to entry is still low—but the barrier to success is exponentially higher with the growth of the podcast industry. If you think of podcasts that drive pop culture interest these days, very few are chat shows. Even with the proliferation of very famous people doing podcasts (Anna Faris, Russell Brand, Lena Dunham, Alec Baldwin, etc.), the most "important" podcasts of the last few years are highly-edited reported series.  

That also follows in the music space, with shows like Mogul, season three of Slow Burn, Dolly Parton's America, and even Striped creating buzz in the press and on social media.

One of the more mundane topics that I think is actually quite important about music podcasts is licensing. Can you explain the challenges around this?

This is a knotty topic. You might hear "you don't have to pay if you use less than 30 seconds of a song." That doesn't matter. Most of the time, using music in a podcast is no different than using it in a TV show. That means dealing with the publishing rights (which you could think of as the sheet music) and the mechanical rights (the recorded performance of the sheet music). As many music journalists know, figuring out who owns which rights can be a complicated and messy process. Clearing those rights can be even messier, since there aren't exactly "standard deals" for licensing in podcasts. Some people might waive publishing fees for the attendant exposure that comes from a project, while whoever owns the mechanical license won't, and vice versa. This is also affected by the budget of a given project, or how directly a label/artist/publisher is involved.

Messiest of all is the fair use exemption, which allows someone to use copyrighted material without permission of the rights holder. Here's where I offer the very clear disclaimer that I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY AND THIS IS NOT ACTIONABLE LEGAL ADVICE. There are many dissections of what constitutes fair use around the internet, so I won't spend time breaking it all down here. That said, there are many instances where fair use could apply. If you're doing a music podcast about the history of bluegrass and discuss the unique vocal stylings of the Stanley Brothers, using a clip that illustrates your point might count as fair use. But having the Stanley Brothers playing underneath a monologue to create ambiance probably won't. There's a ton of gray area, which is why you should look up all those dissections of fair use.

The moral of the story is: If you think it's fair use, make sure you have a very good defense. Otherwise, go through official channels to secure a license. The cease and desist letter might never come, but do you want to chance that?

You got in touch after reading last week's newsletter, where I highlighted Warner / Chappell's new podcast venture. What do you make of record labels and publishers venturing into this space?

Four years ago, I started telling music industry friends and acquaintances that they should create high-end podcasts built around their artists/albums/labels. At the time, I got two main responses: "So you're saying we should get our bands on Maron? Do you know him? Can you get us on there?" or "Oh yeah, (insert musician here) is really funny. I'll have them talk to their buddies." Like I said before, most people thought that's just all a podcast was back then.

I mention this to make it clear that I'm bullish on music podcasts as a form. It's an intimate way to reach fans, offers innovative marketing opportunities if properly executed, and can open up a few different revenue streams. And as a longtime music journalist who makes podcasts, I think it's a great way to tell meaningful stories and create captivating experiences that transcend categorical boundaries.

As with all things, there are pros and cons here. One not-so-great trend is companies hiring people without much experience in audio to produce big-swing, high-profile podcasts. This usually involves hiring a journalist to write and host a podcast, either because they have the story already or they know the subject matter. The issue is that being a good writer doesn't mean you know what it takes to craft an immersive audio experience. That's a unique skill. It took me years to learn how my abilities as a journalist translated to radio reporting (and subsequently podcasting), and I didn't even realize it until after the fact. I've heard that story from so many audio producers with a background in written journalism, too. Then beyond the writer or host, it takes another set of skills to understand how to package and market a podcast. I see more and more shows produced by people with less and less audio journalism experience at all levels.

What we're left with is usually an expertly-reported story presented in a way that isn't engaging, has no personality, and is hard to market. It can work sometimes, but that's a gamble. This is happening all over the podcast industry, and music podcasts are not immune. For every Dolly Parton's America—created by people at the top of the podcast game—there are a dozen music podcasts that fade into the ether largely because companies think "writer + host + editor = podcast." That doesn't mean every single member of the creative team has to be a 15-year veteran of WNYC, but it does mean your team needs some understanding of the form.

Again, I'm bullish about music podcasts. There's a ton of room for growth, and according to research the primary podcast genre people crave more of is music. I want it to grow, both as a fanboy of audio storytelling and as a music nerd. If there's a story you want to tell or a topic you want to cover as a podcast, reach out! I want music podcasts to keep growing and all my favorite music writers to get a piece of the pie. I'm not the expert on all things podcast, but I want to do whatever I can to help make that happen.