Lens: China’s ‘ear economy’

2 min read

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Audio content has gained in popularity over recent years in China.

The number of online audio users in China rose by more than one-fifth to hit 425 million last year, according to a report from iiMedia Research in March. The online audio sector is exhibiting faster growth compared with other channels such as mobile video and mobile reading, which have expanded 13.6% and 6.3%, respectively, in the same period.

Cynthia Zhou, a female university student in Beijing, has listened to audio programs before bed for more than five years. “When you’re listening to audio programs, you’re learning something but you don’t feel anxious, like when reading a book,” she said.

Like Cynthia, more and more young people listen to audio content every day. The medium can be more flexible and efficient since users can do something else while listening. This aspect allows people to listen in multiple contexts, like during commutes or before going to sleep.

Meanwhile, contributors also see the great opportunities in this industry. Many content producers are turning to audio since it’s a relatively inexpensive and straightforward distribution channel with a potentially broad audience. It enables amateur as well as professional producers to create self-published, syndicated performances.

Making it big

After previously majoring in nursing, Ayla is now a renowned podcaster and rakes in over RMB 1 million annually. After interning at a hospital for several months, she decided to take a different path.

“Honestly, you have to be in the hospital for a few decades to become a head nurse, I don’t want to spend my whole life on it,” she said. “And at that time, even though I didn’t have a concept of being a podcaster, I knew the salary of a professional voice actor was actually higher. So I decided to take a risk.”

The rapid development of smart devices like AirPods, smart speakers and internet technologies have also provided a boost to the industry. At this year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, the company officially announced the death of iTunes and made Podcasts into a standalone app. Siri also began to support third-party music, podcasts, and audiobook apps following the latest iOS upgrade, sending positive signals to other competitors in the audio content industry.

In China, competition in the online audio market has become intense. Different from most free podcasts in Western countries, Chinese platforms are gradually convincing younger generations to pay for audio content.

“From UGC content to the earliest pay-for-the-knowledge, establishing an audio form of YouTube and Taobao has always been the goal of Ximalaya,” the company’s CEO Yu Jianjun said at a talk in August in Shanghai. “The mission of Ximalaya is to share human wisdom through audio.”

Around three-quarters of TechNode’s interviewees indicated they were willing to pay for audio content. “A lot of programs that my daughter listens to now need to pay, like Kaishu Storytelling. But we think it’s worthwhile to spend money on that,” one mother told us.

As more and more people are gravitating toward listening, creating, and monetizing audio content, the industry is expected to boom. But since listeners are more and more demanding of content quality, competition among producers and companies in the market will intensify in the coming years.