Audio Content Industry Trends I'm Seeing Develop in Light of the Pandemic

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Few industries suffered during the pandemic quite as much as the entertainment sector has, what with the dark theaters, empty cinemas and delayed shoots. West End may be forever changed by lockdown and social distancing rules. Entertainment unemployment numbers soared as high as 51 percent in 2020; nearly one-quarter of the businesses in the sector report they are on the brink of insolvency. However, there was a bright spot in the trends I’m seeing develop in the audio content space — an in-demand product that requires little physical closeness to produce.

When I started Big Finish Productions in 1998, a pandemic was the furthest thing from my mind. Today we are the largest independent producer of audio drama in the world, second only to the BBC. In the U.K., theater, film and television all benefit from various tax breaks and governmental incentives. Audio content does not reap any of the same benefits: It is the only form of drama that doesn’t have a similar level of support. In the U.S. and Canada, it’s the same story. Although cities such as New Orleans and Vancouver have benefited enormously from the tax breaks granted television and film production, audio drama is granted no commensurate tax breaks.

In spite of this, it is a relatively stable sector in an otherwise terrible economic downturn. Although audio drama itself is a medium that harks back to the early days of radio, it has thrived in the age of the internet, much as podcasting, another audio medium, is also thriving. Last year saw an increase in business and the audio drama industry as a whole had a banner year.

I’m proud to be in a growth sector in a difficult time. Audio drama could be considered pandemic-proof. It provides much-needed entertainment when theaters remained dark and film studios lost nearly an entire year of production. Much as the medium allows an audience to enjoy entertainment from the socially distanced safety of their own homes, it allows actors to record safely.

No matter how you break down media consumption, it is clear that more and more people are taking in the world through their ears. Sales of e-books and talking books are at an all-time high, with ebooks recently receiving a substantial boost by the government, as the Guardian reported. Last year, the U.K. government accepted that all written work, whether printed or transmitted electronically, should receive a removal of 20% VAT. In the U.S., e-books are tax-exempt in some states, such as California. However, it’s not enough. I believe this tax exemption ought to include more media like audio content.

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In 2014, we saw the implementation of the Theatre Tax Relief (TTR), which can reduce pre-performance costs for U.K. productions by 20%-25%. In 2018, ticket revenue soared with “combined ticket revenue of nearly £1.2 billion and a combined audience of 34 million” with London’s West End theaters reaching “over £127 million in VAT.” The public benefitted from a creative boom of new material to enjoy, and jobs were created on a substantial scale.

This relief was critical because whilst union rates have gone up along with touring costs, ticket prices have largely remained the same. TTR allowed productions that may have made a loss to become profitable — and, in turn, lure investors back, again and again, engendering more economic opportunity. In April, New York State announced it will also create tax breaks for the hard-hit theater sector, which I very much hope will help it get back on its feet.

Similarly, I watched the film industry blossom in Australia after the government there passed QAPE (qualifying Australian production expenditure), which offers a tax offset for producers of Australian films, with a rebate of 40 percent QAPE in the production of the film, and 20 percent for other eligible formats. Given these rebates, it’s no wonder the Marvel franchise chose to film Thor: Ragnarok Down Under, as it cost $180 million to produce, and as The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out with the thousands of jobs that were created.

Audio content production has great potential for growth. This industry has Covid-friendly access to so much talent who would otherwise be sitting at home without work. Moreover, in my experience, actors are drawn to audio content as a creative outlet, because all it requires them to do is act — there are no marks to hit, no hair and makeup to contend with and any retakes are simple pick-ups that can be done without stress.

We may have a long stretch of austerity ahead: It’s time to treat audio content as an equal in the entertainment sector.

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