Product management, from journalism to music to podcasts. This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Aaron Lammer about the three prongs of his career — as the co-founder of Longform, as a musician with Francis and the Lights, and as the host of Stoner, a new podcast about weed. They look at his career through the lens of product management and entrepreneurship — and Aaron’s tendency to downplay success, like going on tour with Chance the Rapper.
Paul Ford [Music ramps down] Hi! I’m Paul Ford and you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. I’m the co-founder of Postlight, and I’m joined by Rich Ziade. Rich?
Rich Ziade Hello, all!
PF Hey, Rich, can you tell me what Postlight actually does before we get to our exciting podcast guest?
RZ Of course. Uh Postlight helps companies uh build technology products, whether internal or external, we are designers, we’re architects, we’re builders. And we like to ship. We love to ship stuff.
PF Alright, so I come to you and I’m like, “Hey, I wanna build something that lets people communicate in new ways on their app phone thing, huh? Can you do that?”
RZ “We’re on it.”
PF “Alright, let’s do that.” So, with that amazing advertisement [chuckles] done [RZ snickers], let’s get to the gist of the show. Uh we have someone very, very, very special—
PF —in the studio today.
RZ I don’t think you’ve ever said that before.
PF Why don’t you—you have a close relationship with this person, why don’t you introduce him?
RZ Yes, this is an old friend. And uh every few months we—we get together and get a drink and uh he’s here now again today. His name is Aaron Lammer.
Aaron Lammer Hey!
RZ Hello, Aaron, welcome! To Track Changes. Uh I met Aaron—I probably cold emailed you, is my guess. Or you cold emailed me. One or the other.
AL I think I cold emailed you.
RZ Yeah. We were in—in—both in the world of . . . uh longform, deep non-fictionnnn stuff. And I built a tool, and Aaron was a—became a well known curator. Well, I’m gonna let Aaron explain.
AL It’s funny, I think when I first met you. I was like—I thought we were like—you were making Readability, I was working on Longform, and I thought we were like roughly parallel. I was working off of my own couch and I came to see you, and you have a whole floor of an office building in midtown [AL and RZ laugh].
PF No, that’s right. This was—this was Rich’s old agency ARC 90, it’s like on the thirtieth floor [AL yeah] [RZ yeah] of a—what was it seven forty-seven 3rd Ave?
RZ 3rd Avenue [PF yeah]. It’s like five minutes from Grand Central.
PF It is a pretty monolithic [AL yeah] —like—
RZ It was rough.
AL I was impressed.
RZ But, to be clear, we had other clients [chuckles], it wasn’t [AL yeah yeah yeah] just for that purpose but uh—
AL But that’s kind of one of the effects of the internet is you don’t—like when someone’s making something on the internet, you don’t know if it’s like some giant thing within another company [RZ yeah] or an individual, or whatever. The scale is obscured.
PF [Stammers] Well it’s not like there were any WeWork’s back then [RZ and AL no], like it was just either—you were either on your couch or—
AL Pretty much.
PF So let’s—let’s frame this a little bit: I would describe you as someone who—you act like an almost accidental entrepreneur in the cultural space. It’ll be like—you’ll see Aaron and he’ll be like, [listlessly:] “Ah yeah, I’m doing this Longform thing. Hey, you should come on my podcast, we’re doing some stuff,” and then there’s always like a little reveal that comes later, like, “Oh I’m—I’m a very successful musician [RZ yeah],” or, “Oh I’m starting a new podcast thing.” And [RZ yeah] so I wanna warn the audience that Aaron can sound a little bit like a kind of disconnected stoner who’s just [someone snickers] kind of floatin’ al—floatin’ along, but he’s actually a very successful cultural entrepreneur who’s had a lot of impact.
AL Thank you.
PF So I wanna figure that out—
AL Can you—can you make a phone call to my mother and give that rap?
PF Of course! [AL laughs, then RZ laughs] No, have her—have her listen to this cuz I kinda wanna figure this out because it’s rare you meet someone who’s like, ‘Oh hey, I don’t really even know what’s going on in her but I did just launch this new product.”
RZ Also, I wanna figure it out because we’re trying to do the same thing but we’re running like two hund—like every week, on Monday, I ask myself: which bowl of shit do I have to eat this week?
PF Yeah, meanwhile, Lammer over here is startin’ a weed podcast.
AL Well, here’s one thing: I’m gonna say this. I was never a never a professional in technology—like I didn’t intern at some tech company or something. This shit barely existed like when I was coming out of college, I worked at a book publisher. But when I actually had the experience of meeting Rich and working on some projects with him. We did a project called ReadList that was kind of a—[RZ kickass product, too] [PF yeah] I realized like in the terms of the modern world, what I do is product design.
PF Mm hmm. So you started in publishing.
AL I started in publishing but I’ve always worked on projects and the sort of like working on different angles a project . . . I think most closely maps to like what in technology is known as like a product manager or a product designer.
PF So you were the person who actually—I remember . . . when I was getting started, I figured that five years later people who were just a little younger than me would come up with the same set of skills and just kind of kick my ass but they never showed up. You’re actually one of them, like you [AL yes] —you’re like, “Oh hey, I know computers pretty good and I’m a pretty smart guy and I’m interested in publishing, why don’t I just put all of this together and get some stuff done?”
PF Well this is the bizarre set of skills that defines a product manager.
RZ Yeah and—and just to throw uh just to give a little more, to cast a little more light on Aaron’s sort of secret sauce: Aaron has that quality that many product managers actually aspire to have which is to have taste and to be somewhat empathetic with where this thing is gonna land, and who’s gonna use it, and how it’s gonna be useful to them. You have that antanae up that is wondering, “Well, wait a minute: I don’t think anybody’s gonna care about this.” And what happens for a lot of product managers is they get caught up inside the machine. They’re amazed at the gears that are turning [PF mm hmm] and they forget that this thing is gonna go live in the wild. And—and Aaron, I think, has that ability to constantly think about that side of it.
PF Now, Aaron, do you get dissatisfied with the product?
AL [Smacks lips] I just did like an interview yesterday with a guy who’s writing like a—like kind of like extensive like oral history kind of of this band I’ve been in since I was in college. And basically he kept being like, “Do you like any of the music—” Like every single record he would refer to, I’d be like, “Well that was a disaster, lemme like [PF mm hmm] let me tell you like why that came out so bad. I apologize for it.” So, no, I don’t generally end up very satisfied with anything but—
RZ It’s worth noting, the Longform app, which is excellent, by the way. It’s an iOS app—
AL Uh we just pulled it actually after four years.
PF It was. It was a good app.
RZ No, no, but you worked on that app [AL but you know why?] for like five and a half years—
AL —cuz it got rejected by Apple.
AL Uh they’ve changed their minds about that stuff and you’re not allowed to have third party—
RZ Cuz of their garbage News app?!?
AL You have to—you have to get a um a written, legal letter from every publication whose logo or articles [RZ gasps] are featured. I shouldn’t be talking—uh [stammers] it’s not just because of Apple but that is [RZ wow] —that was the end of the Longform app.
RZ That’s sad to hear.
AL You know, little, tiny product teams with no funding should not be making multi-platform apps.
PF No this is the tragedy [others laugh] cuz you can’t anymore. Ok so wait—
PF Let’s back things up [AL back things up] because we’ve been talking about a lot of different entities—So, first of all—
AL Yeah and we’re all over the place.
PF —what is Longform?
AL Longform was a site I started with Max Linsky in 2010. Um it right as the iPad came out, it was right as people started reading on their phones, and we saw this need which is like, “Oh you’ve got this e-reader in your pocket. But like what the hell do you read on it? Especially if you’re on the train. It’s like a New York problem.” Um so what we did was create a service where it was a curated list of articles that were very easy to save with Readability or Instapaper or Pocket or any of those things on your phone. We eventually cut out that middle man—
PF So it was a reader’s guide and then [AL yeah!] the app sort of embodied the reader’s guide.
RZ It was excellent. I mean it still is. It’s still around at longform.org.
RZ You can’t pull that.
AL And we got, on Twitter @longform, longform.org, but mostly I would say um the site is unchanged since 2010. We have a team of people who read the internet and pick three of four things everyday that’s like a powerful filter on the internet.
RZ That’s great.
PF How did it make money?
AL Um we’ve made money with site sponsorships. I mean we were early enough that our traffic is enough not like where startups are like envious of us, enough where it’s like you can make enough money to support two or three people which is kinda what it’s always been. Um the podcast we do is very successful and Max has been very effective at selling that.
PF That has sponsorship as well.
AL That’s the li—that’s the lion’s share of the income now is podcast sponsorship or like deals where someone will buy the podcast on the site or something like that.
PF So you created a kind of mini media empire by pointing at things and saying, “This is good.”
AL I think of it more of like a media small town, maybe a media hamlet or something like that [laughs, RZ laughs too].
PF It doesn’t have to be an empire. Like you don’t have to be sitting there with an orb on a stick going like, “I command all the Longform!”
AL Yeah, I think of us as more of like a—like a small tribe roaming the uh hills around the—
PF Hunter gatherers.
AL —the castle. But yeah. I’ve managed to not have like a nine to five job probably since I was like 25.
PF Ok. So that is a tricky thing to do . . . is to—not just to not have a nine to five job [AL yup] but to pull off, with a partner, a sort of sustainable lifestyle business out of good writing online.
AL And we’ve made a million missteps and like almost destroyed it many times [PF mm hmm] and we tried to raise money to make it not a lifestyle business and that was like maybe the biggest waste of my life [RZ laughs] —
PF Because no one would—[AL laughs] no one would give you money or what was the problem?
AL I mean I think if I had like . . . camped out in San Francisco on like a hostel bed for like six months [PF mm hmm], I would’ve eventually raised the money but it wasn’t that much money. It would’ve just allowed us to do the same thing for a year or whatever. I mean we basically just figured out how to make the app without money because we didn’t have money. Like I made a deal with the iOS developer for equity, basically, he ended up owning like 15 percent of the company for making the app. He put a lot of work into it. So I think there’s always a way.
PF And you’re happy with that outcome?
AL I love this outcome cuz I wanna write the site forever. If we had taken money from someone, we would’ve had to shut it down.
PF This is the thing, right? The minute—the minute you get that money, the odds that you’re going to have to send an Our Incredible Journey newsletter email, and meanwhile you have this thing, you have the—you have the site, you have the podcast [AL yeah], and you have a community.
AL It opens doors. I mean that was a stepping stone for Max to start Pineapple Media which is his company which produced Hillary Clinton’s podcast, uh Lena Dunham’s, they just did Missing Richard Simmons which was a huge hit [PF mm hmm]. I don’t know if like those doors are quite as open without this like one thing that people know about.
RZ Well it’s the indepence streak, right? [AL Yeah] Like you guys could’ve said, “Oh god, I’m tired. Time to go get the job.” [AL Yup] And you didn’t do it. And I have to respect that. Like you guys—as a fellow entrepreneur, I—I know what that—that sort of draw is to kinda continue to be left alone [laughs].
PF It’s tricky, right, though cuz it’s not in—
AL You’re—you’re kind of a like a tortured artist, Rich.
RZ Oh I’m a mess, dude! Every year I talk about how I’m just gonna [AL ever since I’ve known—] do is focus on my backyard.
AL Yeah, I um—
PF Rich likes to sell. He really likes—he likes [RZ laughs boisterously] a hustle.
AL I [stammers] respect that. And I also like I envy the hustle. Like I—I envy—like I think making money is fun. Like I am as excited sometimes by the sorta like success parts of it as I am by the—by the art which I’m usually dissatisfied by by the end.
PF And you went to—you kept good relationships going with authors and publishers and so you’re dealing, despite your independence streak here, you’re dealing with pretty big, enfranched [AL yes] organizations and being friendly and positive and getting them to sponsor your podcast and stuff like that.
AL Absolutely, absolutely.
RZ And that comes, I think, out of say—you know, everyone knowing that these guys stayed independent. They’re doing their thing, it’s small, but you know what? They stand behind and it’s not just—it’s not a cubicle, or three or four cubicles inside of the 43rd floor of some big media company. And I think when people talk to you, they want to connect to that, right? I think, you know, Pineapple is, I think, still independent enough—
AL Oh it’s totally independent.
RZ Right. Such that—I think it’s—right. So it’s attracting, you know, that kind of interest. I mean eventually you lose—like I think eventually you’ll become very successful and then nobody will like you anymore.
AL I’ve already—
RZ But for now [laughs boisterously].
AL I’ve already seen that happen. I mean I like I—my band was touring, opening for Chance the Rapper this year, like he was probably the most well known like hyper independent artist—
RZ We gotta into!
PF Well, yeah, let’s get to this—I just wanna—
RZ Hold on! [PF Hold on, hold on] He did it again! He just sort of casually went there as if, “Oh yeah, hey.”
PF Well, before we get to that, so—so lemme just close up Longform and I—
AL That’s actually appropriate cuz I don’t work with that much on Longform anymore, it’s a couple days a week. I’ve—we’ve both kind of back burnered it.
RZ It’s your baby though, you gave birth to it.
AL Yeah, it’s our baby—
PF It’s still a couple days a week—
AL It’s our calling card.
PF —it’s still the podcast, so you have a community around it [AL yeah]. You know there’s actually funny test for a lifestyle business which I think is key: can you throw a really good party out of it? At any good time? [AL Yes] And you can. [AL Yes] You can get a hundred people in a room with a little planning [AL yes] and they can have some drinks and go like, “Good job!” [AL Yes] And I feel that that is um—that—
AL We had a hundredth podcast party that was just only for guests on the podcasts, which I recommend you guys do when you get to 100.
PF Mm hmm.
AL It’s pretty fun. You put all the guests in one room. No one else.
RZ We’re at like 60-something, right?
PF Yeah. That’s a fun idea.
AL I mean it’s a hot ticket cuz you’re like—you know that like Michael Lewis and like David Grann have been invited, you can look and see who is coming.
PF Yeah I was—I don’t know if you invited me.
AL I did invite you, Paul—
PF Oh I didn’t go.
AL And you weren’t there.
PF I’m sorry [snickers].
RZ Well you definitely didn’t invite me! I’ll tell you that.
AL Paul was my like third guest on the podcast and I came home and my wife was like, “I don’t think audio’s for you. Paul’s great but [others laugh] you’re just a really bad interviewer.” [Laughs.]
PF What I remember—my kids were like two months old [AL yeah] and I remember doing that cuz I was so tired I was hallucinating [AL yeah]. So the whole podcast is just like, “I don’t even know what anything is about anymore [AL laughs].” It’s just me just like my mouth is opening and I can see the words like five feet away [others laughing] and like no clue, I just know I have to go home and nurse two babies.
AL My wife kept saying, “It doesn’t seem like you’re listening to what he’s saying, you just ask the question.” I was like, “How am I supposed read off the questions and listen to him at the same time?!?” So there is a learning curve to interviewing.
PF So 97 podcasts later—
AL Yeah. Here we are.
PF God I didn’t know I was the third. That’s funny.
PF Alright so, this is great. You got a nice thing that works well that promotes writers and helps them get more attention [AL mm hmm] and . . . there’s a little community around it and there are some people who make money from it. So that’s what the web was gonna be. That’s great. I like that that happened.
RZ Alright so for people who don’t know who Aaron is, the backdrop has been set, right? It’s sort of—we’re in upstate New York, there’s a lot of reading [AL yeah], a lot of tea, right?
PF You sit there—like once a year you’re like, “Should I grow a beard? I don’t know.”
RZ Yeah! “Should I grow a be—” And then you get into like growing herbs.
PF Well you buy an old Victorian house and you fix it up.
RZ Yeah! And it’s not—cuz it’s not about the money. You’re willing to go upstate enough [PF yeah] —so that it—“Of course I don’t commute. I read. And I go to the farmer’s market.”
PF And you kind of—you end up in a band.
RZ And to be—just to highlight: I mean Aaron is white. For people who don’t know what he looks like uh and—and—-
PF [Snickering] It’s gonna be a pretty big shocker to people who’ve been listening so far [others laugh].
RZ So far! Exactly. So we go out for drinks. I wanna—I wanna transition this way: we go out for drinks was it two, there months ago? Maybe four months ago . . . It’s Paul, Aaron, and myself. And we’re talking and Aaron casually . . . I forgot how it came up, I think we just ordered the second beer, and he goes, “Yeah, so, you know, I’ve been just—you know I just found out that it’s, you know, it’s just broke 15 million views. I just you know I co-wrote Kanye’s song.” [PF or AL snicker] And the way he said it, it made it sound like he was talking about he’s really looking to go to a writer’s retreat in Iowa but he’s not sure if he will. But it came it [PF no, that’s right] that he co-wrote Kanye’s song.
PF And we were just, literally before that the conversation had been: “I think I’m gonna have another Stella and then I should go home.”
RZ Yeah [airily laughs].
PF And then—and then—and then you dropped out that you’re writing songs for Kanye West.
RZ Now what—
AL Well, that—that social interaction has a similarity to a lot of social interactions in my life which is . . . people are like, “So how—how are you making a living? Like are you doing ok? [RZ what is that? Laughs boisterously] Do you have any food?”
PF Do you find it—do you find it a little—
AL “I can see that you’re eating well, so I’m not too worried.”
PF Do you find it a little awkward to admit you’re kind of entrepreneurial in certain crowds?
PF Yeah, right? I’m seeing this—this is—because you’re—
AL I run in different worlds.
PF You’re in a band called Francis and the Lights.
AL I am in a band called Francis and the—and the song that Rich is referring to is called “Friends,” it features uh Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, and uh Kanye West is in the video, and he’s also on another song on the album.
RZ Two really lame—I mean—who is that?
PF I’m sure—we should be chill because, you know, they might listen to this podcast.
RZ Oh yeah just in case [PF laughs boisterously]. Just in case.
PF Hey Bonnie!
RZ So you co-wrote the song?
AL Uh yeah, I mean, it was a song that—I mean Francis and the Lights has been a songwriting project that I’ve been doing with the singer, Francis, since we were in college. And this is just one of the, you know, hundred to 200 songs we’ve done but kind of with the last record it like . . . some big things started to happen.
PF Just everything started to lock together in a new way.
AL Yeah, it was like a—a confluence of factors. Francis had been working with Chance a lot and he did a lot of um the Surf, the album that um Donnie Trumpet did with Chance and his most recent album, Coloring Book, and we had done a song off of—Coloring Book has a song that’s actually a sample of “Friends” on it, called “Summer Friends” that was pretty successful. So there was a little bit of like an upward momentum.
PF Oh so literally you—you—Francis and the Lights was sampled.
AL The song “Summer Friends” is a sample of the song “Friends” except it came out before “Friends.”
PF Ok. So there’s a—there’s a lot of recombinant, weird musical DNA happening.
RZ But I imagine this all goes down in LA.
AL It’s all in LA, yeah.
RZ Ok. So what—you’re here thought the whole time.
AL I was going to LA a lot—
PF He’s wearing a Golden State Warriors cap.
RZ I just get—I imagine he—
AL I’m from Brooklyn.
PF Ooooh! K.
RZ I just imagine he found out about this while he was on his couch here.
AL That is actually . . . I came home and I saw that Chance’s album had come out and I sat through and listened to it, like I didn’t know if we had any music on it. Like the first time I heard it was like when it went up on iTunes.
RZ See this is—this is Aaron’s life. Right? This is how it goes.
PF This is a weird li—“Oh that happened. Ok. Oh! I guess I’m part of something huge now.”
RZ Yeah and ten minutes later he’s on Seamless web just ordering—
AL But I’ll say this, I’ll say this: this has happened to us before and it’s, you know, things go up and down. We had a song on the first Drake album [PF mm hmm], we toured with Drake, Drake’s first national tour, we were the opener for Drake.
AL So at the time me and you knew each other, I had already written a Drake song.
RZ You never mentioned it.
AL I probably did!
RZ I probably thought you were lying or—
AL I showed some of my—some of your employees figured out the name of the band and were like listening to it once. I remember that.
RZ I do remember that.
AL But it’s also like people—unless you say something like, “Oh like I have a video and Kanye West is in it,” if you say you’re like in a band and you’re 35, like [RZ yeah it’s not good] [PF no, they turn you away]. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I pity—it’s like please don’t tell me anymore about this.”
PF It’s like Lady Godiva goin’ through the town [RZ chuckling], everyone just like looks at the ground.
AL So I know you guys think I’m like playing this a certain way, but I’m also playing like against reactions. And even—that’s even true now where I won’t tell people that cuz people pity—it’s like an awkward interaction. Or I’ll say something like, “We were touring with Chance the Rapper,” and people will be like, “Who’s Chance the Rapper?” And I’m like, “Ok, well, like moving on with this conversation.” [Laughs.]
PF No, I get it. I tell people I’m a writer and they’re just like, “Oh no.”
AL “Yeah please—like oh yeah send me your novel. Thanks [sighs].”
PF It’s just like ok. You know—they just don’t believe. So Kanye—Kanye West obviously you guys aren’t like driving around together but [AL no] he’s a fan, right?
AL I mean Francis—Francis has relation—he became a fan like this year but he like—Francis did some work with him and I dunno he tweeted like that “Friends” was like the be—his favorite song of 2016 which like—
PF [Sighs] Nice.
RZ That’s crazy!
AL It’s a—it’s a real validation. Like [RZ that’s crazy] I don’t underplay it. Like I spent a lot of years not [RZ so here’s a question—] hearing that. And it feels great [laughs].
PF Yeah that’s pretty good.
RZ Here’s the difficult question: who pushes it out? The New Yorker pushes out a Longform piece on . . . it’s entitled, god, give me the title, Paul, “The Underbelly of Kanye West.”
PF Uh huh?
RZ Do you put it on Longform?
AL Uuuuh. Probably not. I mean unless it’s—how good—is it good? I don’t know.
PF Let’s say it’s a really good, 6000 word piece.
RZ Let’s say it’s good. [Inhales deeply with pursed lips] Oof.
AL Well there—there is actually a New Yorker story about Bon Iver that we appear in, so this actually has happened and I don’t think we posted it.
RZ You didn’t?!? [PF It’s ok] See, isn’t that fascinating?
PF No, I understand that.
RZ What’s wrong with Bon Iver?
AL I love Bon Iver.
RZ No, but what’s wrong with him?
AL Oh. I don’t know. Nothing. I think his album’s great. What? You didn’t like it?
RZ No, I did like it! I think there’s something wrong with him.
PF I actually really liked that album. It’s very—
RZ The new one?!
RZ It’s insane.
AL I think he’s a ge—I think he’s [PF It’s like he—] He’s probably the most talented person I’ve ever been in a room with.
PF It’s his OK Computer and [RZ He’s a genius.] we’re just not ready for OK Computers in our culture right now.
AL People are kinda catching uh—Like I’ve seen shows from right when it came out and shows now and it’s like—it’s—
RZ It’s badass.
PF It makes sense that it took a minute.
AL —it’s better after a year.
RZ It’s badass.
AL It’s like—it’s that kind of an album.
RZ Well that YouTube video of that Red Hook show.
AL We were at that Red—were you at that Red Hook show?
RZ No, no.
AL Oh we—we—uh Francis played “Friends” as the encore for that show.
RZ You’re kidding.
RZ Oh geez. See! This is gonna make me sick. It—
PF I’m sort of getting the pattern because the thing is it’s for us, it’s this hilarious series of grace notes [AL yes]. Like, “Oh lemme get another beer, I’ll tell you about how I played, you know, we did the encore for Bon Iver.” But what I’m getting is: “You know? I kind of have a lot of hustle going on. I do a lot of different things and, boy, is that complicated for civilians.”
AL Well, for one thing: I wasn’t on stage there. So the minute like that kind of a thing [PF yeah] comes up, you don’t wanna be like br—it’s kind of the same as like web projects [PF right]. It’s like no one cares like who made, it’s like be excited that people liked the project. I’m like in the background of the project, like I can tell you, specifically, that night which we played that Red Hook show, Francis was hired to do like a corporate Christmas party at [PJ mm hmm] —and I like tour ma—like sometimes tour manage him cuz like someone has to like be there to like collect the money, basically [PF mm hmm] and then we jumped in—we finished the show, like jumped in a cab, and I was like calling—Bon Iver’s manager had called me like seven times like, “Are you playing the encore or not?” [PF Yeah] And I was like, “We don’t know what time we get o—!!!” [RZ laughs] And we got in a cab, drove up, ran in, ran on stage. So for me that’s like a—kind of a weird work night. You know? It’s like exhilarating but it was also—we also almost missed it, you know? [PF Sure] For me that—the project has like both of those sides to it.
PF You’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s just every now and then it gets—it gets a huge boost—
RZ Flares up.
PF —and—and then for most of the time that you’re doing it, it’s this weird thing in the background of your life.
AL We also had no idea what we were doing for the first five to ten years of it. [PF Sure] None. Didn’t know how to record—
RZ Did you make some good money? Just getting into the mechanics of all of this?
AL Um it’s the first time where I feel like if the project continued at this pace, it could support Francis basically and, you know, some of that runs to me also [RZ got it] but um it’s not [RZ inaudible]. Well no, it’s interesting, it’s not startup money but it’s like—it’s like being a senior editor at a publishing house [RZ right], you know? It’s like it’s as much money as you’re gonna make in like a creative field [RZ yeah] but it’s not totally consistent.
PF And you can keep doing the work. That’s the nice part.
AL And there are weird like—we have a song in a—a different song of ours called “Seer Out” is like the song in the like Audi commercial in Germany [PF mm hmm] that’s like big now. So it’s like if a few of those things come in, basically like I just renovated my house on like a German Audi commercial.
RZ Nice! Nice!
AL That’s the only German Audi commercial we’ve ever had, so that may be the only time that ever happens.
PF You can’t count on it.
AL I can’t—you cannot count on it.
RZ No. You can’t.
PF I think the ones that are fascinating to me it’s like, you know, Moby, you know, going to open a sporting event in Spain, right? Like it’s just [AL laughs] there’s a kind of architecture for really, really famous musicians [AL yes] where they’re like, “We’re gonna need something really big here, and we can call one of these 25 people.” [AL Yes] But everybody else is just you’re gonna get to remodel your house. That’s nice [AL yes]. You get that—you get that room and that’s good and then it could be three years, starting today, where nothing happens.
AL The most lucrative probably way to make a living in it right now is like Francis is touring all of the like Coachella clones [PF right]. So there’s a huge industry of festivals now and they pay better than regular shows. They’re a little easier to do. You do one a week. That’s kind of how I could see how you can like live forever doing that if that industry—
RZ But you’re not touring.
AL I don’t usually tour. We used to tour with a band but we’ve playing shows like in more of a rap setup with just a laptop and a mic. And I did—we went on tour for uh nine weeks opening for Chance the Rapper, 9000 miles, like I think we did 36 shows in 42 days.
PF I see you still refer to him by his full name, Chance the Rapper [AL yeah]. You don’t just casually drop Chance in there.
AL I’d call him Chano if I was calling him [PF ok] one thing but yes.
RZ Alright so—
PF This is what Aaron does in addition to doing Longform.
RZ I think there’s more, Paul.
PF But wait there’s more!
AL But wait there’s more!
PF Let’s get into a third segment of the show where we talk about the fact [snickering] that you’ve started a new podcast.
AL Yeah and that’s the primary thing I’m doing right now, actually. Ignore everything else I’ve talked about on this show. Uh I have a show called Stoner [PF uh huh] that launched one month ago. It’s a show—like Longform is a show where I just like—you talk to writers. That’s like the whole show. This is a show where I talk to people about weed, um mostly creative, interesting people who maybe are outside of the quote/unquote “archetype” of what you imagine a person who likes weed is like. Um it’s—
RZ So my sense is: you smoke weed.
AL That—that’s true [PF ok]. And [stammers] I’ve become more comfortable—one of the things I’m conscious of in starting this show is that I’m—like people aren’t gonna be as comfortable as I am, so I have to be really comfortable. Being like, “Yeah, I smoke weed. I smoke a lot of weed.”
PF What’s a lot of weed?
AL I smoke weed pretty much everyday.
PF Everyday but what—like we’re in New York City, the weed that is here—
AL I don’t smoke a lot of weed compared to people in California who smoke [PF that’s the thing], I smoke a lot of weed for New York.
PF Ok that’s—
PF No, that’s an important boundary [AL yes]. You—you cannot smoke week with people in New Yor—in California safely if you’re a New Y—just a regular New York City civilian.
AL I had moments on that Chance tour where I was like—
PF Oh yeah. No.
AL “Wait a minute, [RZ laughs] I just walked on stage and I’m operating a laptop in front of 10,000 people.”
PF “Where are my legs?”
AL “I literally don’t know which button to hit,” [RZ laughs boisterously, AL laughs].
PF Yeah, oh yeah, yeah that’s not surprising to me.
RZ That’s great. Meanwhile it was one of his best performances!
AL That’s one of the highest pressure places to operate a computer is when it’s just got like a single like output to like a 40 foot speaker.
PF Ooooh yeah.
AL Sure. Sure, sure, sure.
RZ The eighth inch [laughing] it’s just a little eighth inch.
AL Yeah, it’s buzzing a little bit!
PF That’s great and you get that popup window like yeah Flux kicks in.
AL I saw every single thing that could go wrong on a laptop has occured to me [PF yeah] like in front of at least a thousand people.
PF That’s perfect.
RZ Alright, so you smoke a lot of weed.
AL I do smoke a lot of weed. Yeah. And that’s [stammers] something I’ve been worried about saying cuz I’m like, “Well, what if I have to go back and get a job and like my first [stammers] I’m SEO-ing smoke weed basically.”
RZ This is your brilliance!
PF Let—let me be clear here: that ship has sailed [others laugh boisterously], for better or for worse.
RZ Yeah, the window is closed.
PF I mean you’re gonna get—what you could end up is like Creative Director at a weird agency [AL yeah] like three to four years from now [AL yeah], you could like—there are jobs for the dude [RZ yeah] who did the three big things!
RZ Twice a week you just like—
AL My backup—my backup plan if like I told my wife, like, “If you have like triplets, I’m gonna try and get a job as a Product Manager for Rich.”
PF Yeah! [AL and RZ laugh] Oh yeah no, no, no.
RZ Utterly flattered.
PF That’s the thing like there’s ways for that—
AL I feel like Rich would let it fly—let it slide.
RZ I think you’re a very good Product Manager. All joking aside!
PF Dave Allen was the bassist for Gang of Four and ended up working at a branding agency for a long time and then um at Apple Music.
AL I—I have to be honest that like both advertising and like what you guys do which is product, I guess, are like appealing to me. And it does look fun to just blaze through projects and not like be so attached—like I ruin my life with every project I do [PF yeah, no, that’s the thing]. I like—there’s something—there’s something cool to me about just getting thrown prompts and then like—cuz that’s like what a lot of things I do in songwriting are like. Where it’s just like, “Alright, like here’s a demo for a song, let’s finish this together,” you know?
PF The key thing about our business is that over investing emotionally is actually a tremendous risk [AL mmm]. It represents risk to the business and to actually completing the product.
RZ Yeah, ship.
PF To ship according to the deadline and assume that, if all goes well, you will be able to iterate. But it is—it turns off that part of your brain [AL right]. You’re not allowed to freak out.
AL Yup. I think that would help me.
PF That’s good.
AL I’m—I get a lit—I can freak out.
PF It’s good. Well you still have things that you do freak out about but 80 percent of them you’re just like, “Alright, well we gotta get that done.” “Well it’s gonna be blah blah blah.” “Well, then we’re still gonna have to get it done.”
AL Right. That’s what Stoner’s like for me. And that’s why—I like I decided when I came out with it, I’m gonna come with a show every week for a year.
PF Mm hmm.
AL I’m not gonna like—if I have some bullshit and it sucks, I have to come out with it. So it is an exercise—I think that’s just sort of how to succeed in podcasting in general is like don’t be precious about it. Like you have to like go for it. Um but it goes against a lot of my creative instincts to have to like ship something once a week.
PF Nah, and the audience doesn’t care. They’re just like, “Hey, I got my thing,” they want the ritual.
RZ Oh yeah!
PF And they’re gonna let you—they’re gonna let you figure out. They know that you don’t really have it together yet [AL yes] and that’s ok.
AL I call that the Diet Coke effect.
PF What’s that?
AL Like if you like Diet Coke, you just want exactly a Diet Coke, you don’t want like a generic thing or like—
PF Oh you don’t want a—
AL Someone’s like, “Oh I have like a—”
PF RC Cola Free.
AL Yeah and you also don’t want like a fancy cocktail. You’re like, “Yo! My favorite drink is Diet Coke.” And that’s how I feel about audio shows. Like I just listened to Loveline uh on Alternative Rock Radio [PF mm hmm]. It’s a very specific formula, it’s exactly—
PF Who’s the woman from Loveline?
AL Uh it’s a guy: it’s Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla. Adam Carolla who went on, unsurprisingly, to be one of the most successful podcasters [RZ right]. It’s exactly the same every time. You could—like it puts my brain into this weird lull. And that’s what I want [PF sure] [RZ oh yeah], that’s what I seek from audio.
PF You know it’s funny the strangest people tell me they listen to podcasts. I have cousins who are not in technology [AL oh my god] and they say, “I love it. Every week. It’s, you know, I get my [stammers] Tuesday’s my pastrami lunch day and I—I listen to the podcast.”
AL I feel that way—that’s how I listen to Bill Simmons.
RZ It’s that routineness, right?
PF Mm hmm.
AL And I swear to god if you look at my brain it would look like I was sleeping while I’m listening to it.
PF Right, right [RZ and AL laugh].
AL I don’t even really watch that many sports. Like I am like lulled [PF no, Bill Simmons is your—] by people talking about sports.
PF Bill Simmons is your sports.
PF Alright, so, look: we’re talking about sports.
AL [Snickers] A topic we all clearly know a lot about.
PF But this is a podcast uh which I don’t really associate with sports, it’s—it’s about weed.
AL It is. Well [stammers] I think weed itself is a bit boring [PF yeah?]. Like I don’t think there’s that much—everyone you can tell your weed story and that’s—
PF Not to people who smoke it though. A lot. It’s not boring to them. They wanna talk about that all day long.
RZ They love talking about it.
PF Oh my god.
AL Well I’m creating a forum for that. Well, ok, I agree with you that there is a weird interest in weed. Like when you look at Viceland launched and like what’s the biggest show? Weediquette. Like there is a very [PF right] strong consumer interest.
PF How many people smoke marijuana [sic] in America?
AL People say as high as like a quarter to a third.
RZ I’d say even higher than that.
AL Yeah. A quarter to a third admit to smoking marijuana [sic].
RZ Yeah I’d say more than that.
PF Alright so we’re looking at somewhere between like 50 to a hundred million people—
AL Very big market.
PF —occasionally will smoke up, or more than occasionally.
AL Mm hmm. And only going up as legalization allows more and more people to try it.
PF I’m crafting the PowerPoint deck in my head [AL snickers] for the stoner media plan.
RZ But I think—I think you’re right: I think there is a growing cultural interest in this—what’s been so far a very, private [AL absolutely], latent phenomena.
PF Alright so we started a podcast to promote our company [AL mm hmm] um which meant that we hired some people to help us from time to time and we—not just time to time, they help us every week, um Elizabeth and Tom, and we record it, and it goes out through the various podcast networks, and eventually people hear it, and kinda come back and get in touch with us. But what you did is a little different which is you’re starting a kind of a platform here, you’re gonna want sponsors, you’re gonna want, you know, a more kind of elevated, traditional media product. So what did you do to get started?
AL [Smacks lips] I decided to make a podcast because I thought it was the way that I could most intimately reach the people that I was trying to reach for the lowest barrier to entry with a property that they would be able to follow over the years. So I think weed is still like rolling across the country, um—
PF That’s so interesting, you’re not saying, “Oh my god, I believe very strongly in every aspect about weed culture and I need to communicate about it.” You are saying, “I wanna do something that’s gonna last for awhile and I wanna build something that’s kinda meaningful that people will have a relationship with, and one of the subjects that really makes sense there is weed.”
AL I think so. I mean, you know, I believe in technology about like doing something that no one else is doing [PF mm hmm]. The easiest way to succeed is to like fill a hole, and I looked, and I was like, “Look: if there was a great show out there, I wouldn’t do it.” And I did look and I saw that there are these sites. Like there’s Snoop Dog’s site, Mary Jane, High Times still exists. There’s people pumping out low quality like weed news, like everything you do in a media company—
PF If you were gonna tell me that there is a lot of low quality weed content, I wouldn’t [RZ yeah] be very surprised.
AL Ok so like knowing that [RZ chuckles], I’m like looking at the landscape, I’m going like, “Well people—how much weed do people really want?” They don’t want like . . . if you’re into weed you’re not like—it’s not like sports, it’s like, “All weed! All the time!” Like [PF that’s right] I’m trying to appeal to someone, maybe someone in your thirties, you smoked some in college, you’re living in Seattle, Washington, it goes legal again. You’re like, “Heh you know what? I kinda enjoyed smoking weed when I was in college. [PF] I’m gonna go check it out again!” You’re like, “Holy shit! I have no idea what the [beep] I’m doing!”
PF “This used to help with my period cramps.”
AL “I’m at a like dispensary and there’s like 900 options,” and I don’t think my goal is just like to tell you what weed to buy, I think it’s more to create a community amongst people like yourself, so you’re like, “Oh there’s this other 30-year-old guy who’s like having a similar experience, maybe he like—” The guy who writes for some TV show and now you’re like . . . kind of bonding. Cuz I thought—
PF So interesting, you were—in the back of your head you were like, “Hey, maybe I’ll do like the Wirecutter of weed for a minute.”
AL A little bit.
AL I think that’s actually—I would say that’s still in play.
PF Ok so there is a sense of like, “I’m gonna create really good content, a little bit of culture here, but also, eventually, people are gonna get a buyer’s guide.”
AL I think that would be the logical next step. Yeah. Like I don’t wanna be on the daily publishing cycle but would like to be on the like “The Stoner Guide to Denver”, or “The Stoner Guide to What to Buy Stoner Dads This Christmas.”
PF I’ll tell you what, Aaron, I’m [RZ laughs] concerned the affiliate revenue model that your—your major providers aren’t gonna set up a really good, robust affiliate network.
AL And that’s why there isn’t a lot of weed media right now is there’s not a lot of ad dollars and there’s not a lot of affiliate dollars. So, for me, that means like keeping it lean now, not really expecting to make money out of the gate. I think some of that stuff will come.
RZ Oh well there’s a movement going on, right?
RZ There is a movement and it’s—it’s slowly drifting into the mainstream.
PF Yeah but it’s not like Amazon where you can set up your week links with an ‘x’ at the end.
RZ No, no.
AL Right, but if it was really easy there would be a hundred people trying to do it [PF ok]. My strategy is to try to do it . . . early and like hope that everything else sort of catches up [RZ yeah]. Because the fact that there isn’t—Amazon doesn’t sell weed stuff is actually a blessing [PF sure]. I wouldn’t wanna get involved in any kind of ecommerce except maybe something like weed where there isn’t an entrenched Amazon [inaudible].
RZ Also, weed culture’s fi—I mean I don’t—I don’t smoke weed . . . for medical reasons but I love watching people who smoke weed.
AL Depending on where you put the comma in that statement it would mean different things.
RZ Yeah I know. We’ll leave it hanging.
AL You said—
RZ “For medical reasons I love watching people who smoke weed.” Like the, and this is a worthwhile plug, the—the Action Bronson show on Viceland where he just—him and his buddies just sit there and they watch like History Channel.
PF He’s a remarkable talent.
RZ He’s a remarkable talent.
PF He’s also kind of—he’s a good rapper about lunch meat [RZ yeah] and he’s got a lot going on.
RZ And he ain’t no dummy but the whole—you know the whole kinda angle, I mean there was a—a spike way back when everybody wanted to watch Cheech and Chong and they weren’t necessarily, you know, people who smoked weed—
PF Well it’s funny watching people [RZ it’s just funny] that actively dumb.
RZ It’s just funny.
PF I mean here’s this [stammers] —a chubby Albanian guy singing about prosciutto and then he just smokes himself into oblivion and talks about aliens [RZ right]. That—that’s entertaining.
RZ It’s entertaining.
AL I think—
RZ I don’t think you’re aiming for that.
AL —you guys are identifying the right idea which is that stoner culture is a lot more than like an herbal plant that gets you high.
AL Stoner culture is deeply embedded in the internet. In fact, like if you look at like what the precedents for a lot of like meme viral kind of culture is [PF mm hmm], like stoner humor is very—
RZ It’s right there. Yeah.
AL —very overlappy.
PF That’s true the really dumb stuff like even “I can has cheezburger” has a stoner vibe to it [AL yes] if you look at it from ten degrees to the left.
RZ Exactly, exactly.
AL And—and I think that all of that stuff—there’s some sort of an overall . . . remember when we used to say like America was like 300 personality types or whatever? I think like people who like weed are like one of them now [PF mm hmm]. So my goal is to unite all those people with a like smart, cool show that people will get into and find people who are like themselves, and they’re from all walks of life. Like I mean one of the other big parts I want the show to be is show that like lots of different people smoke weed now: older people, younger people, people of different races, et cetera, and I think that when you’re not like a white guy who’s into jam bands [PF mm hmm] and you like weed, you might feel like there aren’t other people like you who also like weed and maybe the show would change your mind about that.
PF Where is this a couple years from now? Am I at the “Stoner Weed Fest”? Upstate? What am I doing?
AL I’d like to keep like—I’d like to keep it cool [PF mm hmm] and I’d like to keep it focused on what’s useful, like what Rich said which was a great compliment to me earlier about product design is I think a lot about like how people are actually gonna receive something. And I don’t wanna be like jammin’ your inbox with content and stuff!!! Like I could see it much more like—
PF “Hey, millennials!!”
AL Yeah. Like [PF yeah] to me, I don’t know, like I’ve seen some people who are able to maintain things that—that build a large audience but still feel personal and intimate [PF mm hmm] and, yeah, I’d like to make money on it but—and I’d like to do more things but I’d like to still feel like a little like little project like that.
PF Alright so if people wanna listen to Stoner, the podcast, what do they do?
AL You pretty much just search ‘Stoner’ in the podcast store of your choice. You can’t really tell about how to tell people how to listen to a podcast which is a problem, I think.
PF [Lamentingly] Yeah, it is a problem. So wha—
AL Uh it’s in iTunes! You can listen to it. It’s in, you know, Stitcher, Overcast, wherever you listen to podcasts. Stoner.co, you can listen to it on the web. It’s on Soundcloud.
RZ It’s funny you have to put it in 28 different places to [inaudible].
PF That’s—that’s podcasts today. It’s a distributed platform that doesn’t really work.
AL It was very unclear once I started a podcast: should I even have a website? Like [PF yeah] should a podcast in 2017 have a website?
PF Are you—what’s it like finding sponsors for something that promotes semi legal behavior?
AL Um. I’ve had interest already but I haven’t like signed any—it hasn’t happened exactly yet.
AL Um a lot of the problem is that it’s—like podcast sponsorship is national and there is completely different markets for weed stuff in different states.
PF and RZ Mmm.
AL So a lot of what I’m waiting for is for like a national unified market which would allow someone to be like . . .
PF Yeah, but what about—
AL —the Blue Apron of weed or . . .
PF Or maybe—maybe like corn chips.
AL I mean I do think like there’s no reason that someone like—
PF Oh Doritos should be all over you.
AL Yeah or someone like—I don’t think there’s any reason like someone like MailChimp should be like, “We don’t care about like—” It’s like, why not? Like what are these people like trash because they like smoke weed, you know? [Chuckling] Like the people [RZ laughing] who listen to the show are like people who do creative stuff, and internet stuff, and art and stuff.
RZ MailChimp, possibly. Squarespace.
AL You’re—you think it’s a push?
RZ No, it’s—
PF I dunno Squarespace did that like Jeff Bridges Sleeping [RZ yeah]. That clearly was weed-inflicted [RZ laughs].
AL Everybody piled on—like the four-twenty pile on this year was immense [PF yeah]. Like the brands piled on four-twenty pretty shamelessly—
PF Oh all over Twitter, right?!
AL Yes. Everywhere!
PF Everyone’s just like, “Hey, it’s 4/20!” [AL Yes] I’m like, “Oh thanks, Central Intelligence Agency.” [Others laugh] Ah natio—-yeah that was—that was exciting.
AL I mean I would like to have been in some of those like social media consultant meetings where they were like, “We’re doing four-twenty this year. Postmates [PF yeah] is doing four-twenty this year.”
PF We gotta—[chuckles] we gotta get the teams [AL chuckles]. Um alright so you’ve got Longform still going—
AL Longform’s still going. Going strong!
PF Preserving longform journalism for the internet, keepin’ it—keepin’ it well read.
AL I think no one cares anymore and that’s actually the be—the best place. No one’s trying to save journalism or promote longform journalism anymore, it’s just like some people like to read articles [PF like to read some stuff]. It’s kind of come full circle. [PF Yeah] Magazines! They have articles in them.
PF That’s cool. We wanna keep that going.
AL That’s—that’s what it was all about from the beginning.
PF And then uh Francis and the Lights, check them out.
AL Yeah! @andthelights on Twitter, on tour this summer, lots of festivals. If you happen to like be going to like a festival in Alabama, we’re probably playing at it.
PF And if you’re in the market for a deeply weed-inflected podcast—
AL I have a specific pitch there, actually! Which is: ok, so you don’t—you don’t smoke weed.
PF He’s pointing to Rich.
AL Rich does not enjoy weed. Paul has not commented. I ask you both, and I ask everyone who’s hearing this: like you have a friend who this podcast would be perfect for. Do that friend a favor and tell them about the podcast. Like, I know not everyone wants to smoke weed, and I don’t encourage everyone to smoke weed, but I think that there’s someone in everyone’s life who would enjoy the podcast and since it is like a kind of a weird taboo topic maybe only their close friends know that they really like weed. Tell your close friend who likes weed.
PF Alright. So send an—send an email or a DM and say [AL yes!], “Heard this, thought of you.”
AL Exact—that’s exactly right! [RZ laughs] We’ll put a pre populated tweet into the email.
RZ There we go.
PF So, Aaron Lammer, thank you!
AL Thank you guys! This is great!
RZ Great seeing you, man.
AL I love your show!
RZ Ah thank you!
PF Aww that’s really kind of you.
AL It’s really incredible that um you guys like do this while you do like a job.
PF Well [RZ laughs], that’s a good point.
RZ Uh fair [laughs with AL].
PF [Music fades in] Alright, so people should know they’ve been listening to Track Changes, a podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. What else should they know?
RZ Uh talk to us! We’ve actually got a nice backlog of—of emails. But keep emailing us.
RZ That’s right. And we’ll answer questions, and give us comments, sometimes—sometimes people just say, “Had a thought. I don’t have a question but I had a thought,” and some of the thoughts are really good so.
PF We like thoughts and we’re out there listening: anything you need [RZ yeah], you just let us know. Give us a good rating on iTunes, if it behooves you to do so [RZ yeah]. No pressure. Aaaaand we better get back to work.
RZ See you next week!
AL and PF Bye. [Music ramps up, continues for nine seconds, fades out to end.]