The year was 1996.
Before a packed stadium in Mumbai of over 70,000 people, the world's biggest star - Michael Jackson, descended in a dramatic helicopter entrance before legions of adoring fans and performed in India for the very first time. To many here, English music was Michael Jackson, and he was here, live, in all his glory. There were no laws about decibel levels that night, and as the air echoed and thundered with some of the greatest pop hits of all time, both people and policemen sang and danced in the streets across the city for miles. The atmosphere was electric. You had to be there, and just like that, one day later it was all over.
All of 11 years old at the time, I was among the fortunate few to have dial-up access to the internet. It wasn’t long after the concert, still hyped by the experience, that I discovered the early days of Internet radio, pioneered by a program called "RealAudio Player" which broadcasted live music from a few radio stations in the USA, right into my home. People would come over and we would listen to some of our favourite artists talking to radio hosts and promoting their latest hits. Things were unusually tumultuous in our country at the time. Multiple governments had collapsed, the Prime Minister had allegedly been hoodwinked by his astrologer, words like "hawala" were all over the news, and mysterious caches of military weapons were being dropped from the sky. Against this backdrop of an absurd reality, listening to our favourite artists live from halfway around the world was a small taste of progress in what seemed like a nation gone mad, and a little bit of hope for what tomorrow might bring.
The year is now 2021
Towards the end of this April my team and I launched Mentza - a platform for 20 minute recorded live audio conversations. In our first 100 days, we've run experiments of all kinds to immerse ourselves in the social audio space to test some of our hypotheses about the format and the nature of the medium. Since my last post, our userbase and platform content has grown by a factor of 10, and we've rolled out an assortment of feature improvements to optimize the core experience.
In an otherwise crowded space of "social audio", Mentza is an opinionated take on the medium, and stands alone in its core vision - to use the medium as a means of enabling personal and professional growth through recorded 20-minute live audio conversations, either expert-led or peer-to-peer in nature. Unlike the Silicon Valley giants toying with the medium by incorporating it as a feature, or social audio backed by the financial and networking muscle of enormous venture capital groups - Mentza is both bootstrapped and novel in what we're aiming to achieve. To that end, our experimentation mindset and design thinking have helped us refine what seems to work well and what doesn't, constrained by the realities of startup dynamics.
As a result of this stance, we can leverage our approach to the medium in several pioneering ways. For example, last month, we launched the world's first and only "Audio Portfolio" - a collection of every conversation on Mentza, and the easiest way for anyone to build a portfolio that catalogues their interests, perspectives, and expertise - by simply joining a circle and having a conversation. Over time, with transcription, analysis and profiling, we see the potential for a next-generation résumé that is a comprehensive representation of a prospective candidate's potential, far beyond mere credentialism.
To further showcase and validate the potential of the format and medium, alongside our daily fare of community-initiated circles on a wide spread of topics, we've curated some handpicked experiences for our userbase through various collaborations. Last week, Shweta Shalini, a spokesperson from our ruling political party discussed her unique journey into the world of politics from her background as an entrepreneur, highlighting her perspective on pursuing a career in government. The week prior, we were joined by a former election commissioner of India, Ashok Lavasa, who talked about the chronicling of his father's life and experiences and their impact on his own moral compass, in his newly released book.
Our listener chat feature came in handy when I was able to ask standup comedian Neeti Palta about her perspective on the culture of creeping political correctness and its impact on a professional standup comedian. I also had a short-lived career pretending to be a famous quizmaster, in a series of experiments around the feasibility of an open quiz contest using the 20-minute live audio format.
Unlike the open-ended nature of other mainstream social audio platform implementations, the finite length nature of the Mentza format initially and unintuitively comes off to many as constrained and limiting, but has always been validated after having experienced it first-hand. Coupled with the fact that all conversations are recorded, curating some of these experiences has also helped us showcase the potential of the concept, platform, technology, and the medium to our userbase.
One of the most interesting experiences for my own personal growth and reflection, as I've been building and growing our product, has, however, come from the unlikeliest of all places.
For the past month, every weekend, in collaboration with "Blue City Walks", Mentza has hosted traditional folk musicians from far-flung villages in the heart of Rajasthan. Over the course of two circles every weekend, during a reprieve from the mainstay content of the week, I've had the opportunity to listen to folk artists in remote parts of the country talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated their lives and livelihoods, and narrate their role in the continuity of a traditional art-form that dates back several hundred years. Through a mix of performative and narrative interactions, these artists have revealed a long and rich legacy that has been passed down within their families, generation after generation.
Had it not been for the rich oral tradition in Greece, the Iliad and the Odyssey would have been lost to time, forever. In the 21st century, without the means to convert their music into a sustainable livelihood, the legacy of Rajasthani folk music, dating back hundreds of years, hangs precariously from a thread, one generation away from being lost forever. It is an art form without a published curriculum or a trinity school, surviving only by its living heritage, passed down from generation to generation, at risk of reaching its end if future generations are forced to forsake their legacy, and pursue gainful employment instead.
And so in the year 2021, just as it was 25 years ago, during an unusually tumultuous time in the world, every weekend for the past few weeks I’ve found myself spending a little bit of my weekend listening to music over the Internet. This time, not from a first-world radio studio with Elton John or Michael Jackson, but from a folk artist on the edge of the desert singing into his cellphone, who broadened my perspectives by sharing his story. The technological marvel that made us dream of a future filled with possibilities, has finally taken shape. Unlike the elaborate, complex, choreographed live broadcasting setups for video that are constrained by bandwidth and equipment, the capacity to stream live audio from one part of the world to the other has existed since the days of dial-up, as it did in this very room 25 years ago when I first experienced it. It continues to fill me with hope of what tomorrow might bring.