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Apple Podcast Subscriptions officially launch today, after brief delay

It hasn’t been the smoothest rollout for Apple’s highly anticipated push into the provision of paid podcast tools, which the company originally announced with much pomp and circumstance — “Apple leads the next chapter of podcasting with Apple Podcasts Subscriptions,” declared the official press release — on April 20.

The iOS 14.5 update, released shortly after the Subscriptions press push, ended up injecting an unsettling amount of instability into the Apple Podcasts infrastructure. Users encountered a sharp uptick in bugs and brand-new user experience frictions, partially documented by MacRumors here, while more than a few podcast publishers reported experiencing what can be described as alarmingly fundamental problems releasing new content over the platform

Those publisher-side issues appear to have largely tapered off over the past few weeks (though, not completely), presumably due to fixes contained in a subsequent update that was released in late May. The user-side experience, however, seem to have gotten considerably worse, in that updates to the Apple Podcasts app specifically has made the thing more frustrating than it already is. (Fast Company’s Joe Berkowitz puts this to words better than I could — seriously, what the hell.) Then, a few days after that rollout, the company sent podcast creators an email announcing that it was pushing back the release of its Subscriptions features to June 15. (Apple had initially provided a vague release date for Subscriptions, with its April press release simply pegging the timeline to “next month.”)

So, yeah, like I said, not the smoothest rollout, but in any case, we’re finally here, at long last, on the day of Apple leading the podcast world into what is supposedly its next chapter — though, of course, a reminder that the concept of paid podcasting is far from a new phenomenon. Unless there are other big changes, we should see Apple post an update around this official roll-out on its press site in a few hours.

A few establishing notes at this point. To begin with, I’d like to reiterate my moderate skepticism on the potential value and impact of Apple Podcasts Subscriptions. The 30% first-year cut (which drops down to 15% from the second year onward) strikes me as being too steep for most podcast creators that aren’t already large publishers, especially when combined with the fact that its facilitated subscriptions are only limited to Apple platforms. That limitation is key to consider, because if you’re a publisher with a direct-revenue business model that intends to use Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, you’re going to have to double your workflow in order to manage an additional subscription channel using an alternative tool (say, Spotify, Patreon, or Supporting Cast) to serve non-Apple users. That’s fine if you have a decently sized staff able to handle that additional work, but it could be an intolerable pain if you’re a solo operator or a small team that’s already stretched thin to simply get episodes out the door. Indeed, smaller operations are presumably better off sticking to an alternative platform that’s already capable of serving both Apple and non-Apple users within the same technical context (like… well, Spotify, Patreon, or Supporting Cast). To extrapolate: Apple Podcasts Subscriptions strikes me as being more beneficial for larger publishers than smaller publishers, bringing to mind a possible future in which the tool drives greater differences between the haves and the have-nots of the podcast business. 

In theory, what Apple offers with its Podcast Subscriptions product is the upside of leveraging the combination of the company’s locked-in user base and superior user experience to drive more paid subscriber conversions. After all, there’s a huge portion of Apple-using people who already have a credit card saved in their Apple account profiles, and all they’d need to do is tap a button in order to become a paid subscriber to a podcast using Apple’s tools.

There is, of course, a broader contextual point to clock about this state of affairs: Some could argue that Apple’s superior user experience comes as a direct result of the platform structurally dampening the experience of competing alternatives. Consider, for example, the case of Spotify’s own recently launched podcast subscriptions tool, where potential paid subscribers are pushed to a webpage outside of the Spotify app in order to enter and complete their payments. It’s a real hassle. Now, I’m in no position to unpack the fight and fairness of these platform dynamics, as this is a much larger story that will continue to be played out for who knows how long, but I just felt it prudent to point out.

I also think it’s worth, at this juncture, evoking the concept that there are different kinds of paid subscribers, and that the ease of Apple Podcasts Subscriptions’ payments experience could very well contribute to the expansion of a specific type of paid podcast subscriber: namely, casual ones. This would be a positive development, certainly, but one that should be appraised with some nuance. Think, for a moment, about the kind of person who would muscle their way through the relatively convoluted frictions of becoming a paid subscriber to a podcast over, say, Patreon, and then compare them to the kind of person who only became a paid subscriber because it’s easier to do so. These two types of paid subscribers carry two different kinds of longer-term value; maybe they should be identified separately, and served differently as an extension of that.

Last thing. Separate and apart from my moderate skepticism about this Apple Podcasts Subscriptions push, I find the manner in which the company has handled the disruptions of the past few weeks to be genuinely unsettling. Beyond the instabilities and usability problems themselves, what frustrated many podcast publishers (and myself, watching from afar) about this stretch has been the company’s poor communication with the podcast-publishing community in the midst of this infrastructural turmoil. A common complaint that came bundled with the tips on Apple Podcasts problems flowing into my inbox was the charge that the company’s publisher-support systems were painfully slow and obtuse relative to other platforms. This does not breed confidence, let alone faith, and I suspect it puts podcast creators in an incredibly difficult position. I get the sense that the current state of the podcast ecosystem doesn’t yet feel like a situation where Spotify truly exists as a real counterbalancing second option for publishers — so long as Apple owns the phones, and so long as Spotify gleefully blurs the lines between publisher and distributor — which means that the health of most podcast publishers are still always going to be beholden to Apple’s choices and slip-ups in one form or another. This state of affairs, furthermore, is made even worse by the fact that, despite the uptick in Apple’s activities around podcasting, it still feels like the company as a whole continues to not take seriously the needs and potential of the ecosystem that it has inadvertently fostered over the past decade, as partly evidenced by the Apple Podcasts app’s recent sharp drop in basic usability. As far as podcasts are concerned, this simply doesn’t seem like a company that’s really listening.