Looking back at the past year, it’s reasonable to conclude that Spotify has been successful in controlling its narrative for the most part. Since the Hollywood Reporter dropped that big cover story last November, the company has progressively ramped up the pace of its announcements, whether it was of the dry-but-whoa technical variety (Streaming Ad Insertion, Video, and so on) or of the overtly sexier talent deal variety (Higher Ground, Joe Rogan, Warner Bros). The onset of the pandemic slowed the narrative down a bit, but as we crawl towards the end of summer, it genuinely feels like we’re coming out of a stretch where there was a new Spotify headline popping out every other week.
This press strategy has a “flood the zone” feel, notable for both its ability to create a sense of momentum and its capability, through sheer volume, of drowning out emerging lines of skepticism. There’s always something new coming from Spotify, and that relentless newness has a tendency to crowd out or simply out-date criticism.
Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been any noteworthy dissent. Back in February, the antitrust scholar Matt Stoller penned a strong critique of Spotify in his newsletter, Big, where he sought to illustrate the parallel between Spotify’s efforts in podcasting and what Google did to the web. As strong as that argument was, however, it didn’t really seem to break through. One could perhaps fault it to be too technical or too academic, but either way, when that piece first dropped, I thought I’d be hearing about it more often, but to this date, I simply haven’t.
As with matters of political opinion, what’s typically required to drive attention — and swing sentiment — is a sense of spectacle, and last week, we seem to have gotten our very first bona fide spectacle of the Spotify-critical sort, courtesy of the former rapper-turned-media personality Joe Budden.
Last Wednesday, The Joe Budden Podcast, which has the distinction of being one of the first podcasts that signed an exclusive deal with Spotify, dropped an episode containing an extended segment in which Budden vociferously expressed frustration at being, in his telling, wildly undervalued and exploited by Spotify. A veteran of the music industry, Budden proceeded to characterize Spotify as essentially replicating the old power positions of music and the music industry within the podcast context. He framed the story as one where the company was pillaging his audience, evoked a long history of black artists being exploited by (largely white-owned) corporate powers, and accused Spotify of aggressively rendering podcasts as disposable commodities meant to feed its aspirations towards platform monopoly.
“Everybody’s not looking to feed the soil, some are just looking to take the fruit,” he said, building up to the newsworthy hook of the segment: now that his contract with Spotify was coming to an end, Budden declared that he’s all but certain to pull the show off the platform and reject any renewal deal. The gambit was effective as a spectacle, driving a torrent of headlines the next day.
(Some context: Budden’s deal with Spotify was originally signed in mid-2018, shortly before the Swedish streaming platform would embark on its massive podcast efforts. In Budden’s telling, the success of his podcast on Spotify is a big part of what pushed the platform into its current direction, informing what would be the spendy acquisitions of Gimlet Media and Anchor in early 2019 along with everything that came after that. A report in The Information from March supports this reading, noting that the deal brought “hundreds of thousands of new subscribers to Spotify,” and that it was so successful such that CEO Daniel Ek would tell his executives: “Let’s do 1,000 of these.”)
There’s quite a bit more to the specific Budden story, filled with peculiar and ornate details, and though I’ll keep things moving for the sake of efficiency, I’ll say that you don’t have to click around too much to find summaries of it in case you don’t want to spend two hours listening to the actual episode — here’s Vulture, The Verge, Bloomberg, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Complex, the LA Times, Pitchfork, and HotNewHipHop. (Did I mention it drove headlines?)
Of course, there’s a valid interpretation of this story that principally views it as an effort by Budden to publicly increase his leverage over Spotify in the on-going negotiation over his deal. (Over email, a curious observer compared the situation to a feat of professional wrestling.) While that’s probably true — and while there are other aspects of the Budden segment that could warrant its own scrutiny and skepticism — that still doesn’t necessarily invalidate the criticism he’s laid out.
Indeed, it’s a strain of criticism about Spotify that’s already present among a decent swathe of the podcast community. Based on many, many, many conversations over the months, I can attest that there are many, many, many podcast creators who feel anxiety over (and frustration with) Spotify potentially doing unto on-demand audio what YouTube has done to online video… even if those anxious creators themselves continue to do business with the platform. They don’t typically voice their anxieties in public because they do business with Spotify, but it’s an anxiety and a feeling that’s nevertheless very much present at scale.
The thing I’m wondering is whether this Budden situation actually opens the door for more talent — big and small — to join this public dissent with respect to Spotify. It may very well not, and this story could very well end with Budden signing a souped up deal with Spotify, or with him taking his show elsewhere and us never hearing about this again.
Still, the possibility is interesting. Meanwhile, Spotify presses on, ramping up its dealmaking with influencers and celebrities, bolstered by rumors of offering a seven-figure development deal with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.