Issue 236,  published November 26, 2019

Double Feature

We’re not doing our year-in-review issue for a few more weeks, but I’ll go ahead with a pre-emptive and say that there’s probably no image more representative of the past year in podcasting than this diptych:

Podcasting gracing the covers of the two major Hollywood trades (that still do print, anyway), spaced a few months apart, collectively embodying many of the year’s big industry themes: Spotify’s busy attempt to push their way to the front of the line, increasing interest in the category by the broader entertainment ecosystem, and a seeming West Coast-swing of podcast business activity. What a peculiar year it’s been.

Anyway, The Hollywood Reporter’s cover story is the news peg here. Published last Wednesday and written by Natalie Jarvey, it does a pretty good job knitting together the disparate piece-meal developments we’ve seen trickling out of Spotify since their big coming out party with the acquisition bonanza back in February: the Obamas signing, the exclusives push, the celebrity courting, and so on. The piece also has a string of incremental new information, including the launch line-up for the months to come, which I’ll leave you to browse for yourself.

But the thing I’d like to highlight here is how Spotify, via the cover story, seems to be publicly framing its strategic pillars around the twin approaches of (a) building out a robust portfolio of exclusives and (b) developing a deep pipeline of projects headlined by head-turning talent. Setting aside the fact that both pillars are notorious causes of anxiety for large swathes of the broader podcast ecosystem — in particular, for independents and the open publishing-inclined — I’m struck by how those two approaches are chiefly oriented around the top-of-the-funnel, i.e. they are principally mechanisms to get people to try out Spotify for podcast consumption. That’s only half the battle, of course, as you’d need to give adequate reasons for those people to stay, especially if the overarching reality is that the consumer always has the option to switch away to a third-party podcast app, or back to Apple Podcasts.

Which is why I’d probably place a little more weight on a few other aspects of Spotify’s podcasting gambit when thinking through the likelihood of the company actually pulling off this big push into podcast/talk audio distribution. Those aspects would include: its handling of bringing the wider universe of on-demand audio publishers onto the platform and keeping them there, partly through the provision of better analytics (and future monetization features, probably); the various experiments around the user experience and curation products like Your Daily Podcasts, which gives users more of a reason to stay; and a bigger push towards non-American markets, which Spotify seems uniquely able to do in a way that’s coherent to its core businesses. Those are decidedly less sexy elements than exclusive content and Hollywood talent, but as an integrated bundle of executive focus, they feel substantially more compelling as closers.

Now, no discussion of Spotify would be complete without the requisite mention of Apple, the podcast distributor against which the Swedish streaming platform has to define itself by default. A reminder that the big rumor with Cupertino is a suspicion that they’re thinking about producing ~Original Podcast Content~ of their own, a thread that dates back to a Bloomberg report from July. But the thing about that rumor is that, even if it’s true, there remains a considerable list of execution-level questions to be answered — and the list grows ever longer with each new detail laid out by Spotify in its push for podcasting prowess. Financing original podcasts is one thing; financing certain kinds of podcasts at the spending level that Spotify is exhibiting is another.

Other Apple-related stories of note…

  • From TechCrunch, writing up a recent report from Sensor Tower: “The top 1% of App Store publishers drive 80% of new downloads.” Sounds familiar, eh?

  • From AppleInsider: “Apple pulls all customer reviews from online Apple Store.”