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Insider: August 27, 2020

Spotify/Budden The Distraction... and more!

L’affaire Budden. Reaaaally head-turning stuff coming out of The Joe Budden Podcast this week, which dropped an episode yesterday that contained an extensive segment in which Budden went hard on Spotify’s podcasting efforts — and their relationship to him. (The segment, by the way, starts at the 67 minute mark.)

The segment, which stretched out to almost two hours, is an utterly fascinating listen. I’m reluctant to reduce the entire argument in order to describe it, but we gotta do it for the purposes for this write-up. Essentially, Budden used the segment to express his great displeasure over feeling like a “guinea pig” whose early success as an experimental Spotify exclusive, he argues, generated the findings and data that would substantiate the platform’s deep push into podcasting generally and exclusives specifically.

As a reminder: the original deal locking The Joe Budden Podcast as a Spotify exclusive was originally announced in the summer of 2018. According to a March report in The Information, the deal drew “hundreds of thousands of new subscribers to Spotify,” and it was so successful that CEO Daniel Ek would tell his executives: “Let’s do 1,000 of these.” Of course, the Gimlet-Anchor acquisitions, nowadays viewed as the kick-off for the Spotify Podcast era, took place in the first quarter of 2019.

Exclusive podcast deals are now a key component in Spotify’s toolkit — see: Higher Ground, Joe Rogan, the DC Universe, Kim Kardashian, so on — and Budden submits that none of that would’ve ever happened if it weren’t for the performance of his podcast. (He also characterized another podcast exclusive deal that was signed at the time, the one with Amy Schumer, as a failure.) Budden’s frustration, then, appears to be chiefly located in how he felt he was treated since then, and the fact he feels like he wasn’t given the appropriate opportunity to proportionately participate in the podcast market value that Spotify would go onto expand through its spending — spending Budden argues he helped substantiate — as well. There’s talk about not receiving bonuses, there’s talk about vacation days not being granted, there’s also talk about Rolexes instead of said bonuses.

One particularly attention-grabbing detail is Budden’s claim that, from a performance stand-point, his exclusive podcast continues to be a better investment than Spotify’s other deals so far. “I watched Gimlet get a quarter-billion dollars … I watched Bill Simmons get a quarter-billion dollars … If you paid a quarter-billion dollars for a company and they came in and still didn’t budge me out of No. 1 or perform anywhere near us, we have to account for it,” he said on the segment. (By the way, I pulled that quotation from a Twitter thread by Cherie Hu, who publishes the Water + Music newsletter and is a regular contributor to Hot Pod. She highlighted a bunch of the meatier lines in that thread, which you can find here.)

Quick note of complication here: at this juncture, it’s unclear how rankings on Spotify’s podcast charts are determined, and I’m sure that Spotify would contest relative podcast operation performance valuations. Then again, that’s more or less been par for the course in podcasting for a while now, but also, part of Budden’s overall point is that these obscurities have typically been used by companies to leverage creators into unfriendly deals in the past.

All this, and more, amounts to a picture, painted by Budden, that positions Spotify as basically replicating the old power positions of music labels and the music industry here in podcasting. This deep into his contract, Budden says he feels exploited and under-compensated relative to the new audiences he brought to the platform. “Spotify never cared about this podcast individually,” he said. “Spotify only cared about our contribution to the platform.” Budden also frames the story as one where the company is pillaging his audience, couching it in an evocation of how black artists have been historically exploited by corporate powers and further characterizing Spotify as a company that’s taking more than its giving when it comes to the podcast ecosystem. “Everybody’s not looking to feed the soil, some are just looking to take the fruit,” he said.

This whole thing leads up to the big news hook: Budden’s contract is expiring soon, and should there not be a renewal, the show will no longer be a Spotify exclusive after September 23. He even suggested the possibility that, after September 23, the show might not be on the platform at all.

Let’s take a few steps back here. I think it’s useful to contextualize the segment as being Budden’s story from his perspective — again, I’m sure Spotify will contest many, many details in the narrative — and I say this to set up two things about this story that are true at the same time.

On the one hand: regardless of the accuracy of specific details in Budden’s story, he is nevertheless laying out a narrative about Spotify and what it’s doing to the podcast space that’s already been on the rise of late and has to this date found some purchase among decent swathes of the podcast community. Part of this story’s noteworthiness is the amount of detail Budden lumps into the Spotify-skeptical narrative for others to tap into and rally around. Furthermore, the situation with his early deal, along with how it might’ve locked him out from future value participation, does bring to mind the historic inequities of the ways dealmaking in a capitalist market context can turn out, and one could link this story with the on-going conversations about intellectual property, the podcast industry, and the possibility of whether things can actually be done differently in this relatively new space. Whether or not you believe Budden’s feelings and appraisals of Spotify are justified — and there are definitely people who don’t; one person offered this opinion in my inbox: “You sign a bad deal, you get a bad deal” — the fact he feels this way strongly enough to say it out loud, with the caveat that he has the popularity and leverage to do so, is noteworthy all the same. Even if you don’t buy his perspective, you could at least argue that a crucial part of Spotify’s job is talent management, and in this case, they did not adequately manage talent.

On the other hand: we’re right in the middle of Budden’s renewal negotiation process, so part of what Budden’s doing here is building a case and working the narrative from the outside-in to pressure Spotify — or any Spotify competitor — to give him the terms that he wants. It’s not unlike what Howard Stern is currently doing with SiriusXM, in which he periodically signals that maybe, maybe, maybe he might entertain alternate offers and outcomes. (Stern, per a recent Deadline piece: “We will get there I hope.”) It’s all part of the business and the process, I suppose.

In the segment, Budden noted that Spotify had put forward an expanded offer — “more money than I’ve ever seen in my life” — but it’s one that he’ll reject, citing that he does not believe those terms will serve him well in the long run and that they reflect how the way Spotify and Budden views the future of podcasting broadly differ. For what it’s worth, I hear that Spotify is continuing to iterate on the offer and the negotiation is on-going, but whether it’ll be enough for Budden and his team — both in terms of how they see the value of their show, how they feel about the value in relation to the other deals, and how they feel about the value in the context of how they felt they’ve been treated by Spotify — will be the driving question here.

Lots and lots to dig into here. Whatever the outcome, I think it’s fair to say we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kinda thing moving forward. You can read more about this story on The Verge, The Hollywood Reporter, the LA Times, and Variety.Meanwhile…From the LA Times: “Spotify ramps up podcast deals with influencers.”The Distraction. Missed this earlier, but it’s super interesting to me: Defector, the new sports media operation founded by former Deadspin staffers, officially launched a podcast, called The Distraction, earlier this month.

The podcast is being distributed by Stitcher, and here’s the story about how that production came together from Daisy Rosario, an executive producer at Stitcher:

We reached out to them. There were some serious fans among the staff here and like (probably) everyone who has worked in NY media, we were really interested in the story of all the writers quitting together and immediately wondering what they would do next.

I forget who it was, but someone on staff said they knew someone who could put us in touch so we reached out and basically said, “Hey, we don’t do websites but if you do want to be in the podcast space, let’s chat.” That was in November of last year, just days after they left Deadspin. As an EP, I was excited to be someplace where we could jump on this quickly and it was [so] fun that even our CEO Erik Diehn was into it from jump.

I’m also a huge sports fan who doesn’t enjoy most sports coverage and was already thinking about that for shows I’d be adding to my roster. I loved their writing for the old site because it was my favorite combination of silly, smart, and not fawning.

We were originally going to launch earlier this year, but covid happened and sports went away. We were always down to be patient and in the meantime they were able to make Defector real. It was fun to be in on their secret for a while. I’d see my own friends share one of Drew Magary or David Roth’s freelance articles and I couldn’t tell those friends that the guys would be back soon.

You can find the podcast here.