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Insider: November 21, 2019

- The Hollywood Reporter cover on Spotify's grand plans - Google's personalized "Your Audio News" feature - Third Coast's new executive director... and more!

Declaration of Intent. Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter published a cover story, written by Natalie Jarvey, that formally establishes the consolidated narrative around Spotify’s push into podcasting, some nine months after the blockbuster acquisitions of Anchor and Gimlet that kicked off 2019.

For what it’s worth, I thought the write-up is pretty useful — it expands on a couple of elements that were hinted at in this September LA Times profile of Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s Chief Content Officer — as it effectively pulls together many of the discrete tactical pieces we’ve seen pop up from the company over the past year — the steady push towards exclusives, the partnership with the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company, the drum-beat rollout of various on-platform user experience experiments — into one cohesive, and coherent, picture. One might ideologically disagree with Spotify’s approach to the podcast ecosystem, but at this point, one can’t really say that the company wasn’t upfront with what, exactly, it wants to do, or how, exactly, it sees itself and the world around it.

Jarvey’s piece has a good deal of new incremental information, but the underlying story outlining Spotify’s overall strategy shouldn’t be terribly unfamiliar. The article pegs the approach to two pillars, which we’ve already seen a lot about: building out a robust portfolio of exclusive content and establishing a steady flow of deals with Hollywood-level talent, both of which are presumably meant to turn heads and draw more users into the Spotify platform, retain them, and deepen the engagement with the existing user base.

The exclusive content front goes all the way back to the Joe Budden/Amy Schumer stuff — on top of the sporadic exclusive audio shows in non-American countries, like Fest und Flauschig in Germany, which dates back to mid-2016. Also worth noting: the day before the cover story, The Hollywood Reporter, uh, reported that The Last Podcast on the Left, a highly popular comedy podcast that’s been publishing since 2011, will now be a Spotify exclusive. (Factoid for color: that podcast has long been primarily monetized through a mix of advertising, live events, and direct Patreon support. According to their Patreon page, they’ve been making $50k per month through that channel.) Meanwhile, the Hollywood deal flow stuff is essentially on par with the industry-wide trend that’s seeing more show-building activities swing towards Tinseltown. (Do we still use that nickname? Feels outdated.)

Anyway, I’m planning to discuss the pros/cons of the strategy in next Tuesday’s newsletter, but for now, I’ll do the thing where I say that you should check out the piece in full (if you haven’t already), and point out a few specific findings that stood out to me:

(1) The THR piece observed that the Higher Ground partnership opened up the company’s ability to strike deals with other Hollywood-level talent. “Where the Obamas go, others follow,” Jarvey wrote.

(2) If you’re wondering about the project in development: “In 2019 alone, THR has learned, Spotify has quietly set up more than 30 new podcasts from partners including Jordan Peele, Paul Feig, Mark Wahlberg and YouTube influencer Lele Pons.” Maybe I’m showing my age and out-of-touchness, but I had to Google Lele Pons. In any case, the influencer push is also expected; I’ve consistently heard from various entertainment industry folks that YouTube-originated talent are doing pretty well in podcasting — and on Spotify, in specific. Would love to see any numbers on that, but numbers, as always, are being kept close to the chest, so I’m going to practice my right to skepticism for now.

(3) A personnel note: “Multiple sources tell THR the Obamas have hired Dan Fierman, the former Grantland and MTV editorial director, to lead those efforts from Los Angeles.” It’s weird — I feel like I’ve been following Dan Fierman’s career, indirectly, for a couple of years now, which has been peppered with various audio adventures for a stretch. (Like when he brought in Nate DiMeo, of The Memory Palace fame, to develop podcasts for MTV, during the brief moment in 2016 when MTV News felt like it could well be something approximating nu-Grantland. But of course, MTV ultimately went the way of many corporate-controlled media brands; which is to say, it went to dust.)

Anyway. Fierman was most recently at Epic, the… it’s hard to explain, but in my head, I describe it as a film and television studio that specializes in intellectual property built around longform magazine features, which it sometimes originates. Epic was founded in 2013 by Joshes (Joshuas?) Bearman and Davis, and was acquired by Vox Media earlier this year.

(4) Quick chunk the union stuff:

Almost immediately after the Gimlet acquisition, another issue cropped up that Spotify the tech platform had never had to deal with. Gimlet’s staff was organizing. “In all honesty, it’s been pretty smooth,” Ek says, brushing off questions about how Spotify has handled the unionization effort, a rarity among technology companies. Gimlet recognized the union within a couple of months. “Like 70 or 80 percent of all companies in Sweden are unionized, so for me that wasn’t a big negative.”

This has been the company line for as long as the union push has been happening. So far as I know, the process is still on-going.

More on Tuesday, but one more thing to flag: the THR cover doesn’t really discuss Spotify’s global intentions, which I sense is probably going to be the most important piece of the pie at some point down the line. More on that at some point, once I manage to rack up the miles necessary to get across a few borders.

Our Algorithmic Future. Sticking with Spotify for a hot second: this week’s rollout of the “Your Daily Podcasts,” the company’s new Discover Weekly-meets-Podcast feature, didn’t end up being the only personalization-oriented audio gambit from a major tech platform company.

On Tuesday afternoon, Google announced “Your News Update,” a new algorithmic audio news feed for the Google Assistant experience.

Here’s The Verge:

Google is rolling out a new service for Google Assistant that it’s calling “Your News Update.” It takes the idea of an algorithmically determined news feed — the kind you get from Facebook or on Google’s news feed — and turns it into an audio stream. To play it, you simply ask a Google smart speaker or Assistant on your phone to “listen to the news.”

Google uses the information it has learned about you over the years alongside your location to custom-build a series of short news updates from partners from which it has licensed audio. It hopes to foster an ecosystem it’s calling “the audio web,” according to Liz Gannes, Google’s product manager of audio news. These aren’t podcasts so much as news bites, similar to the hourly news updates that can be heard on the radio.

The mention of the “audio web” is the money line here, in my mind. (Side note: what’s up with “Your…” nomenclature for these products? I mean, I get it, but I find it mildly creepy.)

It’s been a while, but I’m reminded of a column I wrote back in November 2017, about smart speakers and something that a fellow named André Staltz called the “Search to Suggest” thesis. This chunk feels relevant:

Assuming you’re the kind of podcast publisher that likes to worry — or just think through — hypothetical futures, it’s worth applying some imagination in pursuit of a few workable questions around this scenario. What I’m personally trying to grasp, and where I think new knowledge is to be created, revolves around the question of how consumer power can meaningfully express itself within the “Suggest” paradigm, if consumer power will continue to exist at all. If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, or whatever else that comes down the pike becomes the primary way of consuming podcasts, the radio, or music, what does the user pathway of selecting what to listen look like? How are those user journeys structured, how can they be designed to push you in certain ways? (The “Power of the Default,” by the way, is a very real thing.) How would discovery work? Which is to say, how does the market look like? Where and how does the consumer make choices? What would choice even mean?

Ah yes, the hazy days of 2017, when I was a little more philosophical than I am nowadays.

Grab Bag:

(1) Quick shout-out to the folks at the Third Coast Festival, who announced their new Executive Director earlier this week: Shirley Alfaro, previously an associate director at the Latino Policy Forum. Alfaro replaces longtime ED Johanna Zorn, who stepped down earlier this year. Here’s the Current write-up on the matter.

(2) Edison Research, I see you:

(3) Seems like the New York Times picked up the Rev story, which continues to be worth monitoring. Shout-out, once again, to Gizmodo, who was on the beat first.

(4) Meanwhile, over the New York Post: “Podcast porn is on the rise — and revealing strange new kinks.”

Pedantic, but the use of the word “porn” here is an imprecise catch-all, as the piece touches on three different on-demand audio-oriented companies that possess three different approaches into the broad subject area of sex, erotica, and sexual health. Two quick follow-ups: firstly, this is the second mention of Dipsea that I’ve seen in general publications in the past week (the other is this fun Times work diary piece, featuring Dipsea’s CEO). And secondly, I feel like the whole discourse around “will people pay for podcasts?” should less around stuff like Luminary, and more around stuff like these. In my mind, the specificity is the point.