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Liner Notes: Apple, Podcasts, and Exclusive Content

Obviously, we should talk a little more about the Apple business.

ICYMI: Bloomberg published a story last week reporting that Apple is apparently planning to “fund original podcasts that would be exclusive to its audio service,” and that the company had already reached out to multiple media companies about those efforts. The report also noted that discussions were still preliminary, that Apple “had yet to outline a clear strategy,” and that the plan was formulated to fend off Spotify (and Stitcher). Concrete details were sparse: it’s uncertain whether these discussions pertained to Apple Podcasts or Apple Music, whether the intended deals revolved around licensing existing podcasts or developing new projects (or both), and whether these conversations happened in recent weeks or months.

Which leaves us in potent, and sticky, speculative territory. The devil will be in the details on this one, as the exact shape of Apple’s exclusive audio content intervention will be crucial to properly grokking how Apple’s reported original audio content effort will impact the podcast ecosystem’s core dynamics… and the degree to which Apple will actually be breaking from its historical position as the impartial steward of the medium.

But the simple fact that Apple is exploring audio shows that will be exclusive to its platform, amidst the context of Spotify’s various agitations, is enough to trigger a general wave of anxiety among certain podcast folk. Amidst all the industrialization that’s happened in podcasting over the past few years, to some this development feels like a point of no return, perhaps marking the end of an era when Apple served as a safe haven for smaller creators and upstarts looking for a (relatively) equal playing ground. Whether that’s a completely accurate assessment of Apple’s relationship to podcasting is somewhat up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: there’s a difference between a platform that only functions as a distributor and a platform that double-tasks as a distributor and a publisher. Something fundamentally changes when the former transforms into the latter.

Meanwhile, many of the podcast operators and observers that I spoke with over the past week believe that Apple Music will be central to whatever these original audio content plans end up becoming. Which is a totally fair reading: after all, you can’t really talk about the Apple-Spotify relationship without talking, first and foremost, about Apple Music.

For years, the two music streaming platforms (plus Pandora) have been locked in a robust competition for listeners and paid subscribers around the world. The music industry had been the primary battleground for these platforms up until this point, but Spotify, by spending all that many on podcast companies earlier this year, appears to have fundamentally reframed the terms of the competition. A subscriber who pays for music stuff is equally valuable as a subscriber who pays for non-music stuff, and so, in the pursuit of more paid subscriptions, Spotify has decided to become more than a music streaming platform.

If I were Apple — and I’m not a trillion dollar corporation, but bear with me — I’d see Spotify’s reframing of the competition as the presentation of a choice. After years of leaving podcasts off on the side (despite owning the space for a long time), I’m now being made to do something about it. Should I consolidate podcast and music assets in a bid to directly match Apple Music up with Spotify? Or should I preserve separation between Apple Podcasts and Apple Music, developing them out as two separate product lines? (Separate, but potentially related, whether through some future Apple+ subscription unification efforts or something else.) I imagine the question, and the significance, of how Apple approaches exclusive audio shows will depend on which path it takes.

Again, details are sparse, and it may be a while before we find out how Apple will land on this. That said, there are some interesting org chart considerations to earmark for later.

As the Bloomberg report pointed out, Apple has made Oliver Schusser, VP of Apple Music and International, “in charge of podcasts and music.” The report also notes that Schusser will be assisted by Ben Cave, an eight year Apple veteran who has served on both the iTunes Podcast and international music teams, who will now help oversee podcast strategy.

(As an aside: before Cave joined Apple, he was the head of development at Somethin’ Else, the London content strategy and production agency. There’s a bit of Somethin’ Else diaspora in Big Audio-land; other alums include Kat Wong, the head of Beat 1 in Europe, and Rowan Collinson, who leads Spotify’s podcast curation efforts in the UK, Australian, and New Zealand markets. Fun fact for your intelligence dossiers.)

For what it’s worth, I’m reticent to read too much into the apparent bundling together of the management over Apple’s Music and Podcast divisions. Instead, the way I’ll be reading whatever happens next is to mostly see it as the beginning of a discovery phase, with lots of experimentation and music up ahead. (As one executive pointed out to me: I shouldn’t forget that, on the TV front, Apple had to first go through Planet of the Apps before they could get to their current plan with Apple TV+, and even then, it’s unclear whether this will be the final strategy they’ll settle on.)

On the flip side, I’m also unsure whether Apple’s intentions with original audio content automatically marks the end of the open phase. I, for one, believe there are permutations in which Apple can bankroll exclusive audio shows while fundamentally maintaining Apple Podcast’s existing dynamics. (One thing I continue to mull over: wouldn’t Bloomberg report be somewhat different if the story was “Apple plans to fund original audio shows that would be exclusive to its Apple Music service?” Maybe I’m just being dense.)

If there’s anything I am sure about, though, it’s this: assuming the Bloomberg report holds true, Apple is now another major buyer, and that’s good news for a certain kind of audio producer, creator, and entrepreneur.