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Luminary: One Year In

Last Thursday marked a full year since Luminary, the aspiring “Netflix for Podcasts” that raised over $100 million before launch, officially made its supremely messy and controversial debut. The paid podcast platform has seen quite a bit of change since then: among other things, it has lowered its price; swapped out its young CEO with an older entertainment veteran, former HBO president Simon Sutton; added fellow HBO veteran Richard Plepler to the company’s board and its pool of investors; and expanded into a number of international English-speaking markets.

Other than those operational developments, though, things have been mostly quiet for the service. I’ve seen little discussion, either by the company itself or by others, about any marker of significant achievements, whether its paid subscribers, revenue, breakout hits, or noteworthy listening numbers. And the thing is, from a brand-building and marketing standpoint, I generally expect these kinds of companies to be really trigger-happy when it comes to spouting off positive metric numbers — even if those numbers require some creative accounting — if only to create some sense of continued hype or momentum for a business model that needs to grab your attention in order to push you down the paid subscription funnel.

Some clues can be found in a new write-up by Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith, which came out last Friday. Smith characterizes the company as struggling to live up to its grand ambitions a year into operations, citing some noteworthy departures from the service— like the brand-name political operator David Axelrod — and talk from some participating podcast creators that few people ended up listening to their shows behind the Luminary paywall. (Worth noting: Luminary declined to disclose how many paid subscribers it has.) The piece goes on to note that the company is “regrouping,” switching up and refining its approach after a hard first year, though Smith rightly notes that it will be doing so amidst an increasingly harsh economic environment. I’m only nibbling on this cake; do check out the whole piece in full, as there is quite a few other noteworthy details in there.

Not to sound like a broken record on this, but I continue to believe that there is some pathway for a viable paid on-demand audio content platform in this media ecosystem. And by that I mean a genuine upstart that’s setting up shop in this day and age — one that isn’t Audible, Headspace, or a hypothetical New York Times-originated “HBO for Podcasts” product that would theoretically have a structural advantage of a pre-existing, pre-qualified paying audience built-in. In my opinion, the key would lie in contributions that are more specific and pronounced, perhaps even niche-oriented, as opposed to something that’s built around the idea of monetizing small portions of competitive programming areas and labeling it as “premium” or of “quality,” even if it comes with the currency of brand-name celebrities. (That said, considering that we currently find ourselves in an economic picture of unprecedented bleakness, I’m not sure it’s the best time to start any new companies from scratch right now. But hey, I’m not a Startup Guy, so whatever.)

Anyway, speaking of bleak economic pictures and Luminary, one other detail to note. You should pay some attention to a Los Angeles Times piece that came out yesterday, which focused on how the coronavirus crisis has “helped” Spotify’s podcast business. While I found the core argument somewhat soft — its one quantitative data point appears to be a sharp increase in additions to the platform’s podcast catalogue, which is helpful, sure, but only to a point — the article nonetheless has an interesting Luminary-related detail in a later section discussing the broader industry environment: Luminary, it seems, is among the audio companies either laying off, furloughing workers, and cutting salaries amidst the crisis. I haven’t seen that detail elsewhere, but it’s worth filing that one away either way.

Listen, I know I can come off sounding salty whenever I write about Luminary, particularly after its roll-out, which, remember, was botched beyond imagination. Now, I’m not going to lie and say that the company doesn’t frustrate. The way I see it, if you’re going to raise all this money, bring all this hype into value and pricing within the podcast talent market, and command that much attention within the podcast conversation, the least you could do is make all of that worth it.

I’ll strive to keep an open mind, though. Maybe year two will be better than year one. Maybe premium cable television skill-sets will adequately translate into on-demand audio, and maybe they will do so under the worst economic conditions in a very long time. But we’ll see.