Issue 279,  published October 20, 2020

Mixed and Match

Last Wednesday, Spotify announced that it was rolling out a new experimental feature that’s frankly a little confusing and has some capacity to raise a few eyebrows.

Broadly speaking, the rollout revolves around a new on-platform audio experience that combines music and talk content in specific, layered arrangements. It’s rooted in a new creation tool on Anchor that gives users the ability to insert music tracks from the Spotify library as interstitials between user-generated talk segments, giving rise to a new format that doesn’t quite have a formal name yet and that I’m just going to call the “mixed experience” format until someone comes up with something catchier.

To underscore what’s notable here: this new feature means that Anchor users are now able to make audio experiences that can play entire songs within those episodes, as opposed to just chunks of a track, which was the conventional practice in the past due to licensing norms and limitations. However, it’s also important to emphasize what this feature does not let creators do, which is to let them play music tracks under recorded talk segments. As such, this tool isn’t the solution to podcast publisher’s long-standing problem of not being able to programmatically use licensed music as soundtracks for their shows, but it is a solution for a specific type of podcast maker: the ones who makes shows about music, like Song Exploder and All Songs Considered.

Here’s something else that should be highlighted: shows created using this new feature can only be distributed and consumed over Spotify, on the count of the fact that the creation tool’s ability to let Anchor users utilize music tracks from Spotify’s library is grounded in the platform’s arrangements with the various music labels. Speaking of which, the monetization side is also worth foregrounding: Spotify is able to detect listens to the music tracks used in those mixed creation experiences, and those plays will be counted towards the streaming revenue sent back to those music artists. Meanwhile, Anchor users will be able to make money off those new mixed experience creations using the monetization tools that are already built into the platform.

This feature is being tested among Anchor users in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland at the moment, and to demonstrate the concept, Spotify has also launched a few original shows using this tool from its in-house content divisions, like 60 Songs that Explain the 90s and Rock This with Allison Hagendorf.

Two things about this story. Firstly, I don’t think it fundamentally alters the power dynamics between Spotify, music labels, and podcast makers, largely because this isn’t a situation where Spotify gains much power over the relationship between podcast makers and music labels. Again, this new creation feature is only relevant for the specific genre of music podcasts — which is great, because it means we’ll probably see a lot more music criticism, curation, and documentary podcasts (on Spotify, of course, not anywhere else), as those creators won’t have to worry much about the burdens of the licensing process — and again, it doesn’t yet solve the music soundtrack problem for podcast publishers, which would be a real game-changer for a much larger proportion of the podcast creative ecosystem. I reckon there’s probably more friction on any effort around the latter thing, given that it’s likely music labels would want to control how podcasts use licensed music more on their own terms.

Secondly, this new mixed experience format is clearly part of Spotify’s broader effort to deepen the value proposition of the media ecosystem that’s specific to its platform. Its introduction comes in the wake of another Spotify-specific feature: on-platform video podcasting (vodcasting?), which you can find being used on shows like The Joe Rogan Experience and certain properties from The Ringer.

This might be concern-trolling, but I do wonder if things are beginning to look a little overstuffed on Spotify. The conventional story has long been that Spotify intends to be an all-consuming audio platform, and as the details begin to trickle in, we’re basically looking at a vision of the future in which Spotify will serve as home to music, podcasts, various non-podcast on-demand audio experiences (audiobooks, etc.), and these Spotify-specific audio experiences (on-platform vodcasting, this new mixed experience format).

It’s all starting to feel pretty messy, and not necessarily in a good, charming independent record store-that-also-sells-Blu Rays-and-movie-posters-and-muffins sort of way. 

I run this thing.