Skip to contents

Reader Mailbag (Sort of): Spotify Edition

It’s Spotify Day +13. My inbox has pretty much started to chill after all the news, which has given me some time to sift through and check out what’s been occupying the Hot Pod hive mind. And from where I sit, there were two threads that stood out.

The first thread is the prevalence of an understandable, but imprecise, assumption: that, by virtue of its spendy acquisitions, we’re looking at an inevitable future in which Spotify is the new dominant — or even monopoly — power over the whole podcast industry. Which is to say, it is only a matter of time before the Swedish platform usurps Apple’s position as the steward of podcasting, eschews Cupertino’s traditionally hands-off approach that’s allowed the medium to flourish on its own terms, and reshapes the industry on the basis of its own corporate needs.

But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, I think. To become Nü-Apple, Spotify must first cultivate a meaningful share of podcast listening on its platform, either by converting its non-podcast listening users or by drawing in substantial numbers of podcast listeners that don’t use Spotify as their primary listening option, and then they have to figure out to monetize podcast listening properly on their platform, and then they have to figure out how to create an environment where third-party publishers will keep wanting to play with them over the long-run. (Or, in the failure of that, creating a supply chain themselves that’s robust enough such that they don’t have to worry about what third-party publishers want in general.)

All of those things are difficult to do, to be sure, and we are perhaps especially familiar with the difficult of that first one: growing a meaningful non-Apple podcast listening user base is a task that’s often been evoked, but rarely realized with any confidence to date. Spotify’s money-slosh suggests greater drive and incentive to figure this one out, but the fact of the matter is, they’re still a non-Apple insurgent that needs to figure out broadly unprecedented user conversions. Which isn’t to say that it won’t happen in some form or another, of course. I’m just saying one should dispel with any assumption of inevitability. Like all other major things, a lot of it comes down to execution, and a lot of execution comes down to luck.

Until then, the immediate legacy of Spotify’s Big Podcast Adventure isn’t presumed dominance, but a dominant signal. Consider the following thread: Spotify has committed a substantial portion of its future narrative to podcasting, which is consequently a signal to — or creating a permission structure for — competitors and other well-resourced players to pay close attention and commit more money to the space, which in turn would lead to exacerbation the podcast gold rush that was only moderately scaled before. Indeed, Spotify doesn’t even have to eat its way through podcast listening in order to reconstitute the ecosystem. In all likelihood, it’s already triggered an environment where that reconstitution could happen in many other ways. This, by the way, was what I was trying to say when I wrote, in the February 5 issue, that the ripple effects of this move is going to be wild.

The second notable discussion trend appears to revolves around a hope for some greater balance of power. Several readers — mostly from bigger publishers — expressed optimism that, assuming Spotify does become significant, other distribution platforms will probably move to similarly match Spotify’s activity in the space, ultimately creating a more competitive environment where publishers are able to exercise options and build leverage to create better marketplaces for themselves.

Off the top of their heads, that matching could take the shape of:

  • Pandora actually following through on its Podcast Genome Project ambitions — though, in my opinion, this now oddly feels like a “necessary but insufficient” condition in the wake of the Spotify news;
  • A paid podcast platform actually breaking through and reliably offering publishers alternative business model options (Luminary was the one on most people’s minds, of course, but for what it’s worth, I’m still convinced that Audible should still be in play as a vendor you could potentially sell goods to);
  • Apple getting more involved one way or another (the term “sleeping giant” was evoked several times, as some folks are wont to do), whether that means actually stepping in as an active middleman in the vein of its App store and Apple News machinations (minus the troublesome rev share problem, hopefully), or replicating whatever it’s trying to build on television side (the efficacy of which remains up in the air), or even, as one source dared to dream, doubling-down on its position as the steward of open podcast publishing by pushing for more podcast listening on the Apple Podcast app without fundamentally changing the nature of how it treats the supply-side (though it’s hard to see what’s in it for Apple should it pursue this route);
  • A left-field idea offered up by some readers: the public radio system itself could properly step up as an alternative podcast platform, both as a distribution point and a business model to publishers up and down the sizing scale. (There’s a nice line that you can draw between this idea and the story Caroline has put together for this issue, on the UK’s new Audio Content Fund.)

The general feeling from this crowd, it seems, is that there is little to be gained from being anxious about whatever change Spotify will bring to podcasting. For them it’s more of a matter of whether there will be enough of it. “Change is good,” one source said to me, in a tone that I couldn’t help but recall “chaos is a ladder.

Anyway, just some snapshots of what I’ve been seeing.