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Spotify Expands Podcast Playlists

The Swedish streaming audio platform’s onward march into podcasting continues apace. Today, the company is rolling out the next phase of its effort to do unto podcasting what it’s long done with music: establish a prominent system of curated playlists that drives discovery, engagement, and in some cases, brand power.

The new iteration of the podcast playlist product will initially be available in just six markets: the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. All six markets will start out with the same three flagship playlists — “Best Podcasts of the Week,” “Brain Snacks,” and “Crime Scene” — that will be rounded out by a localized array of territory-specific playlists designed around different topics, themes, and categories. Each market will start out with somewhere between twelve to fifteen playlists.

For now, these playlists will be manually curated, with editorial responsibilities being held by small curatorial teams operating in each market. I’m told that the curation process will be driven by a mix of editorial taste and decisions informed by platform data as well as general entertainment trends. The individual episode will serve as the atomic unit of these playlists, and the team’s general intent is to assemble a mix of “iconic” episodes and standard fare.

“The goal isn’t to weight the playlists too much towards our internal studios, of course, but to reflect what the market would want,” said Courtney Holt, Spotify’s Global Head of Studios and Video, when we spoke about the product’s new approach last week.

As you might recall, Spotify has been operating podcast playlists on the platform for some time now. The initial version of the product went live last summer, and in November, the company pushed deeper into the territory with the release of the algorithmic “Your Daily Podcasts” and “Your Daily Drive” products, both of which, I think, were meant to share some directional similarities with the popular “Discover Weekly” music playlist. For what it’s worth, I haven’t found any of these previous podcast playlists particularly useful for my own listening. Then again, I’m a highly irregular consumer, so I understand the limitations of my preferences in this context.

Anyway, in some cases, the new podcast playlists will be rebranded versions of existing ones. This will be the case for the three flagships: “Best Podcasts of the Week” will take over “Today’s Top Podcasts,” “Crime Scene” over “Dead Good True Crime,” “Brains Snacks” over “Podcasts Under 20 Minutes.” All playlists will be updated either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly depending on the nature of the beast, and I’m told there’s an expectation to eventually move into a position where the team is able to launch two new playlists per month per market.

You can see where Spotify hopes to go with this. The company’s music playlists are no trifle, as they have generally worked out to be strong tools for discovery and engagement on the platform, with tens of millions of Spotify users routinely interacting with them — or so I’m told. But the larger theoretical prize lies in the way some of these playlists, like RapCaviar and Hot Country, have become prominent brands in and of themselves, capable of driving interest, influence, and enthusiastic engagement from the music industry. “They’ve built an intense and loyal following,” said Holt of the music playlists. “In many cases, they’ve driven promotions for Spotify through mentions from artists.”

It will probably take some time, and several more tweaks, before we can get a clear sense of whether this adaptation gambit works. Holt was overt in characterizing the current state of the product as still quite early in its implementation — “remember that is still in beta,” he said — and that key components of the full product remain in development. Among them: a formal process for podcasters to submit their episodes for playlist consideration through the Spotify for Podcasters portal, and a possible algorithmic component to support the curation process at some point in the future.

Before wrapping up, I asked if Holt was able to share any further insight into how the company has been affected by the pandemic, particularly as it pertains to podcast consumption of the platform. (I had been thinking about several reports noting how music streaming had dipped under stay-at-home conditions, not unlike podcast listening.) “We’re looking at the trends closely, but we haven’t seen anything that gives us great concern or pause around podcast behavior,” he replied, adding that the company has the capacity to track trends across several international markets, many of which are on different points of COVID-19 circumstance.

Holt also mentioned that the company has been seeing just about the same things as everyone else, including a shift in primary listening time windows to later in the day. They’re also learning the same things as everyone else, like adopting robust remote production workflows. On this note, he cited the example of “Way Down in The Hole,” The Ringer’s new The Wire re-watch podcast, which was fully developed and produced over a distributed arrangement.

So, not a super clear picture, but it’s a start. The company’s next earnings report is scheduled to drop at the end of the month, on April 29. I imagine we’ll be able to find out more then.

On a related note… For more on the influence that some of Spotify’s playlists have over the music industry, I recommend reading this 2017 Vulture piece from Craig Marks, which focuses on RapCaviar.