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The economy comes for Substack

Plus, Spotify spotlights podcasts around the globe, and Slacker gets sued

I am weary from the last week of SCOTUS decisions that have made clear how little the court cares for our well-being. But I did read a great book! That takes the edge off. 

During the pandemic, I dug deep into climate fiction as some kind of morbid coping mechanism. I found some great novels, like Clade and Gold Fame Citrus, and some very bad ones (America City – honestly, don’t bother). Most of them depict obvious cataclysmic change, but Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which I devoured over the course of Monday and Tuesday, focuses on one strange event (the sudden arrival of millions of butterflies) in a rural Appalachian town that is a harbinger of climate doom. It’s a beautiful book, and the fact that I could alternate between Kindle and Audible and it picked up right where I left off is truly clutch. I don’t know how Spotify is going to compete with that. (But also, buy from your local bookstore — I promise I’ll get the paperback this weekend, I was just impatient).

Anyway, on with the news: Substack ups its audio capabilities (and downs its staff), Slacker is sued for five years’ (!!) worth of streaming royalties, and Spotify expands a key discovery program to podcasters.

Substack introduces voiceover feature, lays off 14 percent of staff

It’s been a weird week for Substack. On Tuesday, Substack announced a new feature that makes it easier to include voiceover audio on posts. When making a new post, creators can attach an audio file of them (or someone else, if they so choose) reading the copy out loud. The new function makes it much easier to add audio than before, when creators who wanted to make spoken versions of their written content available had to make the post a podcast and include the text underneath. 

While the company is bulking up on features for creators and their audiences, it is paring down its own workforce. On Wednesday, CEO Chris Best announced that the company would lay off 13 employees because of recession fears, saying he was “very sorry” to have to do so.

“We’ve taken several measures to ensure Substack has a strong financial foundation, and saying goodbye to these teammates is by far the most difficult,” he tweeted. “During challenging times in the world, great writing matters more than ever, and so our mission to help writers do their best work is as urgent as ever.”

Although the company has made it clear over the past several months that it is making a strong play for podcasting, I wonder what the layoffs signal for its ability to attract (and pay for) the kind of talent it has in the past. The company is built on the idea that fans will be willing to spend money on content they love, insulating it from the tumultuous ad market. If the economy gets worse, as experts expect, those same audiences may be less willing to pay. 

SoundExchange sues Slacker parent for unpaid royalties

SoundExchange, a collective rights management organization that manages recording royalties collections for music and spoken-word albums (like comedy), is suing the parent company of audio streamer Slacker for several years’ worth of royalties.

The DC-based company filed suit in federal court on Tuesday against LiveOne (formerly LiveXLive), which bought Slacker Radio in 2018. But according to the complaint, the balance (which is redacted in the filing) dates back to before the acquisition. 

“In 2017, Slacker stopped paying statutory royalties to creators whose recordings it was using,” SoundExchange said in a press release. “SoundExchange has been in negotiations with Slacker since that time to resolve their outstanding balance, but Slacker has failed to meet the terms to which the parties agreed.”

LiveOne did not respond to a request for comment, but a financial filing on Wednesday noted the lawsuit. “The Company believes it has already adequately reserved for the amounts due to [SoundExchange],” it reads. “The Company is currently evaluating its options related to this litigation and if necessary, intends to hire counsel to defend the defendants in this matter.” The filing also lists a balance of accrued royalties worth more than $13.5 million, exceeding the $12.9 million LiveOne has in cash and equivalents.

Slacker streams podcasts in addition to music and spoken-word albums, but SoundExchange does not collect royalties for podcasts. Still, the lawsuit punctuates why streamers are so eager to get into podcasting — it brings in ears without the burden of paying out royalties (or getting entangled in lawsuits if they don’t). 

Spotify highlights podcasters from around the world

Spotify has expanded its RADAR discovery initiative for emerging artists to podcasters, launching with a list of more than 40 spotlighted podcast creators from across the globe. Each quarter, Spotify will select two to three podcasts hosted on Anchor in one of 15 countries and regions. Once selected, the podcasts will get exposure to new audiences by having three episodes placed on curated Spotify playlists.

All but a few of the selected podcasts are from outside the US, and the majority are in languages other than English. Participating countries include Brazil, France, and the Philippines, among others. Some of the highlighted podcasts include Girl Code, a Call Her Daddy-esque show from Australia, Paranormal, a spookcast from Mexico, and careers podcast Pengembangan Diri from Indonesia. You can check out the RADAR playlists here.

WGA Audio Alliance is hosting a town hall tonight for fiction podcast writers

The Writers Guild of America Audio Alliance, which represents writers who script fiction podcasts, is hosting a town hall meeting tonight at 8PM ET to update members on the Alliance’s initiatives and to field ideas. The Alliance’s page says its priorities include bargaining for fair pay, benefits, and proper credit for writers (an issue that can be particularly sticky when it comes to podcast scripting). 

The meeting is open to the public. If you are interested, you can register here. (Disclosure, the Vox Media Union is also represented by the WGA).

See you tomorrow!