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News Rundown: July 6, 2021

ICYMI: Amazon Music strikes a pricey deal with SmartLess. Last Tuesday, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported that Amazon’s audio-streaming platform — which is not Audible — has bought “exclusive rights” to the celebrities-interview-celebrity podcast hosted by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but a source tells Shaw that it comes in between $60 million and $80 million and will stretch across three years. SmartLess is repped by CAA.

Now, the concept of “exclusive rights” should be qualified significantly here. According to the report, the deal will see new episodes of SmartLess appear exclusively on Amazon Music — along with Wondery+, the subscription channel of Wondery, which, as a reminder, was acquired by Amazon Music at the end of last year — for just one week before being more widely released on other platforms. In other words, the deal appears to be premised on an extremely brief one-week exclusivity window as opposed to a more complete exclusivity arrangement, which is what governs many of the other high-profile platform-exclusive deals we’ve seen in recent years. (For example, Spotify’s deals with Call Her Daddy, The Joe Rogan Experience, Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, and Higher Ground, though the Obamas’ podcasts do tend to get windowed out into a wider release, albeit with a significantly longer lead time than just one week.)

Amazon Music is also getting what amounts to a first-look with the SmartLess team on future audio projects as a part of this deal, which I imagine has some value, but, again, many of the other exclusive licensing deals already have this element baked into them as well.

Listen, I’m just a small newsletter operator — a business no larger than a banana stand — but this deal just seems wacky to me. At least $20 million per year for one-week release exclusivity for a show that’s barely been around for more than a year? Yeesh.

I’m aware of the counterarguments. Yes, it’s Amazon. Yes, I’m sure Amazon Music’s business-development team has modeled out how one-week exclusivity could theoretically lead to more users and time spent listening on the Amazon Music platform. They’re all very smart people, so on and so forth.

But it seems to me that the big story here, more than anything else, is the way in which $60 to $80 million feels like a drop in the bucket for the tentacular, nation-state-sized Amazon — and how the point of this deal for Amazon Music probably isn’t necessarily about the show per se, but the price being paid itself.

Speaking of exclusive deals…

The New York Times: “Joe Rogan is Too Big to Cancel.” It’s been about two years (and an extremely lucrative Spotify deal) since the last time someone took a swing at comprehensively decoding the Joe Rogan phenomenon, which came courtesy of Slate, and last week, we saw the Times’ Matt Flegenheimer mount the latest attempt.

As usual, Rogan declined to be interviewed, and while the resulting piece is mostly a write-around, it’s also the most comprehensive accounting of Rogan’s history I’ve seen thus far.

It also contains new information and context about The Joe Rogan Experience’s current position behind the Spotify walled garden. The Times reports that the show saw an “initial audience dip” when it first went exclusive to the platform — putting to paper what had previously been the commonly circulated gossip — and in regard to the controversies he’s brought to the platform (which, I should note, functions as his publisher), Flegenheimer writes:

… among top Spotify leadership, people familiar with the company say, the notion that Mr. Rogan presents any kind of regrettable executive headache is laughable. Though some die-hards may grumble — like fans of Howard Stern, perpetually convinced he’s gone soft — Mr. Rogan’s following remains young, loyal and increasingly global. So central is he to the company’s fortunes that the podcast is listed as its own category on the app: Sports. Music. News and Politics. Joe Rogan.

The notion of Rogan’s centrality to Spotify’s podcast-platform fortunes has been well established before, easily discernible from the fact that The Joe Rogan Experience was listed as the most-streamed podcast on the platform last year.

However, it’s also important to point out that the dynamics fueling Spotify’s podcast fortunes continue to be in some flux. For one thing, note that the two other shows present in Spotify’s five most-streamed podcasts list are now subjects of Spotify deals: Call Her Daddy and The Michelle Obama Podcast. (The other two, which aren’t affiliated with Spotify, are TED Talks Daily and The New York Times’ The Daily.) Consider also the fact that Spotify has signed, and continues to sign, a fairly huge pile of these podcast deals, including with Kim Kardashian, Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, DC, and Archewell Audio. Any one of these deals could produce returns that, while not necessarily individually comparable in value to one Joe Rogan Experience, could well be so in the aggregate. Add to this Spotify’s other non-music machinations, including its push into live audio — I imagine we’ll see some talent deals come out of that effort at some point — and its attempt to build out a podcast-advertising marketplace, and you start seeing a picture of Spotify diversifying its podcast position away from critical Rogan energy dependence.

Then again, Spotify isn’t the only one in this situation with evolving leverage. Whenever Rogan’s deal with Spotify nears its expiration date, he’ll have a podcast industry that’s a lot more populated with eager and capable buyers than before, including, among others, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia, and now, Amazon Music. 

Well, for now, anyway. I guess that depends on your belief as to whether this whole podcast thing is a bubble. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Speaking of Archewell Audio…

Archewell Audio hires Rebecca Sananes as Head of Audio. Sananes joins from the Vox Media Podcast Network, where she was the lead producer on Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway.

In case you need a refresher: Archewell Audio is the audio-production arm of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s broader Archewell organization, which also houses a nonprofit, The Archewell Foundation, and a video-production arm, Archewell Productions. Taking more than a few pages from the Obamas’ Higher Ground playbook, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex struck a Netflix deal through Archewell Productions last September as well as a multi-year Spotify partnership through Archewell Audio last December.

When she starts at the audio-production arm in August, Sananes will be leading that Spotify partnership and will report to Archewell’s Head of Content, Ben Browning, who was brought on in March.

Meanwhile, over in the Bay Area. Insider reports that Clubhouse is seeing a surge in downloads after several months of decline, thanks in large part to the social-audio app’s Android launch and subsequent uptake in non-American markets. The plot, as they say, thickens.

Union push at New Hampshire Public Radio. A group of NHPR staffers, chiefly in content-production roles, are organizing to form a union with SAG-AFTRA. The group, identifying as the NHPR Content Collective, announced the effort on Twitter last Tuesday, noting that they have sent a petition to station CEO Jim Schachter, who joined the station from WNYC in the fall of 2019, requesting voluntary recognition and to begin negotiations in good faith. More details can be found in this piece from the Manchester Ink Link.