published March 16, 2019

Tracking: March 15, 2019

Spotify v Apple in the EU, Follow-up to Messes and Misconduct

Before we get into today’s Insider, can I just remind you to take a look at the Hot Pod burnout survey if you haven’t already? I’m gathering data to support some of the trends I’ve observed in reporting on podcaster burnout recently. It’s all anonymous, and you can fill it out here. Results will be digested in a forthcoming newsletter.

(1) Spotify and Apple have been squaring up to each other this week, with the former filing an anti-trust complaint with the European Commission, the regulator in Europe that rules on potential discriminations in markets. The subject of the complaint is not strictly podcast-related, although obviously the fortunes and behaviours of these companies have ever-greater relevance for the audio sphere. In this instance, Spotify is alleging that Apple “has introduced rules to the App Store that purposely limit choice and stifle innovation at the expense of the user experience”, as CEO Daniel Ek explains in a blog post. He’s mainly referring to the 30 percent charge Apple levies on payments for “digital goods” made through their system (for the first year, it drops to 15 percent for subsequent years), such as. . .  when users pay for a Spotify premium subscription. “If we pay this tax, it would force us to artificially inflate the price of our Premium membership well above the price of Apple Music. And to keep our price competitive for our customers, that isn’t something we can do,” he continued.

This isn’t the first time this has come up by any means. The controversy around in-store payments for non-Apple apps in the App Store has been running since the charges were first introduced in 2011. Different apps dealt with this in different ways — some had only limited versions of their app on iOS that directed customers to external sites to sign up, some raised their prices to pass on the charge to users, some chose not to use Apple’s payment system and accept any consequences of that. Spotify went on the offensive about it back in 2016, running a discount if people to took out subscriptions on their own site rather than through the App Store in order to bypass the charge.

It’s come to a head now, Ek says, because of the alleged penalties Apple imposes on apps that choose not to use Apple’s payment system. He lists “a series of technical and experience-limiting restrictions on Spotify” including not being able to communicate with customers who subscribe via Apple, blocks on app updates, and being locked out of “Apple services such as Siri, HomePod, and Apple Watch”.

Apple has responded to the European Commission filing with an unusually long rebuttal, saying that “Spotify wants all the benefits of a free app without being free”. They refute the claims about blocked updates, and say that the charge for using their payment system isn’t as wide a problem as Spotify suggests, because “a full 84 percent of the apps in the App Store pay nothing to Apple when you download or use the app” as they are free, ad-supported or direct their customers to external portals to be charged. There isn’t any clarification of why the 30 percent charge is levied on “digital goods” like a Spotify subscription but not on a “physical” service like an Uber ride, though, which is another key part of Spotify’s claim that Apple’s rules make fair competition impossible.

The rights and wrongs of this one look likely to drag out for months. I think the key takeaway for us in the podcast industry is the passion with which both companies are contesting this, which hints that perhaps we’re entering a phase of more acrimonious rivalry and all the fallout that could produce. The Verge’s Sam Byford points out that the “PR blitz from both Spotify and Apple has been unprecedented”, and that all this rhetoric is only going to inflame the dispute further. Keep an eye on this one, folks.

(2) Another sighting of iHeartRadio’s favourite PR line: they’re claiming to have launched a “first of its kind” radio station that broadcasts podcasts round the clock. Actually, as Edison’s Tom Webster points out, there was one in San Francisco as far back as 2005, and no doubt others since — PRX’s Remix might also have something to say about it. Other podcasting things iHeartRadio has erroneously claimed to do first include the first album to be re-released via a podcast (actually Bhi Bhiman back in January) and podcast awards (many, many). Might be time to retire this approach, fellas.

(3) Speaking of Tom Webster, I wanted to highlight this aspect of the new Infinite Dial that he wrote about this week: that the average number of podcasts listened to a week has remained flat at seven, despite other metrics increasing. He interprets this as a positive, since he would have expected the average to go down as new listeners begin consuming the media in a small way and dilute the higher number of shows listened to by confirmed podcast fans. That’s a totally sound argument, but it does also speak to a listening habit that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. People have their routines and their shows that they return to, week in, week out. With new shows being released all the time, they’re all just auditioning to make it into this privileged list of those that get listened to every week, and if they do they’ll be edging something else out. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m always interested to see what efforts publishers are making to convert new podcast listeners rather than competing for limited listening time with those already committed to the medium. That’s the true growth area, after all.

(4) Despite being dropped by Wondery over host Mike Boudet’s conduct, the Sword and Scale podcast has been cleared by Patreon to remain on the platform (more detail from Nick’s report earlier this week). Now, the Wrap reports that following an investigation by Patreon’s trust and safety team and found no violation of its community guidelines. The podcast currently has over 14,000 patrons and releases regular extra episodes through Patreon. However, in his response to the Wondery decision, Boudet indicated that he intends long-term to move to a self-hosted system (something several other big shows removed from third-party platforms over harmful behaviour claims have also done). “We’ll keep putting out Plus episodes on Patreon, until we move to our own platform and then continue putting out episodes, behind that paywall,” he said.

(5) I always enjoy a peek under the podcast hood, and there have been a couple of good ‘behind the scenes’ specials recently. Marc Maron celebrated 1,000 episodes of WTF with an interview with producer Brendan McDonald, and Call Your Girlfriend have done another “hyper transparent check in” about the state of their business.

(6) Go check out STRIVECast, a new podcast from a non-profit helping people with developmental difficulties in South Portland, Maine, which is both hosted and edited by people with disabilities.