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Year in Review: Platforms and the Shape of Programming

It’s fitting for this year-end column that one of the very last events I attended in person before everything locked down was the Hot Pod Summit, which took place in early March. Packed in the main hall of a Brooklyn hostel, around two hundred people and myself — politely asking each other whether we wanted to shake hands or bump elbows instead — pondered how podcasting, a historically decentralized ecosystem, should be dealing with its own evolution, and sudden cash infusion, in real time.

The day opened with panels about Spotify and Sony Music Entertainment — two companies that are not only aggressive investors in podcasts, but also happened to have built their reputation and bottom line in the music industry first. I co-moderated a panel about Sony’s emerging podcast strategy, and on stage, I asked the company’s VP of Podcast Marketing about whether Sony’s podcast ambitions were inspired, at least in some way, by parallel moves from Spotify.

“The idea that the same players starting to coalesce in podcasting are also some of the biggest players on the music side definitely informed our decision to start a podcast division,” she said. “We know those players and how to work with them, and that’s a strength we can bring to the table.”

As I argued shortly thereafter, this sounded to me like a diplomatic way of saying that Sony Music’s foray into podcasting was a direct, competitive response to Spotify. Looking back, that conversation helped frame my understanding of how the rest of 2020 played out. In my mind, the main story about music and podcasts over the past year isn’t just about the content itself, but rather, about the increasingly tight interplay between content technology, and how platforms are working to set the content agenda for the rest of the podcast industry — just as they have with music for years.

Let’s look at Spotify’s UX as a prime example. We can see that the company is intentionally layering podcasts on top of music to create new hybrid, personalized listening and recommendation experiences altogether, in the hopes of competing with terrestrial radio while keeping subscribers hooked on the service. There are new playlist brands like Daily Wellness, Daily Drive, Daily Sports and The Get Up, which combine personalized music with a rotation of curated podcast excerpts that align with a particular theme (e.g. meditation, sports, current events). In turn, as I covered for Hot Pod earlier this year, these hybrid music/podcast playlists have encouraged the creation of “microcasts” — or shorter podcast episodes that are more digestible, fit better in the context of a crowded playlist and allow listeners to “sample” a given episode before investing more time into the show as a whole, the same way a music fan might listen to a single before diving into a whole album.

Most recently, Spotify launched a new native format in October 2020 that allows podcasters to legally add full music tracks to their shows in a way that pays out royalties to music rights holders, thanks to a direct integration with Anchor. This initially seemed like a positive development in a year where there’s been relatively little progress in streamlining the music licensing process for podcasts, and where bootleg music shows continue to pop up on streaming services like clockwork.

But it’s far from perfect. Furthermore, this all actually illustrates the nature of Spotify’s influence on the podcast industry as a whole, because it reinforces the closed ecosystem that the company is building over time (shows made on Anchor with full music tracks can be uploaded only to Spotify). Today, thanks to nearly $1 billion worth of acquisitions to date, Spotify owns a direct stake in almost every part of the value chain in the podcast industry, from content (Gimlet, The Ringer, Parcast) to distribution (Anchor) and monetization (Megaphone).

This has apparently scared some other tech corporations like Apple and Amazon, which are seemingly racing to catch up and get their respective podcast strategies together. With a questionable rollout, Amazon Music and Audible added podcasts to their services in September, and now have exclusive content deals with celebs like DJ Khaled and Common, respectively. Again, I think the biggest trend to follow around Amazon’s podcasts in 2021 will be not just around content, but more around how Amazon incorporates podcasts into its vast technological ecosystem, especially with smart speakers. The lines between a “podcast strategy” and a “voice strategy” will likely continue to blur in the coming year.

Meanwhile, traditional content owners and partners are closely following these music services’ moves, recognizing the potential consumption opportunity and launching a diverse slate of music podcast shows. From record labels, Sony Music is currently working on over 100 original podcast programs like My 90s Playlist, while Universal Music Group and Wondery launched their first joint podcast, Jacked: Rise of the New Jack Sound, in October. Several terrestrial radio stations have also come forth with new music-related podcast programming, such as iHeartRadio’s Speed of Sound and NPR’s Louder Than A Riot. Elsewhere, artists like Sylvan Esso and Pharrell Williams have launched their own independent podcast projects to promote their brands and/or back catalogs, while Song Exploder’s adaptation deal with Netflix could pave the way for more multimedia adaptations of music podcasts in the future.

What does this all mean for the future of podcasts specifically and audio generally? Unlike what some others have argued, I don’t think podcasts will threaten the growth of the music industry. My earlier discussion above suggests that Spotify envisions a future where music and podcasts coexist, and lead themselves to new, dynamic forms of cultural discovery and engagement. That said, the music industry already seems to be an afterthought in Spotify’s wider business-development priorities. In a recent interview with Recode, Gimlet’s head of content Lydia Polgreen explicitly said that Spotify’s goal is “to get people into the habit of listening to content on Spotify that’s not music.

As audio streaming subscription revenue continues to grow around the world, podcasts will simply become one piece in the wider chess game of inter-platform competition for user acquisition and retention. In this landscape, we can expect podcast producers to encounter many of the same problems with streaming services that music artists have faced before. For instance, there’s a tension between Spotify’s rather old-school model of inking multimillion-dollar content deals with celebrities, and the company’s ruthless pursuit of subscriber growth and algorithmic personalization for the individual listener. In the latter scenario, the platform not only sets the context, but is also first in line for listener allegiance. As Liz Pelly recently wrote for The Baffler, “playlists are designed to create and condition dedicated fans of Spotify products, not artists or podcasters.” Joe Budden had a similar sentiment when he announced his podcast would no longer be a Spotify exclusive: “Spotify never cared about this podcast individually … Spotify only cared about our contribution to the platform.”

Last but not least, there’s the issue of rights and control. When the hosts of BuzzFeed’s Another Round and Gimlet’s The Nod (the latter of which has recently been discontinued) revealed in June that they owned none of the shows they led, I couldn’t help but think that those deals felt similarly skewed and exploitative to traditional major-label deals with musicians.

The big question on many people’s minds seems to be: Can a publicly-traded company like Spotify really take a traditional Hollywood approach to original podcast development, and spend $1 billion on creating a closed, fully controlled and verticalized podcast distribution ecosystem, in the same breath that it purports to be empowering the next generation of independent creators?