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If Spotify wants to dominate podcasting, it’s time to step up its ambitions

The streaming music giant wants to expand into more audio entertainment but as its initiatives in podcasting reveal, it’s moving too slowly and too tentatively.

If Spotify wants to dominate podcasting, it’s time to step up its ambitions
[Photos: MediaPunch/Shutterstock; Flickr user Anna Hanks]

Rapper turned broadcaster Joe Budden signed an exclusive deal with Spotify last week for the streaming music giant to host his eponymous podcast, which will start September 12. This follows several other moves this summer that signal Spotify ramping up its podcasting ambitions, which started with its wooing in May of comedian Amy Schumer to host her new 3 Girls, 1 Keith podcast on its service in exchange for the reportedly eye-popping sum of more than $1 million.

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If these moves were as exclusive as the headlines typically purport, that really would be something: Schumer is one of the most popular comedians in the country, and Budden currently has three of the top five podcast episodes in the music section of Apple Podcasts. Securing their output would deal a blow to rivals such as Apple. If that were the case, I would be writing about how Spotify is going to destroy what’s good about podcasting by locking up stars and fracturing the freedom of choice listeners currently have.

But here’s the thing: These deals are not as exclusive as reports often have made it seem.

Schumer’s podcast, all eight episodes of it, was released on all platforms (if there was any kind of exclusive window, that is not currently evident). The last episode was August 9, but it is still the 114th most popular comedy podcast on Apple as of this writing. So rather than “challenge Apple Inc.’s dominance of this growing audio entertainment field” as Bloomberg asserted when the deal was announced, Spotify just wildly overspent for a podcast that also benefited its primary rival.

Budden’s Spotify podcast will feature some currently unspecified “audio exclusives,” but even though Budden and Spotify state that this partnership is funding the show to increase its output from one to two episodes per week, Budden told his fans on his most recent episode that they’ll still be releasing the shows on YouTube 48 hours after they drop on Spotify each Wednesday and Saturday. Shout out to Budden for getting paid, and doing it the way he wanted (he made clear that he did not want to ask fans to pay for the show directly, or monetize via advertising), but if I don’t like Spotify, or if I am not such a Budden superfan that I have to listen on Wednesday and Saturday when the episodes will first appear on Spotify, what’s the big deal to wait until Friday and Monday? Budden’s been producing a two- to three-hour weekly show. If he chooses for that second weekly show to be two hours or more, or even if he breaks up his current output into two episodes, for most people, that’s still a lot of content and how much more do I really need?

This strategy is known as “windowing,” and it typically refers to how movies have traditionally traveled from theaters to video-on-demand to premium cable and/or streaming services and then to basic cable and or network television. Each link in the chain has its moment where it has the rights to a particular piece of content, and the owner of the content gets paid every step of the way.

But windowing has failed miserably in the realm of digital content. Vessel, which was a startup founded by former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, sought to sign YouTube stars and others to these kinds of temporarily exclusive deals, thinking that fans would flock to Vessel to get early access. They decidedly did not, and Vessel was sold and shuttered rather quickly despite having raised more than $130 million in funding. Efforts to create a “Netflix for podcasts” filled with both originals and exclusive content libraries have been middling at best.

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Why? Because there is more than enough content to satisfy most folks, and consumers have shown that they are most comfortable with paying artists directly (via Patreon) to get exclusive episodes and early access to live shows rather than have a deep-pocketed platform do it for them. Windowing feels antiquated and antithetical to podcasting in particular, a ham-fisted effort to apply an old, consumer-unfriendly model to a new world.

Spotify has flirted with podcasts since 2015, but it has never really made the kind of move that would signal that it is genuine in its efforts to bring a large swath of podcast listeners to use it for all their audio entertainment. Thus far, Spotify hasn’t done anything that makes me want to listen to podcasts there. Its listening features are no more evolved than the state of the art (which Marco Arment’s Overcast app established in terms of its listening fidelity for being able to enjoy audio at faster playback speeds), and its original content that has actually been exclusive to Spotify has been mostly forgettable.

Spotify is unlikely ever to convert a podcast listener like me (I subscribe to Spotify, but I’ve never listened to a podcast there). But if it wants to attract the kind of people who listen to one podcast, or those who discover Serial several years after it was a cultural phenomenon, then it needs to be much bolder in creating originals and buying the rights to popular podcasts than it has been. Even if podcast nerds like me howl that this is the end of the freeform age of podcasting.

It shouldn’t just sign an Amy Schumer to a silly deal for a limited-run podcast with her friends; it should buy her next two comedy specials, sponsor her touring schedule, and pay her to do a weekly podcast. It shouldn’t just fund Budden’s podcast and produce a few of its own music-related podcasts; it should buy out as many of the top-20 music shows as it can. It should use its stock to acquire a burgeoning podcast network and let it operate quasi-independently, a la Instagram within Facebook. And in all of these instances, it should make the content only available on Spotify. The company may keep all this stuff on its free, ad-supported tier, but what a helluva of a way to draw in more listeners and ultimately convert them to being paid subscribers.

Podcasting could be a compelling means by which Spotify distinguishes its streaming service and expands beyond music, but its efforts thus far are .5x in a world that’s moving at double or even triple speed.
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