Podcasts: the future.
In early February 2019 a considerable tremor hit the podcast world when Spotify acquired two major players in the creation and distribution of podcasts.
It had been known for a few days that the audio giant seemed interested in Gimlet Media, an extremely successful podcast network, known for shows like Reply All, or Homecoming , one of the first great experiences in podcast fiction, with a cast including names such as Oscar Isaac and Amy Sedaris, which eventually spawned a television series starring Julia Roberts. The very birth of the network as a company made history in the form of its own (meta) podcast, Startup , which would also inspire a tv show on ABC.
But the surprise came with the acquisition of Anchor , a podcasting application for your smartphone, which allows you to record, edit, host, distribute and listen to podcasts in a free and surprisingly easy way, with constant updates adding features such as remote recording and monetisation systems. Anchor says it has powered 40% of new podcasts and offers a surprising potential for podcast democratisation, although it has yet to release itself from the uncertainty surrounding its T&C, which seem to imply that the application reserves rights to the material produced — which the company readily refutes.
Spotify is not kidding and doesn’t hide its interest on podcasting. These were transactions of hundreds of millions of dollars, and the company has already made public the intent to spend up to 500 million more in podcasts in 2019. And it only makes sense, being the main music platform in the world, to become “the Netflix of podcasts,” as it is already being nicknamed.
But what does this mean exactly? Podcasts are mostly a free medium, so far usually monetised in 4 ways: advertising, merchandising, paid events or crowdfunding through platforms like Patreon. Which means the main product is very rarely paid or hidden behind a paywall. Spotify itself hosts podcasts which can be freely accessed because that content is available for free everywhere else. Or is it?
Owning exclusive content (which it started to produce as early as 2017 ) Spotify will now have complete control over its podcasts which, together with a potential episode factory such as Anchor, can make it unstoppable. At the moment, Spotify’s impact on the number of podcast downloads/plays is not yet substantial, but building an empire will change that sooner than later, and may even benefit podcast creators listed in the platform, who will be able to reach new audiences that already use Spotify to listen to music everyday.
However, big questions remain about the future of podcasts, highlighted by these news but anyway inevitable in a universe so with so much potential and so little control. It is predictable that unique content will emerge more and more and that that will change the landscape in the medium. It will not take much to entice independent creators, eager for sustainability and reach, into an exclusive, golden wall. Other giants will follow. The format was practically born with Apple, but I doubt they will remain faithful to the original free spirit, when Apple Music can be used in exactly the same way. And Google has also recently launched its podcast app , which could also be coupled with Google Play Music. I hope I’m wrong.
We, the little ones, will remain, and through pride, conviction or lack of access, we will continue making content available for free and for the love of the game. But will the giants be willing to welcome us while we give out our love for free? And will we be willing to share a home with someone who offers the same as us but gets paid for it?
Even beyond these issues, but after which everything gains new contours, it is essential to reflect on the main problem of podcasts right now, which spawns from their own success and ease of access and production with little investment: there are more podcasts than anyone can reasonably manage.
In March 2018, Apple, the industry-leading podcast platform who essentially dictates the rules, passed the mark of 50 billion individual downloads in a universe of more than 500,000 registered podcasts.
What to do with both podcast and so little time to listen and especially discover new ones?
Today the best podcasting tool is still word-of-mouth, and we rely more on the opinions of friends than on any advertisement, raking or algorithm. I believe this model will be explored to an extreme, as it is already done with music, precisely by Spotify.
It is a forecast I have been doing for some time, but it shines under a new light after the recent news.
Think about it. Today you can create playlists with music and podcasts, but what if in the future a perfect circle will be closed and each of us has a personal audio channel, combining our own content with podcasts by other people — who’ve allowed it when signing into the platform — maybe even with planned (or automatic) programming, with musical interludes(well, Spotify, there you go) and breaks for advertising? Spotify will invent the radio.
An individual radio, programmed and always playing, with content chosen and programmed by me, which everyone can subscribe to and follow. It is not much different from what is already happening with song playlists and, if you think about it, with Instagram Stories. It keeps ego cultivation (we’ll have a hard time getting rid of this one), and it solves the issue of finding new content, because we will follow people and not shows. And everyone will want to follow or feature in celebrities’ channels.
It may even be that none of this is planned. Or that Netflix thinks of this format before the others (it desperately needs to). But I don’t think many other viable options are available and saturation is starting to be a real problem everyone will be affected by.
It will not be long before we see if I was right, but if these words inspire a new media service, just remember me when you’re filthy rich and I’m still writing about podcasts. MB