The podcast world woke up to big news this morning: Spotify is acquiring Gimlet and Anchor. The studio that promised listeners better shows than the public radio model could afford to produce will now have the most resources in the game. And the startup that pivoted from “Audio Twitter” to “anyone can make a podcast” will likely see its technology integrated into 207 million users’ phones.
Before 9am, I got a dozen messages from friends and colleagues worried about what such a large and unexpected consolidation means for those of us trying to make a living in podcasting. I’m anxious too, but I remember this happening once before: Google’s 2006 acquisition of the venture-capital-backed startup YouTube. It was surprising, abrupt, and changed the industry forever.
So, fellow podcasters, here are three lessons I learned the hard way as a YouTube creator.
1. Platforms are tools, not friends
The early YouTube community was experimental, intimate, and exciting. From video blogs to makeup tutorials to unboxing videos, people — many without any formal training in film production or even digital media — invented online video as we know it today. Not for money, not for fame, but because it was fun. That feels a lot like podcasting now.
As YouTube grew and generated revenue, they started to make decisions that baffled us creators. They did away with hand-selected video recommendations on their front page and sidebar, once the fastest way to grow your audience on the platform, in favor of algorithmic recommendations. Quietly, and then publicly, YouTube engineered this algorithm to prefer videos that kept users on the platform for longer. The algorithm learns from a user’s watch history but doesn’t always serve more relevant or more diverse videos. It definitely does serve longer ones, and the longer the user’s visit, the more money for Google.
It seems that every six months, YouTube shifted resources or debuted features that benefited Google’s goals instead of improving the user or creator experience. For years we reacted to these announcements with shock, anger, and disbelief, until we became cynical enough to expect them.
Podcast platforms are no different. Every company making tools for podcasters, from Anchor to Spotify to Acast, claim to make it simple for you to monetize your content. That’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s because what you make is special, and they need your work in order to make money. Sometimes it makes sense to use their tools to advance your own business, but remember that companies must ultimately answer to their investors or shareholders, not the creators whose work makes them relevant. You must be skeptical of their promises, ask critical questions, back up your data(!!), and build a business that can withstand a platform changing or going away.
Use platforms. Don’t let them use you.
2. Diversify your income
Earning money on YouTube was too easy to last. AdSense, the Google technology that shows ads before, during, or overlaid on YouTube videos, never paid very much. But it was easy to get a trickle of revenue, and creators worked incredibly hard to produce more and more videos to keep up with the algorithm’s changing whims. Then, in 2017, a series of scandals, technological changes, and heavy-handed policies resulted in many YouTubers suddenly making much less than the previous month — sometimes by half or more. Creators that only had AdSense earnings to pay rent were left high and dry when the platform they relied on changed its policies without warning.
Making just over $100 on a video that cost thousands to produce is what led YouTube musician Jack Conte to start Patreon, a company that lets creators receive direct monetary support from their audiences. While not a perfect company, this powerful tool built by and for creators is a must for anyone hoping to make a living making stuff online. And, unlike on YouTube — which neither shows you your subscribers’ contact info nor serves your new videos to all of your subscribers — I have access to the email addresses of all of the people that support my shows on Patreon. If I ever decided to leave that platform for another (not something I’m planning on, but in digital media, you never know) I would be able to communicate with my audience and ask them to move with me.
Steady, predictable revenue directly from my audience is a big part of what allowed me to quit my job last year and podcast full-time. I learned from YouTube that I can’t stake my ability to pay rent on ad rates, sponsor interest in my shows, or my audience’s willingness to check out these companies. And I sell those ads myself, since I know how powerless I feel when a platform I rely on changes its mission, tools, or payout rates. No one platform will ever have the answer to making a living in a given medium, especially the ones that make the splashiest headlines and raise the most money. Independent creators are always the ones who suffer most when platform titans go to battle. The less dependent we are on any one of them, the more insulated we are from the effects of giant mergers like this one.
Diversify your income. Ask your audience for direct support. Bet on yourself, your creativity, and your connection with your audience — not the newest platform to make big promises.
3. You have something that money can’t buy
I spent many school nights learning how to make videos with my laptop’s webcam not because I wanted to be a filmmaker, but because I loved the community I found on YouTube. I challenged myself to communicate better, saw versions of grown-up life that influenced the college I went to and the career I pursued, and made friends I still have to this day. I got the book, music, and TV recommendations that shaped my personality during my formative years from people I watched on YouTube. If I recommended something to my small audience, a couple dozen people were likely to check it out and share their thoughts with me. And when I asked questions of my audience at the end of a four-minute video blog, a meaningful conversation would go on for days or weeks in the comments.
No amount of money can buy that kind of connection. The love, community, and creative expression that you get from your work might not be rewarded with VC money, but I promise you it’s worth more than this Spotify deal. This is the “influence” that makes radio pledge drives, podcast ads, and Instagram #sponcon work. And it’s extremely hard (not to mention expensive) to manufacture. Every media company that’s “pivoted to video” has been chasing this intimate and influential relationship. One look at media headlines from the last year — hell, the last five — will show you how well that tends to go for companies chasing easy profits.
So many of my YouTuber friends accepted the first buyout deal, predatory agency, or exploitative licensing agreement that came their way. They were worried that this was their one chance to make money. And I see podcasters doing the same thing now with platforms paying for original content or exclusive rights to new seasons and back catalogs. I’ll never begrudge someone for getting paid, but I want them to ask for more! Negotiate for more money. Retain your intellectual property. And never give anyone else the right to your future projects. As unlikely as it feels when we’re putting hundreds of hours into projects that lose us money, I promise we have power. The pioneers of new mediums, the very people left in the dust when platforms fight to see who will be the last one standing, are actually the ones with agency in this landscape. Take it from me, an ex-YouTuber who found creativity and community in podcasts: platforms come and go, but making meaningful connections with your audience will always be valuable.
So, to answer those early morning texts: the Spotify news isn’t great. But it’s not surprising. I’ve lived through it before, and I know that with healthy skepticism, diversified revenue, and belief in their own value, my podcaster friends will make it through, too.
Amanda McLoughlin is a podcaster and business builder. She created Multitude, an independent podcast collective and consultancy based in New York City. Reach her via Twitter or email, and check out Multitude’s resources for podcasters here.