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July 23, 2019, 8:43 a.m.

How do exclusive podcasts fit into the forever war between Apple and Spotify?

Plus: Anger at Amazon, a Q&A with Rose Eveleth, and we may have reached Peak “Peak Podcast.”

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 219, dated July 23, 2019.

Apple, podcasts, and exclusive content. Obviously, we should talk a little more about the Apple business.

ICYMI: Bloomberg published a story last week reporting that Apple is apparently planning to “fund original podcasts that would be exclusive to its audio service,” and that the company had already reached out to multiple media companies about those efforts. The report also noted that discussions were still preliminary, that Apple “had yet to outline a clear strategy,” and that the plan was formulated to fend off Spotify (and Stitcher). Concrete details were sparse: It’s uncertain whether these discussions pertained to Apple Podcasts or Apple Music, whether the intended deals revolved around licensing existing podcasts or developing new projects (or both), and whether these conversations happened in recent weeks or months.

Which leaves us in potent, and sticky, speculative territory. The devil will be in the details on this one, as the exact shape of Apple’s exclusive audio content intervention will be crucial to properly grokking how it will impact the podcast ecosystem’s core dynamics…and the degree to which Apple will actually be breaking from its historical position as impartial steward of the medium.

But the simple fact that Apple is exploring exclusive audio, amidst the context of Spotify’s various agitations, is enough to trigger a general wave of anxiety among certain podcast folk. Amidst all the industrialization that’s happened in podcasting over the past few years, to some this development feels like a point of no return, perhaps marking the end of an era when Apple served as a safe haven for smaller creators and upstarts looking for a (relatively) equal playing ground. Whether that’s a completely accurate assessment of Apple’s relationship to podcasting is somewhat up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: There’s a difference between a platform that only functions as a distributor and a platform that double-tasks as a distributor and a publisher. Something fundamentally changes when the former transforms into the latter.

Meanwhile, many of the podcast operators and observers I’ve spoken with over the past week believe that Apple Music will be central to whatever these original audio content plans end up becoming. Which is a totally fair reading: After all, you can’t really talk about the Apple–Spotify relationship without talking, first and foremost, about Apple Music.

For years, the two music streaming platforms (plus Pandora) have been locked in a robust competition for listeners and paid subscribers around the world. The music industry had been the primary battleground for these platforms up until this point, but Spotify, by spending all that money on podcast companies earlier this year, appears to have fundamentally reframed the terms of the competition. A subscriber who pays for music stuff is equally valuable as a subscriber who pays for non-music stuff, and so in the pursuit of more paid subscriptions, Spotify has decided to become more than a music streaming platform.

If I were Apple — and I am not a trillion-dollar corporation, but bear with me — I’d see Spotify’s reframing of the competition as the presentation of a choice. After years of leaving podcasts off on the side (despite owning the space for a long time), I’m now being made to do something about it. Should I consolidate podcast and music assets in a bid to directly match Apple Music up with Spotify? Or should I preserve separation between Apple Podcasts and Apple Music, developing them out as two separate product lines? (Separate, but potentially related, whether through some future Apple+ subscription unification efforts or something else.) I imagine the question, and the significance, of how Apple approaches exclusive audio shows will depend on which path it takes.

Again, details are sparse, and it may be a while before we find out how Apple will land on this. That said, there are some interesting org chart considerations to earmark for later.

As the Bloomberg report pointed out, Apple has put Oliver Schusser, VP of Apple Music and international, “in charge of podcasts and music.” The report also notes that Schusser will be assisted by Ben Cave, an eight-year Apple veteran who has served on both the iTunes Podcasts and international music teams, who will now help oversee podcast strategy.

(As an aside: Before Cave joined Apple, he was the head of development at Somethin’ Else, the London content strategy and production agency. There’s a bit of Somethin’ Else diaspora in Big Audio-land; other alums include Kat Wong, the head of Beats 1 in Europe, and Rowan Collinson, who leads Spotify’s podcast curation efforts in the U.K., Australian, and New Zealand markets. Fun fact for your intelligence dossiers.)

For what it’s worth, I’m reticent to read too much into the apparent bundling together of the management of Apple’s Music and Podcast divisions. Instead, the way I’ll be reading whatever happens next is to mostly see it as the beginning of a discovery phase, with lots of experimentation up ahead. (As one executive pointed out to me: I shouldn’t forget that, on the TV front, Apple had to first go through Planet of the Apps before they could get to their current plan with Apple TV+ — and even then, it’s still unclear what will be the final strategy they’ll settle on.)

On the flip side, I’m also unsure whether Apple’s intentions with original audio content automatically marks the end of the open phase. There are permutations in which Apple can bankroll exclusive audio shows while fundamentally maintaining Apple Podcasts’ existing dynamics. (One thing I continue to mull over: Wouldn’t Bloomberg’s report have been treated somewhat differently if the story was “Apple plans to fund original audio shows that would be exclusive to its Apple Music service?” Maybe I’m just being dense.)

If there’s anything I am sure about, though, it’s this: Assuming the Bloomberg report holds true, Apple is now another major buyer, and that’s good news for a certain kind of audio producer, creator, and entrepreneur.

Okay, so, you may or may not know this, but I help publish another newsletter, one that focuses on technology and the music industry. It’s called Water & Music, it’s written by Cherie Hu, and it’s great, you should subscribe to it. Given the overlap in subject matter, I figured it would be a good idea to have Cherie walk us through a prominent historical example of Apple getting involved with exclusive audio content: i.e. Apple Music and Beats 1. Might be useful, y’know?

Apple Music and exclusive content: A primer [by Cherie Hu]. The podcast industry is buzzing after that Bloomberg report. To better understand how Apple thinks about exclusive content and how this effort might maybe play out within podcasting, though, it’s worth examining the company’s current position in the music-streaming sector — where dependence on exclusives has actually declined over time.

Since Apple Music’s launch in June 2015, the service has attempted to differentiate itself from competitors like Spotify and Amazon Music by signing an unparalleled collection of exclusive windowing deals with the likes of Drake (“Hotline Bling“), Frank Ocean (Blonde) and Chance the Rapper (Coloring Book). This was in large part to lure in new users, since Apple didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a free tier to offer — only a three-month free trial before charging $9.99/month for an individual subscription.

But since 2015, artists and record labels at large have mostly turned away from exclusive releases. That’s because under the dominant music-streaming model — which pays rights holders an average of around $0.005 per stream — an artist needs an enormous amount of reach in order to generate enough streaming income to recoup on the expenses of making a single or album. Exclusive contracts might offer the six- to seven-figure upfront advances required to recoup on said expenses, but they arguably still put artists at a disadvantage by minimizing the reach of their work, and therefore the amount of consumption that can be directly monetized.

It might be a different story for those with more regional appeal looking to expand their international footprint who could be comfortable making that trade-off; for instance, Apple Music struck a week-long, exclusive windowing agreement this month for French rap duo PNL’s upcoming catalog. But for stars looking to play as global and comprehensive a game as possible, an exclusive — even with a big-tech behemoth — just isn’t going to cut it.

While Apple Music did recently surpass 60 million global paying subscribers, Spotify still has 40 million more global paying subscribers and counting, and there are a total of over 255 million music subscribers globally, according to the IFPI. It’s no coincidence that many celebrities previously considered darlings of the exclusives world, like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, have since abandoned the strategy in favor of ubiquity.

Facing this mounting pressure, Beats 1 — the radio station named after the pair of companies Apple acquired for $3 billion in 2014 and arguably Apple’s most valuable owned-and-operated curation brand — has now become the least exclusive content venture at the tech company. Even with coveted, artist-curated stations from the likes of Drake, Frank Ocean and Nicki Minaj in tow, it’s free of charge for anyone to stream, 24/7. Beats 1 DJ Ebro Darden has promised to make the station more discoverable in 2019, a mission that has manifested in full force on the brand’s free YouTube channel.

Interestingly, Apple Music’s slate of exclusive video content has far outnumbered the service’s album-windowing deals to date, with a much more diversified set of both short- and long-form films. Recent additions from the past few years include exclusive concert films from Sam Smith and Christine and the Queens, album documentaries from Ed Sheeran and Kesha and docu-series about Wiz Khalifa and Apple Music’s Up Next program for emerging artists.

This type of content is arguably meant more to retain superfans than to attract prospective consumers on the brink of moving away from a competitor. [This analysis, by the way, would fall in line with the “Apple Music is for more serious fans vs. Spotify is for the more passive fan” strategic paradigm laid out by Slate’s David Turner in a piece last July. —Nick] From the artist’s perspective, this actually gives them more leverage in their content deals — and puts a fundamentally different twist on the cliched debate about whether “content” or “platform” is king. The answer in music is increasingly a combination of the two: custom content across multiple platforms at once.

For instance, while burgeoning pop star Billie Eilish did nail an exclusive music-video and merch partnership deal with Apple Music, she also had exclusive campaigns with Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube Music for the same album, each of which dove into a different aspect of her creative process and output. And in terms of video content, SVOD services like Netflix may actually become even better multimedia partners than Apple Music with respect to giving artists the creative wiggle room they need to tell interesting stories. Consider how Beyoncé and Thom Yorke both chose Netflix, not Apple Music, to host exclusive longer-form video content alongside high-profile, ubiquitous album releases (the concert documentary Homecoming and the conceptual short film ANIMA, respectively).

This strategy ensures that consumer choice is preserved while delighting fans with content that seems made for their preferred consumption habits and maintaining a healthy sense of competition among different services. The case studies around Beyoncé and Eilish in particular prove that, at least for music, the game has fundamentally changed: In a world where music is culturally and financially mandated to be everywhere, streaming platforms are no longer bidding for content but rather for credit. And you can’t meaningfully take credit for someone’s growth if your business model requires you to restrict it.

Peaks and valleys. By now, you’ve probably encountered, or at least heard about, that New York Times article floating around last week with an eye-catching lead anecdote — which centered on an individual who started and ended a podcast with less-than-realistic expectations relative to effort — and an equally eye-catching headline: “Have we hit peak podcast?” (I’m quoted in the piece, by the way.)

The piece caused a bit of a ruckus, rubbing some podcast folk the wrong way. Part of the commotion, I think, comes in part from a general frustration with the assumptions held by the podcaster in the lead anecdote: namely, the notion that “podcasting is easy because anyone can start one, and you can totally make money too.” This, I should say, is a notion that continues to be broadly pushed in certain corners of the podcast community, much to the chagrin of professionalizing producers that, in their pursuit of production contracts and proper advertising dollars, have to constantly fight against the idea that making high-achieving podcasts is easy. That notion, which is fanciful in the way that get-rich-quick schemes tend to be fanciful, remains a prominent remnant of podcasting’s blog-rooted historical identity, and it continues to be a lingering spectre that materially impacts the day-to-day of the community’s professionalizing class.

(I should also say: This is separate and apart from the broader culture of DIY podcasting, i.e. folks who make podcasts for fun with comparatively practical expectations around audiences and monetization. Everybody should feel free to make whatever they want. I’m just saying: The audience and money parts of this gig are meant to be hard.)

The other thing that rankled some podcast people, I think, is an interpretation of the article that sees it as presenting a specific type of podcast creator — the one motivated by the assumption of ease — as adequately representative of the whole community. The question is asked in response: Why is this person, and this person’s very particular experience, being taken to be the face of what I do? And why are those things being taken to say something broader about the fate of my business?

Reasonable questions, all. In reality, the podcast ecosystem is made up of many different kinds of creators: professionals and hobbyists, journalists and aspiring influencers, institutionally trained and self-taught, real estate warblers and fiction podcasters. And so it is understandably bothersome when one of those segments is made to say something general about everyone else.

For what it’s worth, I thought the piece started out in the direction of maybe saying something interesting about a specific type of podcaster. But it didn’t quite land the plane, and furthermore, by virtue of imprecise framing, it ran into the acute difficulty of adequately capturing a wide universe of constituencies and experiences within a single article. (I imagine a similarly shaped critique can be applied to the “let’s hang out at a diner to know what rural America is thinking” genre of political reporting.) That podcasting is many different operating realities often squished into one word is a challenge in representative identity: At the end of the day, who gets to rep?

Anyway, I suspect the thing that most bothered me about the article is the thing that bothered others the least (because I’m a big ol’ nerd): the fact that it didn’t actually address the concept of “peak podcast,” whether we’re there yet, and what are the ramifications. Two summers ago, I wrote a column working through that very concept, speculating a scenario in which the ever-increasing abundance of podcast supply ultimately breaks the structural integrity of podcasting’s current business trajectory and future potential. I think many of the ideas — in particular, how the continuously expanding supply will increase the need for granular reorganization, differentiation, marketing costs, and quality thresholds — still hold up, if they haven’t already borne themselves out. But I’ll let you decide that.

Career Spotlight. The future is in the details, and the details are worth close examination. Rose Eveleth has been independently making Flash Forward — an excellent and thoughtful journalistic podcast that explores various what-if scenarios — since 2015, which feels both like a long time and not that long at all.

In this edition of Career Spotlight, Eveleth spoke to us about initially wanting to be a scientist, making surprising work, and the tenuousness of independent shows in the “golden age of podcasts.”

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Rose Eveleth: I’m a freelancer with feet in a lot of worlds. I make Flash Forward, a podcast about the future, and I’m working on a handful of Flash Forward Universe projects. I also write columns for Vice and Wired and features for publications like Slate, Scientific American, Vox, et al. On top of that, I write fiction, mostly about the future but sometimes about the past. Like I said, lots of feet in lots of worlds.

Hot Pod: How did you get to this point?

Eveleth: I thought I was going to be a scientist for a really long time. But once I started actually doing science I realized that it just wasn’t the thing for me. I liked asking questions and trying to figure out the answers, but in science you’re lucky if you get to answer three questions in your whole career, and they’re almost always in one discipline. I had never heard of “science journalism,” but the head of the lab I was working in told me about an NYU program called SHERP (Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program), which is a 16-month master’s program. I applied, and somehow got in despite having terrible test scores, zero experience writing or doing journalism, and a truly bananas application (including a fiction piece about a scientist obsessed with a dead squid? truly why did they let me in I will never know).

While I was at NYU, I commandeered a WNYU radio slot and made a weekly half hour show about science that (thank god) nobody listened to, and then interned at Radiolab where I learned a ton about how to make podcasts. After that, I hit the ground freelancing and haven’t really looked back honestly. I did a short stint at ESPN helping them launch the 30 for 30 podcast, and now I’m back to being independent.

Hot Pod: What does a career mean to you?

Eveleth: About a year ago, I moved away from NYC and I think that has definitely changed how I think about career and work. I’m less focused on whether or not “the right people” know who I am and more focused on whether the work I’m making is satisfying to me. I got a hobby! I spend a lot more time away from my desk! I’m trying to relearn how to be a person who doesn’t define 100 percent of themselves based on their career. Right now, I think my career goal is to be a person that makes surprising things. In fact, I have “Make Surprising Work” on a big Post-It note taped to my monitor, in sparkly gold sharpie.

If I can make a living making surprising work, that’s a pretty sweet career I think?

Hot Pod: Tell me more about the period when you wanted to be a scientist.

Eveleth: For as long as I can remember, my dream was to be the Jane Goodall of the sea. (I got scuba certified at 10 at a military diving program, which I think no longer exists because too many kids got hurt.) I had this whole vision of going down into the ocean and finding new, never-before-seen species, observing them, and furthering our understanding of the sea. I was particularly interested in the deep ocean, and in the weird invertebrates that live there and that are mostly unknown because it’s almost impossible to bring them up from the depths in a way that preserves their bodies. I thought I’d be spending long, lonely hours in a tiny submarine looking for life. Instead, I spend long lonely hours in a tiny office, but I’m still looking for life.

Hot Pod: When you look around at what’s been happening in podcasting lately, what comes across your mind?

Eveleth: I think a lot about whether or not small independent shows like mine can survive in the “golden era of podcasting.” Some small indie shows have done really well in this new landscape, and some haven’t, and I’m still trying to formulate a unified theory for what divides them. It feels really hard to make it when you’re a solo operator right now, especially if you’re someone like me who doesn’t have celebrity status or the backing of a big studio or network (and isn’t making a true crime show).

I do wonder if shows that got big before the money arrived could get as big if they started today. And I think a lot about what that means for the rest of us — shows that do reasonably well but are kind of in that uncanny valley between hobby and big-time: big enough to be a legit show, but not quite big enough to compete with all these new players with piles of cash.

Some days I feel hopeful, but most days I feel like the indie market is being slowly squeezed out by people who are only making podcasts because they actually want a TV show. Which is a bummer.

Hot Pod: What are you listening to these days?

Eveleth: I don’t really listen to anything regularly — I dip in and out of a ton of shows. (Who has time to listen to podcasts!?) I’m really enjoying Ologies, I think Alie [Ward] is a great host (a skill I’m trying to work on myself right now). I’m also really digging Nice Try! hosted by Avery Trufelman (see earlier note about hosting skills.) Other stuff in my semi-regular list: Punch Up The Jam, No Such Thing as a Fish, Who? Weekly, The Truth, Bad With Money, Burn It All Down. Making this list is stressful! I listen to a ton of shows but almost none of them regularly (right now I am subscribed to 560 podcasts on my app).

You can find Flash Forward here, and you can read more about the show specifically in this interview with Bitch Media. You can also find Rose on Twitter here.

Tracking

  • American Public Media has hired Liliana Kim, formerly the vice president of MTV’s international content strategy and brand management, as its new managing director of podcasts. She starts August 19.
  • Transmitter Media has made a few additions to its staff: Jordan Bailey as associate producer (formerly of Gimlet Creative and Jetty), Constanza Gallardo as producer (formerly of Planet Money’s The Indicator), and Sara Nics as managing editor (formerly of The New Yorker Radio Hour).
  • ICYMI, ESPN is launching a daily sports news podcast called, ahem, The ESPN Daily. Here’s The Washington Post, with the meatiest writeup.
  • From the L.A. Times: “In the Trump era, a comedy podcast about conspiracy theories finds a home in the mainstream.” An excellent profile on The Last Podcast on the Left, which now reportedly averages 1 million downloads per episode and another 11 million per month off the back catalogue.
  • Sarah Larson’s latest in The New Yorker is fantastic, and fascinating: “The audio app that’s transforming erotica.”
  • From The Verge: “Publishers are pissed about Amazon’s upcoming Audible Captions feature.” Keep an eye on this, a development that may have ramifications far beyond its bounds.

Release notes

  • Lawfare, the highly influential blog focusing on national security issues, has rolled out a narrative series podcast that seriously attempts to unpack the Mueller report in a more accessible form. The project is called The Report, it’s a co-production with the D.C.-based network Goat Rodeo, and it hit the top of the Apple Podcasts charts over the weekend.
  • Vox Media is releasing its first season of Land of the Giants, its documentary anthology series on the big technology companies that’s increasingly governing our lives, today. That debut season tackles Amazon and it’s hosted by Recode’s Jason Del Rey.
  • Spoke Media, the Dallas podcast network and production studio, recently added two new shows to its portfolio: Hot & Bothered, which comes out a partnership with the creators of Harry Potter & The Sacred Text, and Untitled Dad Project, by Janielle Kastner.
  • iHeartMedia has forged a co-production partnership with Pride Media — whose media brands include Out, The Advocate, and Pride — that involves the creation of a new slate of LGBQT+ podcasts across the next year. The first projects include The Outcast, co-produced with Out Magazine, and a relaunch of Food 4 Thot. Here’s Variety on the matter.
  • Sam Greenspan, a founding producer on 99% Invisible and USA Today’s The City, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his upcoming project, a speculative journalism podcast called Bellwether.
POSTED     July 23, 2019, 8:43 a.m.
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