Hope everyone had a great holiday weekend. For today's issue of Hot Pod, I'm analyzing a few recent misfires in Spotify's podcast strategy — and what they bode for the company's future.
What on Earth is Spotify doing with podcasts, exactly?
If you’re lucky enough to be in the South of France this week for Cannes Lions (basically the less cool, advertiser and brands-focused counterpart to the film festival), you may be tempted to spend some time with Spotify. The company has pulled together an extravagant four-day program of sound baths, beach-side mixers, masterclasses on podcasting, and panels with Spotify leadership and high-profile podcast hosts like Emma Chamberlain and Alex Cooper. Attendees on Tuesday evening were serenaded on “Spotify Beach” by Florence and the Machine, Will.i.am, and Jack Harlow.
But anywhere else, you may be wary of getting too close to the streaming audio company. In the past week, Joe Rogan — the man responsible for delivering an outsize portion of Spotify’s podcast ad revenue — invited an anti-vaxxer presidential candidate on his show. The same day, a $20 million podcast deal with a certain royal couple fell apart, which was followed by a top executive calling the duo a pair of “fucking grifters” on his own podcast. And that all follows two rounds of layoffs in 2023 alone, the latter of which primarily focused on Spotify’s podcast division.
Spotify knows something is wrong with its podcast strategy — and these past few weeks have proved it. The company’s missteps reveal how fundamentally different the formula of success is in podcasts from film, video games, books, and even music. Franchises, IP, and name recognition can be enough to deliver a hit across many different mediums. But in the world of podcasts, a series from an acclaimed filmmaker, best-selling author, or even a former president can barely register on the charts. And after years of chasing this hit-making strategy, it all seems to be falling apart.
One pillar of Spotify’s podcast strategy was meant to be originals from its in-house studios. Spotify spent big to acquire two of the best: Parcast and Gimlet, the latter of which won a Pulitzer for its reporting earlier this year. Gimlet and Parcast also produced the kind of prestige, narrative podcasts that Hollywood studios loved to snatch up for IP.
Yet despite coming with their own excellent staffs and built-in audiences, Spotify’s lack of direction and knowledge of the podcasting space proved to be a death sentence for Gimlet and Parcast. The studios failed to attract large audiences and develop hit new shows. Shows didn’t get the right marketing or support from Spotify. Keeping certain podcasts exclusive to Spotify meant a drop in audience.
This culminated in the platform axing over 200 roles throughout Gimlet and Parcast earlier this month and absorbing what remained into Spotify Studios.
The next pillar of Spotify’s podcast strategy was splashy, usually celebrity-driven originals. Some of these have worked out, like the Batman Unburied podcast by David S. Goyer or the Case 63 scripted drama with Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac. But many have not.
Last week, Spotify’s most troubled celebrity deal — with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s production company, Archewell Audio — came to an anticlimactic end. Under the deal, Archewell should have produced multiple projects. But reports suggest that the couple couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deliver, and the deal only yielded a 12-episode interview podcast and a holiday special episode. The lack of output led to the $20 million deal’s demise, and the couple reportedly didn’t receive the full payout.
To demonstrate just how messy Spotify’s relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex became, look at how happy the company has been to trash-talk Archewell’s work. In a comment to Hot Pod last week, Spotify spokesperson Emily Yeomans pointed out the studio’s lack of output. “We can’t comment on the specifics of how their deal was structured but for reference Higher Ground has continued to deliver multiple new series, even since launching their partnership with Audible. In the 2.5 years, Archewell only produced one season of Archetypes,” Yeomans said.
Bill Simmons, Spotify’s head of podcast innovation and monetization, also proceeded to blast the couple on his show, calling them a pair of “grifters.” He also teased a drunk reenactment of a disastrous Zoom brainstorming sesh with Prince Harry.
I (and very many others) would pay serious money to listen to Simmons tell that story. But his anecdote comes off just as bad for Spotify as it does for the duke and duchess, suggesting that Spotify signed the royals to a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal without knowing whether they’d actually be good at creating podcasts or what those podcasts would be about. The company reportedly had to cajole them to get anything out the door.
Prior to the Archewell fallout, Spotify’s deals with several other high-profile, star-driven studios and creators came to an end, including Higher Ground, Brené Brown, and Ava DuVernay. Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground opted not to renew its contract with Spotify last year, citing a desire to no longer have its shows locked to one platform. A multiyear exclusive deal with DuVernay didn’t lead to a single podcast — both parties also cut ties last year.
One problem is that none of these people — from former presidents to filmmakers to bestselling authors — were able to deliver sure-fire podcast hits. Even a podcast hosted by Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen ended up putting people to sleep.
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Those deals all had the goal of eventually bringing new listeners to Spotify, but perhaps one celebrity deal was a strategic pillar unto itself: Joe Rogan, who hosts the most widely listened-to podcast in the country.
Rogan has regularly caused headaches for Spotify since it signed him for $200 million in 2020 — artists like Neil Young threatened to leave the platform, and employees and advertisers voiced concerns — but he’d largely stayed off the radar for a bit until last week. On Thursday, Rogan published a three-hour conversation with anti-vaxxer presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., where the latter suggested that vaccines cause autism and 5G causes cancer, Motherboard reported. Clips of the episode quickly gained a new life on anti-vax social media, where it became the topic du jour.
Things came to a head when Rogan began responding to critics on Twitter, many of whom accused the podcast host of spreading misinformation. After Dr. Peter Hotez, a prominent children’s pediatrician, quote tweeted the Motherboard story, Rogan began challenging him to prove his claims. He tweeted at Hotez multiple times, asking the vaccine expert to debate Kennedy on his show and offering a $100,000 donation in exchange.
Hotez finally gave in, tweeting out, “Joe, you have my cell, my email, I’m always willing to speak with you.”
But Rogan was not satisfied with Hotez’s response, quote tweeting it and deeming it a “non” answer. “I challenged you publicly because you publicly quote tweeted and agreed with that dogshit vice article. If you’re really serious about what you stand for, you now have a massive opportunity for a debate that will reach the largest audience a discussion like this has ever had,” he wrote.
Wealthy entrepreneurs seem to have a lot of time for Twitter. Elon Musk joined in on the goading, and Mark Cuban leapt to Hotez’s defense. Both Rogan and Musk’s supporters lashed out at Hotez, subjecting the doctor to hours of online harassment and prompting an unwanted visit by anti-vaxxers to his personal residence. Spotify has not yet responded to The Verge’s request for comment on these events. Rogan recently upped his offer to Hotez to $600,000.
This cascading series of events says a lot about the unwieldy nature of Spotify’s podcast business, which is still driven mostly by the former host of Fear Factor. Not even a compilation video of Rogan saying the n-word nearly two dozen times got him kicked off the platform. It’s a lot of power for one creator to yield.
As those pillars of Spotify’s podcast strategy continue to falter, Spotify seems to be shifting its attention to one big — and much more obviously lucrative — remaining element: its ability to sell ads.
Earlier this month, Spotify’s head of podcasts, Sahar Elhabashi, wrote in a memo about the company’s “next phase” in podcasting, which would focus on “delivering even more value” for creators and users — including upgrading its ad tools and business models for podcasters. We started to get a sense of how that’ll play out at Cannes this week.
First off is the news that Spotify will partner with former Daily Show host Trevor Noah to launch a weekly Spotify Original podcast.
“I think what I love most about [...podcasts], unlike many other mediums, is that it’s flexible,
it’s elastic. You can play with what you need to. You can create worlds where you want to. You can shape it as you see fit. And I think there are few spaces in media that still possess that,” Noah said onstage.
But the “flexibility” of the podcasting medium is where some of Spotify’s troubles lie. Spotify isn’t selling anything that’s unique in the world of podcasting. And that may be why Spotify’s strategy around content is shifting: while Trevor Noah’s podcast — due later this year — will be a Spotify Original, it won’t be exclusive to the platform. This will be a win for Noah’s podcast, which will gain more exposure. But it’s also a pivot for Spotify, which has kept many of its original shows in its walled garden.
“Spotify is in a very unique position of figuring out how to make things work in a way that will benefit them. But they haven’t done it yet,” podcast strategist Eric Nuzum told Hot Pod.
According to Nuzum, until Spotify figures out what makes its platform stand out from competitors like Apple, Stitcher, SiriusXM, and others, it won’t matter who they sign up. The company is still far from the most popular platform for podcasts. That distinction belongs to YouTube, while Apple Podcasts has the largest number of downloads (thanks largely to its automatic downloads feature) — accounting for 71 percent of downloads, compared to Spotify’s 9 percent, according to Podtrac figures from March.
“Spotify loves to throw out a lot of numbers about how big they’ve grown, and I think they deserve some credit for that,” Nuzum said. But he added that if you speak to most creators, they would say about 50 to 60 percent of their downloads come from Apple Podcasts — while Spotify may account for a little less than a quarter.
It’s just another reminder that Spotify has yet to dominate the podcast market — despite its record investment. “Someone joked to me the other day that Spotify spent a billion dollars to become Acast,” said Nuzum, referring to another Swedish podcasting company.
Spotify’s Ad Analytics tool, which it unveiled this month, speaks to its increased focus on ad dollars and its need to deliver value to creators. Recruiting talented creators is hard, and ad businesses remain the real moneymaker behind any hit. Among Ad Analytics’ offerings is Pixel, a new ad-tracking tool that helps advertisers track leads and find out which podcasts drove the most purchases. Spotify is also reported to be launching a super premium audio tier, which will include HiFi audio, expanded audiobook access, and other perks that could make it a bigger draw for listeners.
But until then, Joe Rogan is still what differentiates Spotify’s podcast business from Apple, Amazon, iHeartPodcasts, SiriusXM, Stitcher, and all the rest. Despite everything Spotify has done and the money it has spent — the litany of new content deals, technology acquisitions, and awards — the former Fear Factor host still remains Spotify’s numero uno draw for podcasts. But the relationship between the two isn’t a healthy one of mutual dependence.
“Who knows what the future is going to be for Joe Rogan and Spotify? I don’t think Joe Rogan needs Spotify. But I think Spotify’s ad business would hurt without Joe Rogan,” said Nuzum.
“[...Rogan’s show is] the only thing they have. It’s so much bigger than anything else.”
Rogan can go anywhere with his show, taking a large portion of Spotify’s revenue with him, which means that Spotify’s most lucrative deal is also its biggest weakness, with the possibility of collapsing on any given day. And whatever happens to Spotify will impact the rest of the audio industry.
“You want businesses to take risks and try crazy things — because that’s where great ideas are found. Unfortunately, when Spotify makes big moves, it has a big ripple effect across the podcasting industry,” said Nuzum.
That's all for now! See you next week for another issue of Hot Pod.
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