BY Aaron Wu

Earlier this year, Joe Rogan, one of the most popular figures on YouTube, announced that his podcast would stream exclusively on Spotify. This was a one-of-a-kind deal that would see the music streaming giant pay more for a podcast than they have nearly any other artist. But what exactly makes podcasts so attractive, and what does Spotify’s plan mean for this industry’s future?

If your unfamiliar with podcasts it can be hard to grasp how this new medium went from a niche pastime, to a trend that nearly everyone wants to hop onto. What it comes down to, is what other mediums lack.

It’s become harder and harder for me to do the things I used to enjoy in my spare time. Podcasts however allow me to still maintain some ‘leisure-time’ despite a busy schedule. By the time I get home from work, I might not exactly have time to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, I can listen to 1 hour of stand-up comedy while commuting home. I can’t exactly flip through a book while cleaning, but I can definitely listen to a complex topic be broken down by Stuff You Should Know. It usually takes me a while to fall asleep, but the eerie non-fiction campfire stories of Lore make it easy to dose off. As life gets inevitably busier, podcasts have allowed us to replace these lost hours in a day with an opportunity to learn or be entertained. The accessibility of starting a podcast also means there is bound to be a podcast for any niche (Welcome to Night Vale is a great example).

Yet a big part of what has made podcasts so popular, and what is often underappreciated, is that they offer something other mediums concerningly now lack: unfiltered honest and open dialogue. At a time where “fake news" is all the talk, clickbait articles the norm, and the integrity of journalism hindered by political or financial agendas; it’s no wonder Joe Rogan’s candid and open-minded conversations gain millions of views. A 10-minute TV interview can make it hard for a guest to articulate something meaningful, or worse, can get purposefully misrepresented. However, I always feel like I’ve learnt something worthwhile from guests in an hour-long episode with Rogan because they're given the proper time to articulate themselves (or it can just be damn incredibly entertaining). I never saw Kevin Hart as more than just a stand-up comedian and actor until I heard him enthusiastically talk to Rogan for over an hour about his passion for self-improvement, obsession with fitness and love for his family. It’s no wonder celebrities (Conan Needs a Friend) and Youtubers (Dixie and Charlie Di’Amelio) alike have looked towards podcasts as an avenue for their fanbase to get a more intimate look at them.

This brings us to Spotify’s more than 500-million-dollar investment into this lucrative industry. The Joe Rogan Podcast represents one of 78 Spotify exclusive podcasts: a line-up that includes influential figures such as Michelle Obama, to whole podcasting networks like The Ringer (home to popular sportscast “The Bill Simmons Podcast”). These deals will pay dividends considering the massive fanbases (and thus potential new subscribers) these podcasts would bring to Spotify’s platform, whilst sweetening the deal for existing ones. They’ve also already begun adding new design features to make podcasts feel right at home in their web and music app, such as video playback and interactive polls. Has this all paid off? It would seem so, with Spotify quickly capturing the podcast audience market from existing competitors. A survey conducted in Germany showed a rise from 20 to 34% in podcast platform shares in just a year.

Podcasters have much to gain as well. Spotify utilises Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to analyse the genres, chords, vocal styles, and pitch preferences of what you listen to, in order create a range of individually tailored playlists. Considering the biggest issue growing podcasters face is simply that listeners don’t know they exist, you can imagine how incredibly useful this same technology would be in helping gain exposure beyond word of mouth. You’ll also be able to take advantage of Spotify’s millions of dollars in data analytics through their new Dashboard for Podcasters. Beyond demographic data, it shows you how long your audience listens for, at what exact time they tune out and what music they listen to. Spotify also provides the tools to grow an audience and tailor engaging sponsor advertisements (they even let you export the data into Excel if you want to run your own statistics analysis). 

On the flipside, Spotify has received equal amounts of criticism. Recently, there has been backlash regarding censorship of The Joe Rogan Experience. Rogan is no stranger to accusations of transphobia and racism and recently New York Spotify staff have demanded the ability to edit and cut “problematic content”, insert trigger warnings, and fact check his podcast. Ultimately however, Spotify’s deal with Rogan includes complete creative freedom, though some have pointed to a recent, out-of-character apology from Rogan’s twitter to suggest pressure nonetheless.

This controversy points to a bigger issue at hand. Inevitably, when you combine larger corporate interests with a medium that, for the most part, has been open and unmediated, conflicts of interests will arise. Joe Rogan’s massive popularity puts him in a political influencer position, so it's easy to see why Spotify would want a say in his content (especially now). Though it’s important to also understand that while Rogan isn’t always correct, it’s that genuineness to make mistakes and a lack of interference from higher executives that makes podcasts like his so popular in the first place. It’ll be interesting to see how Spotify chooses to balance between maintaining a triple bottom line, whilst ensuring the integrity and respect for a podcast isn’t sacrificed. A balance whichwas tested between Spotify and popular hip-hop news podcaster Joe Budden. He recently announced plans to remove his exclusive podcast from Spotify; citing Spotify treated his podcast with a lack of respect and only wanted to “pillage” his audience.

It’s a very interesting time for podcasts. Spotify is but one competitor in a race for podcast supremacy, with Amazon similarly integrating podcasts into their music app and investing in their own line-up of exclusive podcasts. Questions can be raised regarding whether we might lose the freedom that characterises podcasts, as brands attempt to exercise greater control. Exclusivity already points to as much by making it harder to listen to your favourite podcasts.

Only time will tell where the future of this rapidly rising medium lies. Regardless, it’s one you should already be taking advantage of.

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