During its first event of 2021 yesterday, Apple announced “the next chapter of podcasting” with its Apple podcast subscriptions. It’s a new platform for podcasters that allows them to monetize their shows using subscription fees, conveniently only available to consumers through the Apple Podcasts app. Apple positions the new monetization method as separate premium products in addition to existing free or ad-supported podcasts, and there are already tons of independent studios and podcasters lining up to be a part of the service.
The movement is just part of a larger trend in the podcasting world, mostly started by Spotify. The music streaming service is taking on more and more exclusives, holding some of our favorite content hostage with its terrible app in the process. Amazon is also joining the game with originals and exclusives on Amazon Music and Audible, and Facebook has its own plans for the audio content. Then there are smaller deals, like the one the NFL closed with iHeartMedia, and buys all over the place, like Pocket Casts acquired by a public radio group.
All of these trends worry me very much about the future of podcasts.
What is the problem?
To understand why these movements scare diehard podcast listeners, we need to look at what podcasts are historically. A podcast is usually a series of audio or video episodes, often connected by topic and with recurring hosts. In the past, almost all podcasts were distributed from their creators’ servers, accessible as direct downloads or through a client application of your choice. Most podcasts are free, ad-supported, or have a large corporation pulling the strings, making them one of the most affordable and accessible forms of entertainment without a corporate structure to back them up (like YouTube).
With Apple, Spotify, and Amazon increasingly working to link creators to their platforms, we may lose this almost open source aspect sooner rather than later. Apple’s push to market feels particularly bad since its podcast app is only available on its own devices. At least competitors like Spotify and Amazon only lock you in on specific services, not hardware.
It sure looks like a landscape awaits us that we are already very familiar with in the video streaming industry. If you want to keep up with the latest shows everyone is talking about, you have to subscribe to a host of services. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney + come to mind instantly, but there are also offers from HBO, Hulu, Paramount, Peacock, Apple TV +, Discovery +, and many more; basically, we are in the process of returning to cable television. . The original dream of a full Netflix catalog ended a long time ago, and we have to trust it yet. other service to see all our content in a single interface.
My (German) entertainment folder is still comparatively small, but its size is already quite annoying to me.
If this is the future of podcasts, following your favorite creators will be much more difficult in the not too distant future, and you should be prepared to stop consuming some shows or juggling multiple apps on your phones. When you go for the latter, you’ll miss out on features like queues, easy subscription management, and seamless downloads, which are an integral part of the podcasting experience for many people.
What’s in it for content creators?
All that said, these exclusivity deals and premium subscriptions are mostly great for podcasters, especially indie ones. It helps them secure funding for a longer period of time and often gives them access to a highly engaged audience that is ready to switch to another platform to keep up with them. It’s a shame there aren’t many other funding options for podcasters, and many of them currently rely on donations or voluntary subscriptions from Patreon, in addition to the advertising segments on the show.
The path we’re headed may be bad for ease of use and a great listening experience, but it could be what creators need in order to make podcast production a sustainable, self-service business rather than a side hustle.
Could there be a better way?
While it’s probably too late given the trajectory of the market, I’d love to see things unfold in a different way that can please content creators and listeners alike. We don’t need to look beyond today’s music streaming services. Apart from a few exceptions, most streaming services offer the same music. You can listen to almost all your favorite artists on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, Tidal or whatever you prefer. In a perfect world, podcast creators could be paid streaming royalties, just like musicians today, and you could choose your favorite podcasting service.
Of course, this solution is not perfect either. The music streaming market has a multitude of problems of its own, with smaller artists barely making enough money through streaming alone. Many musicians depend on merchandise and, to a greater extent, on touring. Since podcasters don’t enjoy as much public attention as musicians, a strategy like this probably wouldn’t be feasible for them.
But I still like the idea of a marketplace where I can select my podcast app based on my UX preferences, even if that means paying for another monthly subscription. At least that would mean I wouldn’t have to jump between Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, and company just to keep up with all my favorite spoken word content.
And what is Google doing?
As always, it seems that Google is only looking from the sidelines with a product that is not up to the challenge. The search giant’s Podcasts app may look fancy and may be pre-installed on all Android phones as part of the Google app, but it’s not exactly well publicized and it doesn’t provide any blocking mechanisms or subscriptions. Personally, I like the experience for its sync capabilities with Google Home and Nest devices, but Google could soon be left in the dust with little to no interesting content as the biggest podcast producers disappear due to exclusivity deals. Don’t expect Google to be the Knight in Shining Armor here, basically.
Main Image: Austin Distel on Unsplash.