Spotify arrived relatively late to podcasts, officially adding them to its service in 2015. While still less popular than Apple Podcasts, which started back in 2012, Spotify has surpassed other more established podcast apps such as Podcast Addict and Overcast, claiming the number 2 spot with an estimated 28% of all podcast listeners using it.
Spotify is an objectively and bizarrely under-featured app
There are advantages and disadvantages of any podcast app, and it mostly comes down to personal preference over the user interface. That is, until Spotify.
When it comes to listening to podcasts, Spotify is an objectively and bizarrely under-featured app. Tools fundamental to other podcast apps, such as skipping silence and bookmarks/chapters, are notably missing even eight years later. How can this be the case, when the company has reportedly invested over $1billion in diversifying into podcasts? Where is the money going, if not to provide a state-of-the-art podcast playing app that provides the best user experience in the landscape?
To put it plainly, market monopolisation.
Instead of naturally and passively encouraging people to use Spotify by providing a competitively good service, Spotify pays podcasters huge sums of money for platform exclusivity. There are dozens of podcasts, some which were already widely listened to via other podcast apps, that you can now only listen to on Spotify. Platform exclusivity is nothing new. It is widely accepted in television streaming services and video game consoles. But podcasts have always been better than that.
Like with phones, cars, the internet, and almost everything in modern life, the underlying mechanisms are ever more hidden under glossy user interfaces. For podcasts, this has traditionally been RSS feeds, making the medium one of the most accessible around. For a long time, anybody could listen to any podcast, anywhere. It offered listeners unparalleled freedom.
Podcasts being freely accessible has notable downsides, however. Not many people make a career out of podcasting, and those that do tend to rely heavily on either advertisements or subscription/crowd-funding models such as Patreon. It is hard to blame podcasters therefore, for accepting the financial stability Spotify offers. They are finally being paid for the work they’re doing.
Podcasters such as Jaackmaate have made quite apologetic announcements when accepting Spotify’s deal. Some may ask what the harm of exclusivity is. After all, the podcasts are still free to listen to. But people get used to the apps they know; they want to maintain their settings, subscriptions, and statistics in ways that are difficult to migrate. Jaackmaate’s Happy Hour knew it was a big ask to expect their audience to migrate platforms. They were apologetic that they would no longer be uploading the full video recordings of podcasts onto YouTube, and explained that they had had to haggle quite intensely to convince Spotify executives to allow the show to still upload highlight clips.
Spotify isn’t the only platform vying for exclusive podcast content
Other problems with exclusivity come when the values of the podcast do not match the values of the platform. One of the most successful podcast networks in existence, Gimlet Media, was acquired by Spotify in 2019 and started having issues shortly thereafter. The network’s science communication podcast, Science Vs, was not happy at the way Spotify had been promoting a 2021 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience interviewing Robert Malone – a since-disgraced doctor who spouted dangerous misinformation around COVID-19 and mRNA vaccines. Science Vs seemed to want to promote a boycott of Spotify, but couldn’t, as its five-year back catalogue was exclusive to the company at the time. Instead, the podcast committed to only releasing episodes on misinformation, as a form of protest, until Spotify made some effort to change its ways.
Spotify isn’t the only platform vying for exclusive podcast content. Audible has their ‘Audible Originals’ brand. Stitcher Premium boasts exclusive back catalogues and bonus episodes. It should be noted that many podcast networks, such as Relay FM and Planet Broadcasting, have their subscription/membership schemes with their own paywalled bonus content. Plenty of independent podcasts also have Patreon-only feeds, giving ad-free versions of episodes, longer episodes, bonus content, etc. The network Infinite Hermit controversially rescinded their freely available podcast The ParaPod, placing it behind a Patreon paywall. However, these examples are framed more as gifts for supporting your favourite creators, and the use of RSS feeds means you can still listen wherever you want (except Spotify, which does not allow users to make use of this time-honoured distribution method).
Maybe this exclusivity is an inevitable consequence of breaking into mainstream culture. Perhaps podcasting only existed in its freely accessible form for so long because of its underground popularity, allowing it to fly under the radar of these large corporations, or perhaps not be desired/expected to be a full-time profession. Besides, there are also obvious advantages to Spotify, aside from it paying its creators. Spotify wrapped is an incredible marketing resource and while other apps do track listening statistics, the way Spotify presents them is unparalleled in terms of fun and shareability. The majority of other podcast apps do not offer music streaming (although many offer radio), so if you like to have all your music and podcasts in the same app, Spotify could be for you.
There is hope, however, if you are fundamentally against the idea of platform exclusive podcasts. In April 2023, Gimlet announced that some of its shows would resume distribution beyond Spotify. Gimlet was one of the largest networks around, and its 2019 acquisition by Spotify could be fairly described as an abject failure. We can only guess at the discussions that have gone on behind closed doors, but it would seem Spotify’s business model of forcing listeners to follow their favourite creators to a sub-par platform may not be as successful as it initially seemed. Will podcasting continue to be slowly subsumed behind multiple exclusive distributors, or will it fight to regain its place as a beacon of liberty and accessibility amongst capitalist media? Only time will tell.