Art for Podcast Overlords.
The Baffler
Liz Pelly,  November 10

Podcast Overlords

Spotify only works for the stars

The Baffler
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“Your Daily Drive” is a personalized Spotify playlist that updates twice per day, in the morning and evening, with a mix of music and short clips of the news. When I pressed play on a recent morning, the playlist began with a chipper voice actor proclaiming: “Here’s your Daily Drive for Monday! Next, CNN takes a minute to cover today’s headlines!” An advertisement followed, and then a speedy news roundup doubling as an advertisement for CNN itself. Later came the three-minute mini-podcast Daily Quote—this episode was a reflection on a Brene Brown quote about “hustling for your worthiness” sandwiched between a commercial for Philadelphia cream cheese and another for an electric toothbrush company, like the audio equivalent of a puffy blog post made to place next to automated advertisements. There were some songs (ones I recently listened to), and then some news and ads. Songs, news, ads, songs, news, ads.

Daily Quote is created by Parcast, a “scripted-entertainment” studio that Spotify purchased in 2019 for $54 million. The buyout was part of a big pivot to podcasts in a spree that also included the production studio Gimlet Media for $189 million and the podcast-creation app Anchor for another $150 million. Spotify later bought The Ringer for nearly $200 million. Of all these acquisitions, Parcast might be the one you could most reasonably think of as a content farm for audio. Its scripts are at least in part written by freelance “content writers” and read by voiceover actors; one recent job listing solicited freelancers to write scripts for ten cents per word. Their recently unionized staff call working there “unsustainable“ and “unforgiving,” and report not being allowed to pitch stories. And, of course, this studio’s cheaply made offerings are getting prime placement all over the platform now that they’re owned by Spotify.

Spotify’s podcast push opens new complications for those whose work it circulates. In many ways, though, the $50 billion company is treating podcasters similarly to how it has historically treated musicians, with a system that privileges the already moneyed and powerful. Of course, audio offerings like “Your Daily Drive” and Daily Quote are not breaking news. But a closer look at them helps us to understand Spotify’s strategy as it pushes onward in its quest to control not only music but podcasting too. And that strategy includes: the playlistification of everything, the incentivization of easy-to-digest quick hits, the disguising of advertisements as editorial, personalization to the point of banality, and prioritizing what is optimal for moods and moments. If music has learned anything over the past decade, it’s that the Spotify model is one that only functions at mass scale—and when it’s atomizing and disempowering those whose work creates its value, pushing an aspirational one-size-fits-all approach tailored to pop stars.

Monetizing Your Earholes

Over the past year, Spotify transformed its stated aspirations as a company. It used to see itself as the go-to platform providing “music for every mood and moment”—not just a music streaming service but one that knows your taste better than you know it yourself. That changed in February 2019, when Spotify announced its acquisitions of Gimlet and Anchor in a letter declaring itself “Audio First,” where CEO Daniel Ek wrote that Spotify’s goals were expanding beyond music in a bid to become “the world’s number one audio platform.” The letter was standard PR fodder, with promises of increased capacities for “discovery, data, and monetization to creators” and “enhancing the Spotify brand.” But in interviews throughout the year, Spotify execs have made different types of claims about what’s also motivated the move into podcasts: advertising profits! Advertising has not historically been responsible for a large percentage of Spotify’s revenue, though the company likes to project about all of the ways it plans to grow this aspect of its business.

“One of the reasons why we got into the podcast business is because we believe there’s a lot of growth opportunity on the podcast side,” alleged Spotify’s chief content officer Dawn Ostroff in a June interview. “And when you think about our monetization data, 90 percent of our monetization is on the subscription side, but 10 percent is on the ad side, and we do think that there’s real growth opportunity for us in the ad space, particularly with podcasts.”

Playlists are designed to create and condition dedicated fans of Spotify products, not artists or podcasters.

Podcasting does give Spotify a way to push advertisements on its premium users—the ones who are paying for an ad-free experience. Buying a “premium” subscription merely ensures that when you’re listening to music, you won’t be interrupted every few songs by ads. These pages have documented before all of the various ways that Spotify’s branded advertorial playlists and paid-for banner ads make their ways onto the platform. But podcasting offers an even more direct way to push audio ads into users’ ears. Per Spotify’s user agreement: some “content licensed by, provided to, created by or otherwise made available by Spotify (e.g. podcasts) may contain advertising as part of the Content.”

To that end, podcasts are unique in the context of Spotify because “podcasts by nature have the host-read ads that you’re still going to be subjected to on premium,” noted a former Spotify employee, who spoke with The Baffler but wished to remain anonymous—let’s call him John. He says the grand shift to podcasting has been indeed driven by the assumption that it will be more profitable for the company than music has been: “I think part of it is they realized, hey, the music thing isn’t going to make us the money, but we have people’s ears, how else can we monetize their ears?”

“They built the entire product around music, and people who enjoy listening to music,” John continued. “They built their whole product around it, they went public on the heels of music, and now they’re going to make their money off of podcasts, and they’re going to keep the artists screwed.”

At the same time, John largely dismissed the idea that advertising might be a big potential money-maker for Spotify. He explained that, during his time at the company, advertising on Spotify was treated as merely a contractual obligation of the company’s deals with major labels. “The argument would be, they need an ads product, because of the relationship with the labels. And as long as they have a free tier product, they have to run ads.” About 30 percent of advertising revenue would be kept at Spotify, with the rest going to rights holders, meaning it effectively went to the major labels. John and his coworkers would often do “back of the napkin math” to try to estimate if Spotify was making any money off of advertising at all, comparing the vast amount of investment the company poured into its advertising efforts (paying for the people and the tech to build its advertising mechanisms, for one) with the amount of profit it brought. “I’m convinced Spotify loses money on ads,” he said. “It does not add up.”

So it remains to be seen whether Spotify will make a profit off of podcast advertising, or whether it’s a front meant to keep appealing to Wall Street, to keep maintaining the illusion that new audiences and other new revenue sources are on the way. In July, the multi-billion dollar marketing firm Omnicon Media Group did announce a deal with Spotify to spend $20 million on podcast ads, an arrangement that also included “collaboration on research and a first crack at new shows for Omnicom Media Group clients, which include McDonald’s Corp., PepsiCo Inc. and AT&T Inc,” according to the Wall Street Journal. But considering how much they are investing in podcast strategy, what are the odds they see a profit? A report earlier this year from the music industry newsletter Water & Music, written by another former Spotify employee, Kenny Ning, also debunked the idea that podcast advertising is likely to be profitable. “Frankly, Spotify’s current ad revenue on podcasts today is probably close to $0,” Ning wrote, later adding: “But, hey, the stock price is soaring and growth is up 31 percent year-over-year, so podcasts must be working, right?”

Celebrity Bets

At Spotify, projects that are given a significant amount of company resources and attention are called “bets.” In recent years, some examples of “bets” have included what the company called “Car Thing” (a hardware product for the car that was shelved), “Bend the Curve” (which referred to the company’s need to reduce tech spending), public readiness for the IPO, Ad Studio (the platform’s self-serve advertising hub). But over time, John said, “the bets were podcasts.”

In addition to its hopes that podcasting will bring in new advertisers, Spotify is also banking that it will bring new listeners at a lower cost to the company. To get those new listeners, Spotify has spent a perplexing amount on exclusive deals with big names like Joe Rogan, Kim Kardashian, DC Comics, and the Obamas—not just by buying them outright, like the studios Spotify now owns, but through licensing deals. Spotify wants risk-free, royalty-free ways to grow its numbers. John explains: “Basically what happens with the podcasts is that they don’t have to pay royalties back to a record label . . . their agreement is with the content creator directly, it’s not with a label, it’s not with an archaic royalties system . . . it’s with the podcaster.” In the case of Rogan: “It’s really like a $100 million advertising bet to bring him over and make him exclusive.”

What does it mean for a company that’s become known for streambait background experiences and prioritizing unchallenging, agreeable sounds to apply that ideology as a deliverer of the news, conversation, commentary, and ideas?

In some cases, as with advertising opportunities for originals and exclusives, Spotify controls the ad monetization completely. Spotify might be able to take the back catalogs of podcasts and blanket them with new ads—also called “dynamic advertising.” For celebrities who have been able to negotiate better deals for themselves, they might still handle and benefit from all of their own advertising—one of many obvious privileges the system affords those who already have mass followings. In every case, though, because of the listening data Spotify collects, they can now sell advertisers on the ability to target listeners of a specific show and charge them a premium for using this data to target those ads. Whether it is effective or not is debatable, but the extent to which Spotify owns the audience has bigger picture implications. John explained: “If they do it like they do music, they won’t compensate the podcaster for providing the fan set, since the argument (on the music side) is it’s Spotify users, and therefore fans on Spotify’s platform, not technically fans of the creator.”

He adds that all of this centralization and consolidation of podcasts is what Spotify is after: “It’s completely antithetical to what podcasts are supposed to be. But that’s why I think they’re doing it.” What are podcasts supposed to be about? “It’s about wide distribution, it’s about monetizing your own content and having control over the monetization, and Spotify is going to try to capture as much of that as they can.”

“Spotify is very curated when it comes to podcasts,” said O.K. Fox, a podcaster and organizer who cohosts the podcast Art & Labor, which discusses the “ongoing struggle to survive as an art or cultural worker.” Compared with these big-name podcasters, Art & Labor represents the opposite end of the spectrum: it’s independently produced and self-hosted, advertising-free, and supported entirely through listener subscriptions. It is not on Spotify. “That always rubbed me the wrong way, because what’s neat about podcasts is that through RSS and aggregate feeds, it’s very simple to make a feed and have it pop up in a podcast aggregator, of which there are several very independent ones. It used to be a very open-source type thing . . . I’ve never really cared about being a part of these privatized networks of listeners.”

Nick Quah, a long-time podcasting critic and publisher of the podcasting industry newsletter Hot Pod, called small, independent podcasts the “spiritual heart” of the podcasting world on the first episode of his recently launched show Servant of Pod. He overviewed podcasting’s history—shifting from early 2000s, when it was defined by “free-flowing openness” to today, where Spotify has spent half a billion dollars buying up studios and locking in deals with celebrities. “It feels like they want to own podcasting, in some form or another,” he said on that episode. “My biggest concern is that if you don’t have a preexisting relationship with a platform . . . If you don’t have a platform yourself, if you’re an up-and-coming nobody from a demographic that’s historically [underserved] by traditional media companies, do you still have a shot? And to what proportion do you have a shot relative to other demographics?”  

Metacommodify Your Mind

The Daily Quote mini-podcast that surfaced in my “Daily Drive” personalized playlist also appears elsewhere on the platform. Episodes appear under the “Lifestyle & Health” tab in Browse, and are often featured on the algorithmic music-and-podcast-clips playlist “Daily Wellness”—a playlist that throughout the spring was featured prominently on Spotify’s “At Home” tab. It’s described in a promo video as “your self-care routine, simplified” and features a mix of mostly major label chill music, generic-sounding guided meditations recorded by Spotify Studios, and mini-pods from yoga instructors.

As Daniel Ek explained in a CNBC interview in July, Spotify claims to be capitalizing on the popularity of “wellness” trends during the coronavirus pandemic, and its podcast playlist strategy has followed suit. This particular overblown exchange between Ek and an aggressive sportscaster-ish host of a stock market show is worth picking apart:

CNBC: A lot of people don’t realize it, but I’m a chill guy! I heard what you said about a lot of people listening to chill music! But it is true. There is a mindfulness wave that is somehow being captured by the people who work at home. Are you able to detect that from artificial intelligence? Because that’s not exactly what I thought would happen during this period!

Daniel Ek: Yeah, you’re very much right Jim. Our personalization is discovering changes in consumer behavior almost overnight. And we are seeing a lot of people turning into wellness and health—want to destress, want to focus on health. Those are strong drivers, both in podcasts, and certainly when it comes to podcast creators, those that are doing the best are the ones that are tuning into those trends, either on news or focusing on wellness and health. Similarly with music, that’s also been a huge driver of our engagement these past few weeks.

This excerpt, like others from Spotify executive appearances on finance shows, says a lot about how Spotify has attempted to sell its brand to Wall Street: the exaggerated discussions of “artificial intelligence,” for example, to shape their image as buzzy and high-tech. Also illuminating is the conflation of “chill” and “wellness.” Within music, the “chill playlist” trend has been seen as possibly fueled by the need to stay productive in an increasingly anxiety-prone culture. But just like “chill” might really be about productivity, here, of course, “wellness” is actually about the destructive force that is “corporate wellness,” about ensuring that workers hold it together in order to keep producing.
 
Along with “Daily Wellness” and “Your Daily Drive,” Spotify has rolled out a number of other podcast playlist related announcements in recent months. There’s already additional personalized music-and-podcasts playlists, like “Mixto” (Latin music and podcasts) and “Film & TV Favorites” (interviews with music supervisors). In April, the company announced three flagship playlists that will be localized to different markets: “Best Podcasts of the Week,” “Crime Scene” (a true crime playlist), and “Brain Snacks” (for those who “crave the latest factoids” in under twenty minutes). There’s also stuff like “Mind Massage” (for relaxing) and “Who Run the World?” (for feminist inspiration), plus “Your Daily Podcasts,” a sort of “Discover Weekly” for audio.

Spotify has presented itself over the years as a neutral force—a “level playing field” for musicians—but when it comes to news, it’s obvious how un-neutral that type of thinking was all along.

“What even is the point of a podcast playlist?” you might be understandably wondering. Within music, any independent musician will tell you about the challenges that the playlist era has created for the vast majority of artists—about the new forms of payola, the corporate influence, and how they’re nearly impossible to get on without industry connections. And since streaming services rule all of their own visual real estate, the services themselves have become powerful gatekeepers.

These playlist dynamics are not unique to Spotify; they exist across the streaming landscape.  Since playlists are designed to boost engagement, they often prioritize the most agreeable of all options. It’s easy to envision how this could play out for podcasts, where stuff that’s easy listening—whether because it’s light and funny, mood boosting, or emotional clickbait—wins out, and media that requires more focused attention, like dense and nuanced politics shows, or knotty conversations taking on difficult topics, are deprioritized. The other way that they boost engagement—personalization—serves to further encode the biases of its editorial decision making, including the prominence of major-label content, and now, big-name stars and studio produced podcasts. At the intersection of these biases: Spotify execs have noted that podcasts were one of the focuses of Spotify’s renegotiated contract with Warner Music Group earlier this year. Sony Music announced a “strategic investment” into a podcast production house in December 2019.

Spotify envisions that these playlists will be part of how advertisements are sold, and also part of how Spotify packages and sells mood data to marketers. In an April interview, Courtney Holt, Global Head of Studios & Video, said the goal for podcast playlist was to get listeners to “build a habit around listening on Spotify.” That’s because, as John, the ex-employee, explains: “They want to captivate as much of your audio listening experience as possible. During the day, they want you to listen to Spotify at work on your headphones. You go home, you might listen to Spotify while you’re making dinner. You might listen to Spotify before you go to bed. It’s on in your bedroom.” In other words, they want to track your every move.

More significantly, though, is how playlists are designed to create and condition dedicated fans of Spotify products, not artists or podcasters. “Official playlists” ultimately send a message to users: leave your listening choices to the experts! In Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture, Jeremy Wade Morris describes playlists as “metacommodities”: “commodities that rewrap individual commodities into a bundle under the assumption that the new whole is greater than the sum of its old parts and that another new whole is only a recombination away.”

When Spotify encourages listeners to create a “habit” around coming to its platform for its playlists instead of for specific artists or podcasters, it does a few things. One, it diminishes the relationships that listeners have with what they’re listening to—watering down the experience of being a music fan, or now a podcast fan, because they’re listening to lots of different media but not forging deep relationships with specific artists and shows. It also strips agency and power from the people who make the work that sustains the platform: if users are coming to the platform for a playlist instead of a specific artist or podcaster, whether or not Spotify is able to retain those artists or podcasters on its platform matters very little to their bottom line. If they screw over the independent food podcasters and they all decide to leave the platform, what difference does that make to the listener who is just used to hitting play on the “Chill Dinner Time Talk” podcast playlist and won’t know the difference anyway? Spotify will find another podcaster to add to a playlist, or even better, get some new stuff going in Spotify Studios.

Streambait Pods

Within music, streambait has already taken a variety of polarizing forms. On one hand, there’s the lean-back background sounds so easy on the ears that listeners don’t think to turn them off.  On the other, there are trends that prioritize what’s hard-and-fast and attention-grabbing. Spotify’s podcast efforts reflect both examples.

The playlistification of podcasts is already proving to have influence on the types of podcasts Spotify recommends, similarly to how mood and moment playlists have dictated what types of songs rise to the top. Spotify has tightened its control over what wins and loses, and over time it has spawned various waves of music manufactured with specific playlists in mind, resulting in something more like platform culture than music culture. Within podcasting, playlists like “Your Daily Drive” and “Daily Wellness” are already suggesting that over time streaming platforms could come to affect the creative process of podcasting by way of what is preferable in its flagship playlists: shorter podcasts, or those with chilled-out undertones, or ones that otherwise play into listener vulnerabilities.

Will Spotify take a page from Facebook’ tired refrain: We’Re JuSt a pLaTfOrM?

Streambait shifts within podcasting aren’t solely a result of playlisting though, and some have already been well documented. Quah, the Hot Pod publisher, was quoted in a 2018 New York Times piece about Parcast—one the podcast studios Spotify bought in 2019, which is known for its sensationalized scripted crime stories—saying he wished podcasting “could move past BLARING DEATH AND TRAGEDY as an overt creative strategy,” a reminder of the all-caps clickbait tendencies embedded in that company’s take on crime stories. And Cherie Hu, a music industry reporter and the publisher of Water & Music, has written in Hot Pod about how Spotify is already making podcasts shorter, explaining how the “podcast playlist format in particular will likely institutionalize the ‘microcast’ . . . as a mainstream entertainment format, not to mention a production requirement for studios.”

Another streambait trend that’s already been adopted into Spotify podcasting: podcasts hosted by influencers and viral stars—it’s similar to how the streaming era has seen the music industry trying to turn TikTok teens into pop singers. For example, earlier this year Spotify unveiled an original podcast hosted by a nineteen-year-old TikTok star named Addison Rae, who is part of the TikTok influencer “content house” The Hype House. (When she signed with WME in January, the deal included podcasting.) Both the Kim Kardashian podcast and the Addison Rae podcast are branded as offerings of Parcast. The dollar amounts of their deals haven’t been reported.

Many questions arise as Spotify pursues such podcasting endeavors manufactured to grow its subscriber base and user data troves at cheaper rates. A glaring one: What does it mean for a company that’s become known for streambait background experiences and prioritizing unchallenging, agreeable sounds to apply that ideology as a deliverer of the news, conversation, commentary, and ideas? It’s one thing to make chill workout playlists—enormously consequential within music—but it is another entirely to get the news from a company that makes chill workout playlists, as it attempts to do with “Your Daily Drive.”

Spotify has presented itself over the years as a neutral force—a “level playing field” for musicians—but when it comes to news, it’s obvious how un-neutral that type of thinking was all along. Because what you get is political centrism, evident in how “Your Daily Drive” most often surfaces clips from the likes of CNN and NPR. To promote unchallenging ideas is not a neutral stance—it’s a choice.

“Without having a better, more democratized media sphere, that’s the type of shit that rises to the top,” said Fox, the Art & Labor podcast cohost. “It just feels like neoliberalism working the way it’s supposed to when these big billionaire companies play safe with each other. This is the unchallenged, mainstream discourse. This is what is safe to promote—and it’s true because that type of media doesn’t actually challenge anything. It certainly doesn’t challenge itself. It doesn’t challenge the politicians, it doesn’t challenge Joe Biden, it’s why we have Joe Biden. Because of the complete pandering of these outlets towards the neoliberal status quo.”

Other questions are looming: Is Spotify prepared for what comes with being a media company? Is the company prepared to deal with disinformation and hateful ideas? Think about how algorithmic political suggestion has led people to dangerous ideologies on YouTube: Does Spotify have breaks in place to prevent that? What if Trump, or a far-right outlet, wanted to launch a podcast on Spotify? Will Spotify take accountability for what its users publish, or will it take a page from Facebook’ tired refrain: We’Re JuSt a pLaTfOrM?

The answers seem obvious, given what has surfaced about ongoing internal conflicts at Spotify regarding The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. This fall, a group of Spotify staff reportedly made demands that the company take responsibility for its content. The group threatened to strike if the company failed to maintain editorial oversight of the show; the demands included content flags, trigger warnings, fact-checking, and corrections, as well as the removal of an episode featuring a particularly hateful and transphobic conversation. In response, Daniel Ek has reportedly continued to defend keeping the episode online, and urged staff to not talk to the media.

Also worth remembering will be the company’s documented history of penalizing its critics, or at least making a situation where musicians live in fear of retaliation. This has been documented by musicians and music journalists. In 2018, Guardian music editor Laura Snapes reflected on this, writing: “If I compiled the off-record remarks from my interviews over the past decade, the majority would concern Spotify—namely how much artists hate it. ‘Please don’t put that in,’ they panic after slagging it off. ‘I really need it to support my new album.’” Will the podcast overlords punish critical podcasters and news outlets similarly?

Musician-Podcaster Solidarity

There are clear similarities between Spotify’s treatment of music and podcasts, but there are unique challenges that exist for podcasters on Spotify—even the ones whose work is owned entirely by the company. For example, when Gimlet employees announced they were unionizing in 2019, their announcement included that they are working towards a contract that includes “equitable processes for protecting employees’ intellectual property” among many other goals. As is being demonstrated already, not all podcasts owned by the company are treated equally.  

Earlier in 2020, the hosts of Gimlet-owned podcast The Nod made headlines when they revealed some of the challenges that they’ve come up against since Spotify has become the owner of Gimlet, and as a result, the owner of their podcast. This means Spotify owns their RSS feed going back to 2017, which is a big deal for podcasters. Though the hosts of the The Nod were able to strike an agreement with Spotify giving them access to their own feed, as they’ve pointed out, the fact that they need to ask for such permission is a sign of the power imbalance at play. When a company owns a podcaster’s RSS feed, they essentially own the audience, and have the power to lock the podcaster out of it. Feed ownership equals ears and attention that can be monetized through ads and promotions.

The real streaming power struggle can’t simply be boiled down to artist versus artist, or musicians versus podcasters, despite what those at the top would prefer.

But it’s not just about the RSS feed. As reported in depth by The Verge in June, in some situations, Spotify also owns all of the podcast’s intellectual property—even its name. “Networks and publishers like @Gimletmedia / @SpotifyUSA and @BuzzFeed want to own ALL of a show’s IP from the jump,” wrote The Nod’s Brittany Luse on Twitter. That means that anytime the hosts want to do anything with their podcast name, they need Spotify’s approval: books, merch, events. The podcasters thus far who have had the power to forge deals without handing over full ownership have included celebrities like Rogan and Kardashian.

“If your platform isn’t big enough to push back on that, tough luck,” Luse wrote. “Ours wasn’t . . . This is the industry model. Frankly, it’s a big reason why many podcast company staff pages and show rosters look as white as they do. Things often work as they are designed to.”

It raises a crucial point: as much as Daniel Ek wants to continue doing interviews pushing the same talking points about the democratizing force that streaming has been, it ultimately just reproduces and exacerbates the exploitative status quo, where those without the numbers are treated as disposable. The fact that podcasting staff are unionizing is of particular importance in this regard. Solidarity amongst podcasters and musicians could be useful in imagining new systems and practices that work for everyone. 

Musicians are often said to be like the “canaries in the coalmine” when it comes to media trends, so podcasters should take heed that so many have been struggling in this model. Spotify knows this. When the company announced its “Audio First” mission in 2019, it was laced with a peculiar tone—it read as if Spotify were prematurely trying to calm down angry musicians, who would obviously be in uproar that podcasters were about to show up and steal people’s ears on the platform, detracting attention and streams and their precious penny fractions. But in attempting to debunk such an idea, the company further pushed its simplistic rendering of how power circulates on its platform. The real streaming power struggle can’t simply be boiled down to artist versus artist, or musicians versus podcasters, despite what those at the top would prefer. It’s instead defined by how money influences those pulling the levers—within Spotify, yes, but also within the music, streaming, and media industries at large. It would serve the billionaire streaming overlords well if musicians and podcasters did not see their struggles as interconnected, but as workers who are being exploited for corporate profit, they should see it this way.  Despite the characterization of that letter, working podcasters and musicians are clearly not enemies. Perhaps they are starting to have some common ones, though.

Contributing editor Liz Pelly writes about music, culture, streaming and the internet. She lives in New York.

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