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The implications of podcast exclusives moving behind Spotify’s walled garden

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A couple of months ago, one of the world’s biggest podcasters, Joe Rogan, praised “Podfather” Adam Curry for starting the podcast movement.

During their conversation on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Curry told Rogan that he and software developer Dave Winer’s mission when creating the technology that powers most of the podcasting ecosystem today was to keep it “completely free and open, so no one owns it.”

And since the very first podcast in 2003 podcasting has mostly stayed true to this mission with the world’s largest podcast directory, iTunes/Apple Podcasts, using open and decentralized RSS feeds to catalog, play, and distribute the content.

This open ecosystem has allowed podcasters to maintain full control over their content and how they monetize it, allowed listeners to get direct access to their favorite podcasts without them being filtered by big tech’s algorithms, and has allowed Rogan to become the world’s highest-earning podcaster.

With podcasting, creators just need somewhere to host their content and listeners just need a way of accessing the open standard that is an RSS feed.

But as the industry has grown, several companies have attempted to close off this traditionally open ecosystem and bring podcasting inside their own proprietary walled gardens with audio streaming service Spotify leading the charge.

Some people think that Rogan is moving from YouTube to Spotify, because that’s where they consume the content, but YouTube is actually just part Rogan’s podcast audience. It’s believed that more people listen through podcast apps than they do through YouTube, based on Rogan’s past statements.

Rogan’s YouTube channel currently receives around 100 million views per month from YouTube, according to Social Blade. But last year, Rogan said that the podcast gets almost 190 million downloads per month.

The open format that’s delivered by RSS feed through a user’s podcast app of choice is still the dominant way people get podcasts.

Spotify added podcasts to its service in May 2015 and since then, it has acquired popular podcast creation app Anchor and several major podcast networks including Gimlet Media, Parcast, and The Ringer.

Through these acquisitions, Spotify has become a major player in the podcasting space and while many of the podcasts produced by these companies are still available in an open RSS feed, future content is expected to start being placed behind Spotify’s closed system which can only be accessed by users with a Spotify account.

And now Rogan, in what is likely to be a pivotal moment for the future of the podcasting, has signed an exclusive multi-year deal with Spotify which is reportedly worth $100 million and will place his content behind Spotify’s walled garden after the end of this year.

From September 1, The Joe Rogan Experience will become available on Spotify and full-length episodes will still be available on other podcasting platforms via RSS and YouTube.

Then after the end of the year, it will become a Spotify exclusive with full length audio and video versions of the podcast moving inside Spotify’s closed system.

Rogan added that he will maintain creative control as part of the deal:

“It’s just a licensing deal, so Spotify won’t have any creative control over the show. They want me to just continue doing it the way I’m doing it right now.”

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However, after the deal was announced, TechCrunch quoted Spotify’s ominous response to this question:

“In response to a question about the Rogan show’s history of controversial guests and subject matter, a spokesperson for the company simply responded, ‘All shows on Spotify are subject to our content policies.’”

Spotify infamously banned one of Rogan’s most popular guests, Infowars founder and host Alex Jones, under these content policies in August 2018.

In February 2019, Jones appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience for the second time and it became the most popular podcast episode of the year.

Listeners have been eagerly awaiting a third appearance from Jones but this statement from Spotify puts the likelihood of future appearances from Jones and other popular guests who are deemed to be “controversial” by the mainstream media in doubt.

For listeners of The Joe Rogan Experience, the move behind Spotify’s walled garden also has several other notable implications.

First, listeners will have to sign in with a Spotify account to listen to or watch full-length audio and video episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience.

Previously, they could listen to these full-length episodes in their preferred podcast app, on the web, or watch them on YouTube without being signed in.

Second, countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Ghana, Nigeria, and others where Spotify isn’t available, will no longer be able to listen to full-length versions of The Joe Rogan Experience.

In total, over 400 million people who live in these countries and could previously listen to the podcast will now have their access cut off.

The deal is also likely to have significant ramifications for the open podcasting ecosystem as a whole.

The Spotify app has been rapidly gaining market share as a podcast player over the last couple of years with an estimated 6.18% share of the podcast player market in 2018 and this share more than doubling to an estimated 13.56% in 2019.

The Joe Experience regularly ranks number one or two in the podcast charts and when it becomes a Spotify exclusive, it’s likely to help Spotify’s app gain market share at an even faster rate.

While Spotify is gaining market share, Apple Podcasts, which supports open RSS feeds and is currently the most popular podcast player, is losing market share at an even faster rate.

In 2018, it had an estimated 62.53% share of the podcast player market but this dropped to an estimated 41.99% in 2019.

If these trends continue, Spotify would be on track to take the lead from Apple Podcasts in the next couple of years and in doing so bring a huge proportion of the podcast market behind its closed system.

And this doesn’t even factor in the impact of any other exclusive deals that Spotify inks going forward.

With Rogan onboard, many other top podcasters could follow and sign similar Spotify exclusive deals with each new deal potentially moving millions of listeners from the open, decentralized podcasting ecosystem and into Spotify’s walled garden.

The long-term impact of this for the podcast industry as a whole is likely to be a loss of control for podcasters and listeners and an increase in control for Spotify.

In other instances where a single platform has gained mass control over content distribution and monetization, such as Facebook for text content and YouTube for video content, (instead of independent websites), this dynamic has resulted in increased restrictions on what creators are allowed to publish and a loss of control over content distribution for users.

And for consumers of the content, this has led to the content being increasingly served up by algorithms which are designed to increase metrics such as watch time or ad revenue rather than serve up the content they’re subscribed to.

The foundations for a similar end result are already in place for Spotify with the platform having content policies, its own ad system, and a closed system through which it could start introducing its own algorithms at any time.

Not to mention that Spotify’s requirement that users sign in to listen to podcasts also allows it to start profiling podcast listeners and collecting data to serve up targeted ads – something that doesn’t happen in most podcast players that support open, decentralized RSS feeds.

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