The podcast wars are coming. After Luminary’s troubled launch, The Verge’s Nilay Patel and Ashley Carman sit down with podcast expert Nick Quah of Hot Pod to discuss if Luminary or anyone could be “the Netflix of podcasts” and where the industry is headed.
You can listen to the discussion in its entirety on The Vergecast right now. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from the interview.
Nilay Patel: I think the podcast war is coming. I think the question of “why isn’t the podcast industry more like TV” is because all of those TV companies have their own distribution. NBC owns antennas in the world, and they control a massive distribution point: cable companies they sell to other cable companies, and that’s a massive distribution point. Netflix has an app with stuff we all want. But podcasts, for the longest time, have had one distribution point that mattered, which was Apple Podcasts. This is what I would describe as a lumbering organization that hasn’t really pushed innovation and distribution. And so all of the other business model innovations require new distribution. And I think it’s only now that you see Spotify getting into the game and you see Pandora getting in the game and Luminary getting in the game that the idea that this market will fragment has appeared.
Ashley Carman: Yeah, because Apple had the majority share of where listeners were coming from, they were the winner, but they didn’t care. But now with Spotify having a large portion of the audio market and the ability to bring podcasts to so many more people, I think we’re going to start seeing more wars.
Nick Quah: I don’t think we’re there yet.
NP: What I specifically mean as “the war” is I mean true fragmentation where you have to pay $8 a month to Spotify to get these four shows and $8 a month Luminary for these four shows and so on and so forth until it’s just like what we have with TV and streaming.
NQ: My formula here is asking who has power. And historically speaking, Apple has had that power. You could argue that it came inadvertently and that the rise of podcasting was unexpected and it happened simply because a large kingdom did not really tend to a specific plot of land that they owned. And then when they saw a bunch of little folks coming up and building and planting little seeds here and there, they let them go, and it was allowed to flourish in a really interestingly balanced way. They didn’t change the way the land was irrigated or improve certain conditions about the land, but they allowed this place to be essentially a free space. And so there is a kind of power that comes from that impartial position. And so for the longest time, year over year, there was genuinely slow but reliable growth, specifically within the Apple ecosystem.
Maybe there were smaller fiefdoms with other third-party apps like popular music, Stitcher or Overcast or whatever, but largely, when we think about the people who are trying to make money or build companies in the podcast space, they have to think about Apple when it comes to distribution. But after that, they don’t have to think about a lot because Apple has a certain set of rules, and there are a couple of black boxes in the way that it works. But it sort of engendered a certain culture that feels like whatever happens, it’s generally fair, even if I look at a chart and say, “What the hell’s that with the charts?” Generally speaking, because no one publisher had direct relationships and there is no real conscious way to game the system, there’s sort of a leveling of power. You keep the top low, and a lot of people can sort of benefit from that.
NP: They also offer virtually no data, which I think is a huge piece of this.
NQ: Absolutely. I hear a lot of grumbles from executives that this is a bad thing. But I think from just the way an organic system works, it’s an artificial limiter that’s allowed for a certain kind of balance as long as no one person is able to become more intelligent than the other. The structure means everybody gets eyes on the same level playing field, but we cut to the present, which means that we are living in a post-2014 society, which is to say a post-Serial, a post-Gimlet StartUp, a post-Slow Burn, a post-Dirty John. And there’s a ton of investment interest and moneyed interests now in podcasting, which then brings in Apple-level competitors. We’re specifically thinking about Spotify, specifically thinking about maybe Pandora, but we haven’t quite seen how that’s going to play out yet. Spotify sees an opportunity to diversify their assets, which is to say move away from music and to create another line of business and become an all-consuming audio company.
This is a position where we could see Spotify growing the overall pie of podcasts listenership, but also developing power that could end up attracting certain podcasters to work away from the Apple system to allow it to force Apple into a certain amount of changes to fundamentally complicate and restructure the way we think about Apple podcasting.
So that is not exactly a future that a lot of people are looking for, but a small number of people who are content to make a lot of money out of this is looking for it. That is, I don’t know if I personally want this. I think my rule of thumb has always been as long as there are more people in the world, isn’t it a podcast as long as there are more people that can work in podcasts and make money off it. And as long as there’s more money coming in, we generally should be fine. But the question is: if this is going to be a straight-up oligopoly, which is a couple of big platforms smashing against each other, or if Apple is going to hold position and just say, “We’re going to tend to the open ecosystem,” that’s a perfectly acceptable and perfectly good lane. But it’s not necessarily within Apple’s business interests over the long term. If what we’re looking on the TV side and music side sort of holds true, it convinces them of otherwise.
NP: As Apple reinvents itself as a services company.
AC: I’m trying to think of how ad tech plays into these sorts of decisions because Spotify is an opt-in. People can insert their own RSS feeds, and you allow Spotify to ingest your RSS feed. So it doesn’t run on RSS at all. But when you opt in, you say, “Okay, you are giving me access to millions of people. Also, I’m getting a really robust analytics platform unlike any other analytics platform like Apple’s starting to dabble with.” I’m curious if Spotify is looking into ads and if there’s a world in which Spotify is an ad network and starts really making money for podcasters with the catch that your show has to be a Spotify exclusive. I guess I’m just thinking about how Stitcher has Midroll, which is basically an ad network and wondering how ad networks are going to influence the industry and where people make decisions to put their shows.