I recorded my first ever podcast sometime in 2010. Two friends and I plus my then-girlfriend (now wife) sat in a stolen meeting room in an ad agency in south London and giggled away as we played silly games and chatted about sandwiches and farts.
After the insertion of several Adam and Joe inspired jingles, that solitary episode was released a month or so later. We never recorded another one and no, you can’t find it on the internet any more.
More recently I recorded 22 episodes of the Progression podcast, with more on the way this year after a bit of a hiatus.
I can tell you, recording and publishing a podcast is pretty hard work, but way easier than it was 11 years ago.
Podcasting has always been romanticised as an open plain, the last bastion of pure internet expression as everything else gets swallowed up and monetised by capitalism.
A couple of years ago that all came under threat. It was probably Serial’s fault.
As Spotify spent $400MM on three podcasting companies in 2019 and bought out the very popular podcasting bad boy Joe Rogan while VCs started throwing money at paid podcasting platforms like Luminary, the traditional podcasting world freaked out.
Yet now, two years later, the podcasting world hasn’t yet imploded under the weight of all the money.
In fact, aside from a few shows moving about a bit and a new tab on the Spotify app nothing much seems to have changed at all. Indie shows still struggle to make money, but can publish freely.
Now some of the podcasting crowd like Transistor owner Justin Jackson are predicting that “Big Money” getting into podcasting was a folly altogether. There’s no market, they say. Leave it to us and back off, you’ll never get your returns.
But I think we’re just getting started.
I’m bullish on Spotify.
To me, a podcast addict for over a decade, podcasting solves a fundamental need but has always suffered from a quality and distribution problem.
A hundred years ago, families would gather around their radios. There would be shows that everyone talked about. The same became true of TV, and is now also true (though asynchronously) of the best of Netflix and other streaming services.
Serial threatened to be that breakout moment for Podcasting. But at the time, beyond that show, the depth of high-quality content and the quality of the distribution of that content (Apple’s woefully underdeveloped podcasting apps or what, Overcast? No.) was nowhere near where it needed to be to capitalise on that success.
With podcasts now in the pockets of Spotify’s 300m+ monthly listeners, there just needs to be a couple more Serials (or Spotify’s equivalent of Stranger Things) to hit the inflection point that will introduce millions more to the format.
Power law dictates that from there, there will be a wide distribution from the most popular shows to the least. But the listenership size of podcasting will dramatically and inevitably increase (in fact Spotify reported that it doubled post initial pandemic recovery in July 2020).
These are all new podcast fans. Blue ocean. Just regular people, craving human voices, laughs or stories in their ears as they commute, or do the washing up.
So what could Spotify do with this aggregation and leverage?
Perhaps a Netflix-like play makes sense. Curate and control every piece of content, shut out or dramatically suppress open publishing and build a walled garden of the best talent.
To me that would be a poor strategy. Existing free distribution channels means the cost of publishing audio is far lower than high-quality video. Spotify could accidentally create a Youtube for itself to compete against. (I think this is Luminary’s strategy, and I think it will fail).
The smarter move would be to bring everyone in, continue to be the one audio app that owns the home screen and then financially incentivise creators to go exclusive, further locking in subscribers.
This is kind of what Medium has been trying. Unfortunately, Medium neither has the existing paid subscriber base nor owns enough of the blogging market to be able to pull it off.
As we become more comfortable with paying creators directly, there’s no-one better placed than Spotify. That flywheel, once going, will run and run.
So the podcast explosion hasn’t happened yet. It may take another two years, or five. But commentators like Jackson fundamentally miss the power of VC and ‘money’ to aggregate and change behaviour in fundamental ways. Just look at Clubhouse.
There will always be a need for small, independent podcasting hosts, shows and niches. But for better or for worse, it’s the big players that will change and evolve the medium.
I think change is a good thing.
822/500 words. Oops.
Thanks for reading this, one of my regular musings on product strategy, life as a founder and moving from designer to early-stage CEO and onwards. I expect that while I find a rhythm the content may jump around a bit, so please bear with me. You can also find me on Twitter and some older/longer writing on jonnyburch.com.
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