I really love podcasts. Not only do they provide great entertainment value as an alternative to audiobooks, but they are also one of the last open ecosystems on the web. Anyone can start a podcast by publishing an RSS feed on their website without having to rely on a central platform (thus nobody can “ban” your podcast). Once published listeners can consume their favorite podcasts from any RSS reader, including many specially made for podcasts like PocketCasts and Overcast.
This arrangement is beneficial to creators because it gives them full freedom of expression without having to worry about the censors on platforms like YouTube, and it gives them complete freedom of choice on how to monetize their work. It is equally beneficial to consumers who get to choose among hundreds of independently developed podcast apps to find the one with the best features for them. If a consumer wants to switch podcast players they can also do so while taking their subscriptions with them.
However, over the last few years Spotify has been making moves that could threaten this open ecosystem.
In 2015, Spotify started embracing podcasts by enabling users to discover and subscribe shows right in the Spotify app. The feature works just like any other podcast client and scrapes RSS feeds found on the web.
Later in 2019, Spotify acquired the podcast networks Gimlet Media, Anchor FM, and Parcast. However, they did not limit access to podcasts produced on those networks so users could still listen using their client of choice.
In May 2020, Spotify announced that it acquired an exclusive license to The Joe Rogan Experience (a popular comedy podcast) for $100 million dollars. Starting in September 2020, Joe’s podcast will be removed from all 3rd party podcasting apps and made available only in Spotify’s own podcasts section.
If the Joe Rogan license is a commercial success then it seems likely that the shows from the other podcast networks that Spotify owns will also be made exclusive to their own apps.
If Spotify chooses to continue on their current path of exclusive content it will break interoperability with other podcast apps and force listeners of those shows to use the Spotify podcast client. I suspect that many listeners will also transfer their existing subscriptions into Spotify to avoid needing two separate podcast clients.
If Spotify gains enough market share then it will effectively become the de facto gatekeeper of podcasts (similar to how Google Play is the de facto gatekeeper of Android apps despite side loading and alternative app stores). Once that happens many of the benefits of podcasts will be destroyed. Creators will no longer have full creative freedom as they risk annoying the Spotify censors and having a large portion of their audience taken away from them. Consumers will no longer have choice in podcast clients if they want to listen to shows that are exclusive to Spotify.
I really hope that Spotify’s attempt to centralize the podcasting ecosystem around their apps is a colossal failure, however, the Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish strategy is quite effective and thus I fear they may succeed.
As a small and feeble attempt to protest this direction that Spotify is moving I have decided to cancel my Spotify Premium subscription.