Talk Music To Me: The Future Of Podcasts [Kyle Bylin]
Hypebot contributor Kyle Bylin writes that Spotify's recent acquisition of Anchor, a podcast production and distribution platform, suggests that it will empower artists and influencers to create their own shows. This would introduce an entirely new opportunity for them to build an audience and connect with their listeners on Spotify. It could also usher in a wave of creativity and innovation in the music podcast genre, unlike anything we've seen before.
By Kyle Bylin | @kylebylin
Back in February, I opened my Twitter feed to discover that Spotify had acquired Gimlet Media and Anchor, two podcasting companies that I had been following since they were founded. My initial reaction to the announcement shifted back and forth between confusion and disbelief for the few minutes it took me to register that Spotify, my music app of choice, now owned Gimlet, one of the most talented and creative podcast studios out there. I couldn’t believe that Spotify had made such a bold move—this was a sizable land grab in podcasting’s Fertile Crescent. Sure, Gimlet hadn't created a show to rival breakout hits like Serial, Caliphate, or How I Built This, but it had developed a noteworthy portfolio of podcasts, like StartUp and Reply All, among others.
However, after my initial shock wore off, I was thrilled. I realized that Gimlet's production team would likely be tasked with developing dozens of original, exclusive music-related podcasts for Spotify. Maybe my podcast feed would soon offer a new VH1’s Behind the Music-style documentary show, a Planet Money-type of music industry news production, or an in-depth artist interview series recorded in Spotify's studio. Or maybe, I would be blessed with something totally new and different, like a music-driven Mystery Show wherein former host Starlee Cine tracks down the answers to intriguing but impossible-to-Google questions about listeners’ favorite artists and songs.
As for Spotify's purchase of Anchor, I didn’t find that to be nearly as surprising or mystifying; to me, it made perfect sense. In June 2015, I had started working on my latest book, Song Stories, about how music changes people's lives and shapes their identities. As a part of that project, I’d considered creating a podcast in which people could share their stories and I’d play the songs, but I couldn’t figure out how I'd secure permission to play the music, and I feared that it would either cost a ton of money or plunge me into legally murky waters, so I shelved the idea.
When Anchor debuted the 2.0 version of its podcast platform in March 2017, it enabled hosts to add songs to their shows that streamed directly from Spotify. When I heard about this feature, a lightbulb moment occurred: This would allow me to create a music podcast without having to license songs! I could record an interview with someone and play the song after the segment, just like a public radio station. I didn’t move forward with the show, however, because I realized that Anchor’s app didn't have a large podcast listenership. I didn't want to throw all of my time and energy into creating a podcast if no one was going to hear it. But now, if Spotify’s acquisition of Anchor means that it will be simple and relatively easy to create a music podcast—and find an audience—it would overcome my biggest objections about creating content for the platform and likely inspire others to pursue their novel podcast ideas, too.
Now that a couple of months have gone by since Spotify’s acquisition announcement, the biggest questions, to my mind, are: 1) Why did Anchor’s team believe it would be a good idea to make it easier to create a music podcast, and 2) Why did Spotify find this product’s potential so compelling that it acquired the company?
On the most basic level, I think that Anchor saw music as a topic that people would want to discuss on their podcasts, but knew that the content wouldn't be as enjoyable without the ability to feature songs on the programs; therefore, Anchor partnered with Spotify to get access to their music library, which would allow listeners to sample the songs or sign in to their paid accounts to hear the full piece. This is a type of integration that Spotify has offered app developers for several years, but it’s less utilized now that the gold rush to create “the next viral music app” appears to have subsided.
In my view, this highly desirable and disruptive feature didn't receive much press when it debuted because Anchor didn't have any artists or influencers on board, nor did they develop any music partnerships that would get them noticed. If Anchor had signed up dozens of major artists, YouTubers, or music blogs, such as Pitchfork or The Wild Honey Pie, to curate new shows and provide commentary on songs, I think that music journalists would've made a much bigger fuss over the development. But as it is, I believe that there are three reasons why Anchor didn’t pursue such partnerships:
- Anchor didn't want to become an internet radio service.
They strictly wanted to make featuring music on a podcast easier for anyone who wanted to play music or talk about songs. They didn't want hosts to have to think about music licensing, or question whether what they wanted to do would be considered fair use. Instead, they wanted to sign a deal with Spotify, which would enable hosts to add music to their shows without any hassle.
- Anchor lacked the time or money to negotiate the partnerships.
Music publications and blogs get approached all the time by companies with good intentions and cool ideas, but their editorial teams cannot justify saying yes to most of these partnership requests. Their writers likely wouldn't be paid enough (if at all) for their time, nor would they get to participate in any financial upside beyond the vague promise that they’ll be able to run ads on their Anchor podcast. They already have to produce content for their main website and dozens of social accounts, as well as film news updates and create timely memes in order to keep the lights and servers on, so it's unlikely they would create music podcasts for Anchor unless someone was either paying for the content, or the platform had established itself as “the next Facebook.”
- Spotify would've eventually shut down Anchor's streams.
If Anchor had pushed too hard to get music publications and blogs to create original podcasts, it's likely that Spotify wouldn't have allowed them to use its streams, because Anchor would have been seen as a competitor after a certain point. This would've left Anchor in need of negotiating deals with the major and indie labels, which would cost them several years of time and millions of dollars in upfront guarantees. All of this for a feature that they aren’t yet sure hosts will use, or whether those hosts will create shows that users will want to consume. It's one thing to pitch Spotify with the idea that you want to make creating a music podcast simple and easy. It's entirely another if your real plan is to produce music podcast stations wherein anyone can talk between the tracks like a DJ.
This is one of those situations where a naïve startup could get themselves into hot water easily if they weren't careful. It wouldn't take much for Spotify to cut off their streams or for record labels to threaten legal action if either party believed that Anchor was acting more like a radio service than a podcast platform. I believe that Anchor didn't draw too much attention to the addition of Spotify tracks to their platform because they didn't want to give the wrong impression of what their usage intentions were. Anchor didn't want to get into a situation where the record labels stepped in and demanded that they negotiate deals before they knew if there would even be a demand for music shows on their platform. As such, they opted not to develop partnerships and kept the new expansion low-key.
In contrast, there’s a high likelihood that Spotify will pursue these relationships with artists and influencers, developing partnerships with music publications and blogs, now that it owns and controls Anchor’s platform. I believe that it’ll be an important part of how Spotify's product strategy will change in the coming years—I predict that Spotify will usher in the next generation of social music networks and community radio stations by putting Anchor's platform in the hands of artists and influencers, and here’s why I think that this is all possible.
An important point to make up front is that it's incredibly hard to produce a podcast, and even more difficult if you want to include entire songs or short samples. If you look at the highest-ranked music shows in Apple's Podcast app, it's glaringly obvious that most of the productions that feature whole or partial songs are produced by NPR and other local public radio stations.
My gut tells me that it's because they’ve got someone on staff whose job it is to figure this stuff out. The host isn't worrying about whether the song that plays after their interview segment is cleared. They have Jamie or John, who take care of this process every week, and they also have the weight of NPR behind them, which is to suggest that most of their mistakes are easily avoided or quickly forgiven.
If Spotify makes creating a music podcast simple and easy, where a host can record their commentary and feature a track, it’ll encourage people to produce content for their platform. All of the work of clearing songs goes away, and now the host has hundreds of millions of songs to choose from and talk about for each episode or segment. If Spotify creates a way for music podcasts to be discovered and reach an audience, it’ll motivate all sorts of music fanatics and aficionados to start a new show, leading to an explosion of creativity and experimentation in the music podcast genre.
For example, a hardcore rock fan could talk about their favorite artists and what emotions their songs express, relating the lyrics back to their own life and experiences. Or, someone could record interviews with diehard fans of a heavy metal band wherein they ask them questions about the role that the band’s music has played in their lives and how it has shaped their identities. I’m willing to bet that the oral histories of Metallica or Taylor Swift would contain vibrant and emotional stories from a wide swath of fans. Can you imagine how poignant and powerful these kinds of fan stories would be in the wake of an untimely death of a major artist? All of those stories that people share on social media could be featured on the podcast, giving them an outlet where their voices can be heard.
At the start, I know that there’d be ninety-nine terrible shows for every good one. But I'm optimistic that remarkable shows would rise to the top and find an audience, while less stellar podcasts would wallow in obscurity. It takes a lot of time and effort to keep a podcast going—even if you don't need to worry about music clearances—so I think that most shows would die a natural death. Podcasting sounds like it'd be fun to do, but it's actually a lot of work.
What excites me the most about the future of music podcasts is how artists will use Anchor's platform. Audio recording could replace social sharing as the primary way that artists communicate with their fans and develop those relationships. Talking into your phone to record a message is quicker and easier than crafting a tweet or staging a photo. It's also more natural and intimate to hear an artist share a message in their own voice than it is to read their thoughts in text form. An artist's voice could become as welcome and familiar to the fan as their favorite movie actor or radio personality. They can talk to their fans like they’re real people instead of mere followers. Rather than broadcasting a generic update to everyone who has clicked on the “like” or “follow” button in the past fifteen years, they could record a personalized message that sounds like it's directed towards each individual.
Ultimately, people listen to music with their ears, not their eyeballs. If consumers continue adopting smart speakers, wireless headphones, and voice assistants in droves, they will spend less time looking at their screens and more time listening to their streams. Artists will need to figure out how to gain precious ear time through voice communication if they want to connect with their fans. In this scenario of the near future, music podcasts will transform into a social platform for artists.
Most avenues for music discovery are firmly rooted in recently popular or similar-sounding songs, which is incredibly limiting. You either hear music that has been a hit in some capacity in the past fifteen years or songs that closely resemble every playlist that you've been listening to your whole life.
As someone who loves heavy metal and hard rock from the early-to-mid 2000s, I know what songs were popular back then, and they're the same ones that are still being recommended to me now. When I create a playlist of songs that I loved in high school, for example, Spotify knows the next ten songs that I should add, which is remarkable in the sense that it knows what the most relevant songs are, and unremarkable in the sense that there isn't one track that surprises me in the recommendations. Does it save me time, and help out someone who is new to this music genre? Absolutely. But it doesn't help me find new bands or songs in the least.
Artist-hosted podcasts are the answer to this problem, and would help listeners get out of the ruts they find themselves in when attempting to discover new music. These podcasts could feature songs combined in a mix that spans popular hits, current curiosities, and historical gems, exploring the depths of music's past, present, and future.
I also believe that artists would tell interesting stories about songs that shaped their identities and influenced their creativity. Imagine that you’ve entered a contest run by your favorite artist, and after an intense waiting game, you learn that you’ve won the grand prize: you get to hang out with Jack White or Lady Gaga, and listen to records for an afternoon. They'd geek out over the music, telling you stories about how they discovered each artist and why they love their songs. Not every artist would be a good storyteller, nor would this prize be every fan’s dream scenario, but there'd be many cases where this would be a fantastic listening experience. In my own mind, I imagine that in podcast form, this would sound like a listening session between friends on a road trip, wherein an artist talks about music like the dashboard is their confessional, openly sharing details about their lives and personal tastes, weaving together a vibrant tapestry of stories and sounds.
For their shows, artists would also record segments that update fans on their latest news. They’d be able to make announcements or promote new songs anytime they want, rather than waiting for their PR rep to book an interview with a music publication or radio station. They could share anything that comes to their mind by pulling out their phone and hitting record, without having to edit down their content to fit neatly into a social media blurb.
For example, Taylor Swift could check in with her fans and ask them how their day is going, or she can confess that one of her guilty pleasures has been stuck in her head and she wants to share the song with them. She could choose whether the Anchor message would be permanent or temporary, like a Snapchat or Instagram story. As such, Swift could record both serious and silly messages, without having to worry if they’ll make sense or lack context the following day. The ability to send out messages that expire would give Swift the opportunity to run contests and reward loyal listeners. If you think that people listen religiously to their favorite artists on Spotify now, wait until Swift starts giving her listeners free prizes like she's Oprah. If you can only tune into one show at a time, this will likely lead to artist one-upmanship that will be full of exciting perks for fans.
What's also remarkable is that Anchor's app allows listeners to call into a show and record a voice message, which a host can choose to feature on the podcast. An artist could record a segment, for example, wherein they ask their fans to call in and share what music is currently helping them through a hard time. They could feature their favorite stories on their show and provide fans with encouraging and supportive commentary. In this scenario, the artist becomes both a music curator and a community builder, connecting listeners through their shared passion for music and desire to meet those with similar interests.
Fans are starving for this type of connection: the feeling that they're part of something bigger than themselves. Social media comment sections and streams provide fans with a fleeting opportunity to react and respond before the thread is buried and forgotten. An artist's podcast, on the other hand, would give fans the chance to be heard by their favorite artist and their peers in a medium that fosters community and deepens connection through the shared experience of listening to the show together throughout the week.
Here’s the thing: even I can't believe how rosy my predictions about the future of podcasts sound. It's like I'm tipsy at the startup-sponsored bar at a music tech event. But I'm not. For whatever reason, I'm unusually optimistic about the potential future that could be realized if Spotify utilizes Anchor's technology as I've proposed here. I could be totally wrong about Spotify's intentions and plans, and it’s hard to know what the future will actually look or sound like—but the future I’ve laid out here mostly lives in an audio stream that is primarily controlled by speaking commands to a Bluetooth headphone or smart speaker. Rather than rummaging around for our smartphones and unlocking the screen when we want to like a song, we’ll likely just say the trigger word, "Hey Spotify!” followed by the command, “I like this song," and the music assistant will carry out the rest of the task. Similarly, if we want to hear a music podcast, we’ll soon be able to ask Spotify to play us one. After a long workday, we’ll all be saying, “Hey Spotify! Talk music to me.”
- Spotify Launches Your Daily Drive Music + News Playlist
- Do You Need Your Own Podcast? [Spotify Blog]
- The Challenge For Music And Podcasts: “Rights Are A Disaster"
- Spotify-Owned Soundtrap Launches A Podcast Studio In The Cloud
- Spotify’s New Library Design Emphasizes Podcast Discovery
Kyle Bylin is the author of Song Stories: Music That Shaped Our Identities and Changed Our Lives.