Podcasts and Paywalls

There seems to be something of a brouhaha* just now in podcasting land over the idea that some podcasts might live behind a paywall, and I thought it was worth thinking about that a little more.

It was reported at the end of last week, that Amy Schumer has signed a $1m deal with Spotify to make a podcast for them. Furthermore, this is likely to be first of many comedy podcasts that the audio streaming business is looking to create.

This created a certain amount of uproar. Nicholas Quah (of Hotpod) writing for Vulture asked “How Will Amy Schumer’s Huge Spotify Deal Change the Podcast Industry?

Meanwhile Kevin Goldberg at Discoverpod thinks it could be bad for future podcast distribution. While examining the logic behind such costs, Goldberg fears a little for the medium:

“Podcasts were created to be openly distributed through an RSS feed. Exclusivity ultimately threatens one of the basic tenets of podcasts. Though I think most listeners realized this free ride wouldn’t last forever — and with every “Netflix for podcasts” analogy I see online in my heart I knew it as well — it’s still a bit upsetting to see the stake in the ground (again, I’m assuming Schumer’s new podcast will only be available on Spotify).”

What I would say is that all that makes a piece of audio a “podcast” is its RSS delivery mechanism. Yes, there have been great leaps in the range and quality of audio production, driven in large part by the explosion of podcasts. But there has always been a wide range of audio available, and different delivery mechanisms for that audio. An open RSS feed is only one.

The earliest forms were cylinders, shellac discs (e.g. for 78 rpm records), and via radio stations. In time, a variety of improved delivery types became available until today’s landscape which includes broadcast (analogue and digital), physical media, streaming and downloads – some of it free, and some of it behind paywalls of varying types. Audiences have become more used to listening on demand, but the models remain varied.

We may listen for free, programming supported by advertising (or a licence fee or a donation). Or we pay a subscription to “rent” access to the audio. In yet other instances, we buy our own copies of the media – either physical or download.

Changing tastes, fashions and business models mean that that distribution methods ebb and flow.

Podcasts tend to fall into the category of downloads or streams that are often advertising supported. But by no means are they alone.

Comedy is a particularly interesting area to explore, because disseminating comedy – and comedy audio in particular – has a long a varied history. Once upon a time, you would have had to go and see a comedian to hear them. Until well into the last century, vaudeville and music halls reigned with their variety acts including comedians. Bigger names toured countries and built followings. They rose up the bill, and could demand bigger cuts from houses.

Beyond that, radio helped them build out their popularity. Radio shows helped make some comedians household names. Before the advent of television, they might have made a few films to cash in on their success, but you could expect radio and variety shows to provide the bulk of their income.

Yet the recording industry played a role from the outset. Even as Thomas Edison was introducing his cylinders to an eager public, he was recording perhaps the first “comedy albums” with Cal Stewart and his Uncle Josh recordings.

As recordings moved to disc, comedy records went with them, and during the post-war period as recorded music grew significantly in popularity, comedians worked in the medium. There were “party records” – with material too blue or risque to be broadcast anywhere that might be sold under the counter. But beyond them, popular comedians of the time recorded albums. Among them Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Bill Hicks and Eddie Murphy.

These albums sold in great numbers; these comedians effectively working “behind a paywall.”

We don’t know yet what Spotify will do with their Amy Schumer programme. It may well remain a Spotify exclusive – another reason for you to subscribe to Spotify. Perhaps it will be Spotify exclusive for a limited period of time before being made available on every platform – ‘windowing’ in the parlance. There may or may not be advertising. Time will tell.

But in effect, this is no different to a record label in years gone by signing a comedian up to release a comedy album. The form may be different; the material more contemporaneous. However, the similarities are there.

And this is hardly unique. In 2015, Russell Brand did an exclusive deal with Audioboom. He got payed a sum that may have been adjacent to the $1m Schumer is reportedly getting.

Amazon’s Audible has been busy signing up dozens of exclusives to offer as part of its membership scheme. The most successful so far, has perhaps been Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect, which was kept exclusively on the Amazon platform for 6 months before becoming more widely available on podcast platforms. Other Audible exclusives (free to subscriber programming, as distinct from their regular audiobooks) have largely remained on the Audible platform alone.

Ricky Gervais, who did a lot to popularise podcasts back when The Guardian was a backer of his early podcast series, later moved the show behind a paywall by selling episodes in the ‘audiobooks’ section of the iTunes store. More recently he has been making series for US satellite radio broadcaster Sirius XM. These episodes are made available free to Sirius XM subscribers, but again are paid-for episodes for everyone else.

Many of Slate’s podcasts contain extra segments exclusive to paying Slate Plus subscribers. In the case of the popular Slow Burn podcast, entire additional episodes were exclusive to those subscribers.

Many podcasters who use donation funding as part of their model record exclusive episodes for those backers (including The Cycling Podcast, for which I am a producer). Often Patreon is used a way to facilitate this.

All of these are legitimate business models, and it’s not really clear to me why anyone would worry. Generally speaking the biggest audiences will only be available free to air as regular RSS feeds that will work across all podcatching software. Even going ‘app-exclusive’, will instantly see audiences fall. Recall that something like 55-60% of podcast listening still comes from Apple apps. It’s instructive to see that the music industry has tended to move away from significant platform exclusives.

Once you add paywalls, then potential audiences fall. On the other hand, the economics may make sense for the podcast’s producers or a specific platform.

On the most recent Recode Media with Peter Kafka podcast, 99 Per Cent Invisible’s Roman Mars said he doesn’t want to go down the subscription podcast route.

“Right now, I don’t think we have the overall mass to support that change,” Mars said. “We had 70 years of broadcast television to get to a point where we could hone it to people’s [needs]: They need it in their lives and pay a certain amount so they can have ‘The Sopranos.’ I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts.”

Except, I don’t think that’s true. We’ve been selling comedy since the dawn of recorded music, while also making it available free of charge, via radio broadcasts and latterly podcasts.

If paywalls are too confusing, then they will fail. But particularly with comedy, history suggests otherwise.

I do appreciate that, as with Netflix, a certain amount of this is just stealing a march on competitors and gaining market share at cost. Recall that Netflix is not yet in profit. They become profitable when they have enough subscribers to sustain their investment in programming. They’ve made a bet that they will reach this tipping point. Similarly, Spotify is not yet profitable. They too are chasing increased subscriber numbers in the hope of reducing costs overall. In the meantime, they are looking for a means to drive those subscribers.

In general, I would always want my podcast to reach the widest possible audience. Podcasting is still in a growth phase after all. Think of all those people who have yet to discover podcasts (particularly Android phone users). But if someone wants to go subscription only, then that’s for them. And I don’t think it damages podcasting overall.

I would argue that they’re probably not podcasts however.

*What an excellent word.

**Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but I think I’m on safe ground here, if you look within countries