The Spotification of Podcasting and How We Save New Sounds

by brianajo on July 19, 2021

This is a guest post by Jeremy Morris, co-editor alongside Eric Hoyt, of Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography. He is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Follow him on Twitter, @jerdotcom. This volume is available for open access online reading and for purchase in paperback. 

A few years ago, most podcast listeners would have associated podcasting with Apple – the company that introduced the iconic iPod from which podcasting, in part, gets its name. But Spotify is quickly displacing the computer giant when it comes to this emerging media format. Since 2017, the Swedish music streaming service has been not-so-quietly acquiring podcast-related companies (e.g., Anchor.FM, an app for making podcasts; Megaphone.fm, a podcasting ad and hosting company; etc.) and brokering licensing agreements to exclusively host popular podcasts on their platform, such as the multi-million dollar deals made with The Joe Rogan Experience, Call Her Daddy, Marvel podcasts, The Michelle Obama Podcast and more. You can’t listen to or find these exclusive shows unless you are doing so through Spotify. To underscore the importance of these exclusive shows for Spotify, 3 of the top 5 most streamed podcasts are Spotify exclusives. As Nick Quah noted in his weekly Hot Pod Newsletter a few weeks ago, Joe Rogan’s show, the #1 podcast, is so big it’s a category unto itself in Spotify’s platform (True Crime, Educational, Sports, Joe Rogan, Video Games, …). 

Anyone who has followed podcasting since its humble beginnings in the late 1990s and early 2000s might bristle at the idea of only being able to access podcasts via one platform. When podcasting first emerged, the novelty of being able to subscribe to episodes created by anyone who could afford the relatively minimal investment required to create, record, and post an audio file online was part of the excitement that drove a boom in podcast production on all kinds of platforms. Open technologies like Really Simple Syndication (RSS) – the thing that allows you to subscribe to your favorite show and have new episodes pushed to your devices – played a crucial role in creating a vibrant environment for digital audio that was platform agnostic and that encouraged many different new technologies and services for making and consuming podcasts. This relative openness for both creators and users helped fuel hopes that podcasting represented a democratic form of media and communication with low barriers to entry and the promise of amplifying a diverse multitude of voices. Spotify’s gatekeeping efforts, on the other hand, seem geared towards promoting more established media brands and celebrities or those with enough of a following to warrant the high price tags of exclusive deals.  

Along with other scholars and journalists concerned about the impact of Spotify on various aspects of digital culture, I’ve taken to calling this the “Spotification” of podcasting. But Spotify is merely one of many industrial players trying to push podcasting into a less open, less accessible, more proprietary, and more exclusive format. My chapter for this collection, Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, looks at how the shift toward “platformized” podcasts threatens the very format these companies hope to popularize. 

To be clear, this is not a worry that we’ll suddenly have to start paying for media we’ve previously received for free (in fact, many people already pay Spotify or Apple $9.99/mo. for their music services, and both Apple and Spotify have recently introduced mechanisms for podcasters to charge subscription fees to their listeners, which will be a very important step for many independent podcast producers). It’s also not just bemoaning the fact that podcasting has a new gatekeeper. After all, Apple has long served as a central intermediary for podcasts, even if it remained relatively hands-off since its interests have been in hardware rather than media content. Rather, calling it the spotification of podcasting is meant to call attention to the significant infrastructural shift podcasting is undergoing. Spotify’s interface may be modern and streaming-friendly, and their huge investment in discovery algorithms will likely help users find new shows, but it’s also much more closed than previous podcast platforms. They don’t willingly share the RSS feed of their shows with you (so you can’t add a podcast to another mobile app if you wanted) and you can’t add podcasts outside of their ecosystem to any of your playlists. Their push towards exclusive shows is also an industrial gamble that users are content with an environment where, like television and other mass media, you can only find certain podcasts on certain platforms. The supposedly “technical” solution Spotify presents for the perceived problems in podcasting – that RSS is too complicated and not user or producer-friendly, that listeners want platforms to give them specific content – is a much more serious play to shift perceptions of how podcasts can and should be accessed and experienced. It’s not just that previously “free” shows will now cost users, or that future exclusive episodes may require users to sign up for accounts on different platforms, though these are, for many, already significant costs that will make barriers to access higher. But it’s also that users’ relationships with these shows will now be mediated through these platforms and will thus require users to accept and use all that the platform requires of them.

The spotification of podcasting also brings significant repercussions for the preservation and archiving of podcasts, and for the ability of media historians to do the historical work required for documenting the emergence and growth of this powerful audio format. Our just-released collection, Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, wrestles with the difficulties of saving podcasts, despite their seeming ubiquity. Thanks to a fantastic group of contributors – including prominent and emerging scholars in podcasting, sound studies, digital humanities, and media and cultural studies – the chapters in the collection chronicle podcasting’s recent history and imagine future directions for the format. Through three main sections – Revisiting Podcasting’s Histories, Analyzing Podcasting’s Present, and Imagining Podcasting’s Futures – we trace some of the less amplified histories of the format and offer discussions of some of the methodological, theoretical and cultural hurdles podcasting faces nearly 20 years into its existence. The questions our authors ask are technical and aesthetic  – What sonic practices are unique to podcasts? What does a shift away from RSS feeds to streaming services mean for podcasting? What is the production quality of various shows and how does this affect the overall aesthetic of individual podcasts? – but they are also cultural and social – What voices are highlighted or silenced in podcasts versus other media? What reconfigurations between producers and audiences are taking place in podcasts? What are the economics that underpin this largely un-monetized circulation of audio content? 

These questions aren’t just abstract. At the center of our collection is a database in progress, a project the editors and their team of collaborators have been working on for over 5 years called PodcastRE.org. The site aims to preserve and track podcasts and podcasting culture by indexing close to 3 million audio files and offering researchers advanced search and visualization features for exploring questions about podcasting’s past and present, in the hopes of helping them think through where the format is headed. Many of the chapters in the collection make use of the database in their analysis; those that don’t still offer reflections on audio preservation and podcasting’s historical particularities in ways that help us think about what a site like PodcastRE.org should look and sound like moving forward.

Ultimately, we hope this collection helps readers realize that the work of preserving podcasts is inseparable from how we conceptualize the medium’s histories, meanings, and definitions. The way we think about podcasting’s histories, either its cultural past or technical origins, end up affecting the decisions archivists and media historians might make regarding how to go about “saving” podcasts. RSS feeds, for example, have been central to the collection strategy upon which the PodcastRE database is built, and the data that comes along with the XML files has allowed us to create the site’s advanced search and visualization features. So, if the spotification of podcasting represents a new entry in this history, the vision of podcasting it puts forward matters not just for the impacts this has on users and everyday listening experiences but also for researchers and their abilities to preserve and research these important media artifacts. As platforms move away from open technologies like RSS and XML and towards exclusive content and distribution technologies that rely more on ephemeral streams than on traditional podcasting technologies, the ability to find and preserve this content, at scale, becomes increasingly challenging. A move away from RSS means a move away from a technology that has allowed new forms of sociality (i.e. a burgeoning format that holds the promise of diversifying our sonic worlds), new avenues for research (i.e. projects like PodcastRE), and even new commercial opportunities (i.e. the healthy and robust market around podcast apps, advertising, services, etc.).

Whether or not the spotification of podcasting is also a move away from the early promises and hopes that accompanied podcasting remains to be seen; the future of podcasting, clearly, has yet to be recorded. Moreover, as we hope this collection of chapters shows, spotification is just one of many shifts facing podcasting. By questioning the early promises of podcasting and how those hopes applied unequally to different communities of creators and listeners, using digital humanities methods to analyze podcasting’s current forms and aesthetics, and thinking through possible futures for the format, we hope that Saving New Sounds offers readers a better understanding of the light audio archives can shed on our recent past, as well tools for anticipating and acting upon the sonic future that awaits.

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