Spotify and Pandora are throwing their energies into podcasts… but now so is the largest major label, Universal Music Group, via a partnership with podcast publisher Wondery.

The pair have signed a deal to develop original podcasts based on the label’s catalogue, artists and labels. No specific shows have been announced yet, but when they do come out, they’ll be available across the full gamut of podcast apps and streaming services.

Wondery is the company behind popular podcasts like Dirty John, American History Tellers and Dr Death, as well as shows with celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Brown and Jillian Michaels.

According to podcast analytics firm Podtrac, Wondery is the fourth biggest podcast publisher in the US, with a monthly audience of more than 7.8 million Americans, and 54.7m global downloads and streams for its 67 active shows.

Podtrack also rated Wondery’s Dr Death and Gladiator shows as the first and second top new podcasts in the US in 2018, based on average downloads per episode.

Universal Music isn’t new to podcasts as a format: in its announcement of the partnership, the label noted that it has been making podcasts since 2012. As for its new plans: “Working with Wondery’s network of storytellers, the podcasts will provide fans and new audiences alike with deeper perspectives on artists, music and events that influence and shape culture.” Universal also said that it plans to use the podcasts as an “incubator” for its film and television projects.

Universal’s major-label rivals are also exploring the potential of the podcast format for their artists. In February 2018, WMG’s Atlantic Records created an in-house podcasts studio and production team in New York, led by VP Tom Mullen.

It has since launched two series: What’d I Say and Inside The Album. “As I discovered doing my own podcasts, they are an incredibly powerful way of feeding fans’ hunger for intimate knowledge of the artists they love, while also connecting them to new voices,” said Mullen at the time.

Sony Music’s Rumble Yard content studio has also produced podcasts The Lost Art of Liner Notes and This Week In Country Music, while the label is also thought to be exploring other podcast opportunities for its artists. George Ezra, who’s signed to Sony, has also had a big hit with his George Ezra and Friends podcast.

All this activity comes amid Spotify and Pandora have ramped up their activities around podcasts. Spotify has bought three companies in 2019 so far: production firms Gimlet Media and Parcast, and podcast-creation app Anchor. The company said that it was setting aside up to $500m this year alone for such acquisitions.

“Based on radio industry data, we believe it is a safe assumption that, over time, more than 20% of all Spotify listening will be non-music content,” wrote CEO Daniel Ek in a blog post this February.

Pandora, meanwhile, spent much of 2018 working on a ‘podcast genome project’ to provide better recommendations of shows that its listeners might like, launching it late in the year. The company has also just announced that it will be turning talk-radio shows from its new parent firm SiriusXM into podcasts.

“Making podcasts – both individual episodes and series – easy to discover and simple to experience is how we plan to greatly grow podcast listening while simultaneously creating new and more sustainable ways to monetise them,” said then-CEO Roger Lynch in November 2018.

The bigger picture here is of the growth of podcasts as a format. Research firm Ovum expects there to be more than one billion people listening to podcasts on a monthly basis by 2020, while a recent US-focused study by Edison Research and NPR suggested that around 62 million Americans are weekly podcast listeners already.

Meanwhile, a report in June 2018 by the Internet Advertising Bureau and PwC claimed that in the US alone, podcasts will generate $514.5m from advertising and sponsorships in 2019.

Edison Research’s report also outlined the opportunities for music podcasts in particular. When it surveyed American podcast listeners on what topics they’d be interested in listening to on these shows, music was the top answer: 39% of respondents cited it as interesting.

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