podcasts panel

Around 62 million Americans are listening to podcasts on a weekly basis, according to the latest edition of Edison Research and Triton Digital’s ‘The Infinite Dial’ report, which was published in March 2019.

Another research firm, Ovum, predicts that there will be more than one billion podcast listeners globally by 2020. No wonder music-streaming services like Spotify and Pandora are moving aggressively into podcasts.

What does it all mean for music labels and artists, though: can they also get involved in the podcasts boom in interesting ways? A panel at Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit conference in New York today discussed the topic. Tom Mullen (VP, marketing catalog, Atlantic Records); Kevin Wortis (founder, Signal Co. No 1); and Lisa LaCour (head of marketing Endeavor Audio) fielded questions from journalist Cherie Hu – whose own Water & Music music-industry podcast is excellent listening.

So why podcasts? “It’s really about being authentic. If there’s a good story to tell, podcasting is a fantastic medium to tell that story,” said LaCour, while accepting that the typical on-the-road lifestyle of a band will not make for riveting listening.

“But if there’s ways and other angles that artists can explore to build on their personality and passion points… why isn’t Dave Grohl doing a podcast about his new barbecue? Not only is it super-serving the fan, but it’s also an opportunity – if you’re authentic to the medium and start leveraging that medium to tell more stories around an artist and their passion points – to grow that fanbase.”

“There’s very few tools in our toolbox like a podcast, that provides that level of depth and access,” said Wortis, adding that social media can only provide a “glimpse” at these deeper passions and stories around artists. He also delivered blunt words of advice for any label or artist hoping to try: “Don’t make shitty podcasts! Just like you don’t make shitty records or shitty social content…”

Mullen agreed, saying it’s important to take a step back and really think about what a podcast is, and how it will still be relevant months or even years down the line. “It’s not just ‘You gotta do a podcast and get it out this Friday!’”

The panel talked about some of the challenges around building an audience for a podcast, including discovery: how people find new shows that they’ll like. Or even how they find how to listen to any show, quite frankly.

“I think it’s really hard to get people to know that they even have a podcasts app on their phone,” said Mullen, with LaCour nodding her agreement. “Everybody has one! They don’t know,” he said. “I think that’s a content problem. We don’t have good enough content out there.”

She welcomed the recent news that Google is making podcasts surface (and be playable) in its search results, which Mullen said is encouraging podcasters to make sure they have transcripts available, and good SEO for their shows.

Wortis returned to the point about whether the nuts and bolts of an artist’s career make for engaging listening. “How do you take a band touring, making a record, which is like watching paint dry, and find universal themes… how do you create a story arc?” he said. “It’s hard.”

The panel also talked about what’s happening around podcast distribution, with Spotify and Pandora moving aggressively into the market, and new podcast startups like Luminary (with its $100m of funding) also emerging. This is sparking a battle that is seeing these platforms both producing their own original shows, or licensing in those from outside – in both cases making the podcasts exclusive to their service.

Mullen isn’t a fan. “We’re still trying to get people to listen to podcasts. They don’t know how still! Now you’re telling them they can’t listen to a show on the thing they HAVE worked out how to download? So I hope it doesn’t happen more,” he said.

LaCour also said that the music-streaming services are still finding their way in podcasts: their users can search for and play them, but the DSPs aren’t yet set up to support proper promotional marketing for shows. Plus their audiences are still relatively small.

“People are saying ‘we have to do it on Spotify’ but there’s no audience there. There’s not enough audience in podcasting in general: first we’ve got to get there before we can talk about how we’re going to segment these things, and start licensing content and doing exclusive content,” she said.

“Also, our model right now is ad-supported, so that [exclusivity] doesn’t work for us on the ad-supported side. We want bigger, more diversified audiences… Why are we so focused on [just] Apple Podcasts or Spotify? There’s a lot of cool places we could think about distributing audio.”

Wortis agreed, suggesting that for podcasts he’s worked on, Apple has often generated around 60% of listening, and Spotify upwards of 20% (“and growing”). But other podcast players will help a podcaster create embeddable versions of their shows for their website, emails and even social profiles.

“In some cases, we’ve seen 30%-ish listens off the major platforms,” he said. This, he thinks, is evidence of how music companies and artists can bring their fans to podcasting, rather than just relying on the audiences on the podcast platforms. “There’s a lot that can be done.”

There’s a lot of work to be done. The panel also grumbled about the analytics they’re getting back from podcast platforms, not least because the metrics can differ from company to company. LaCour said that Apple doesn’t provide figures for ‘unique listeners’ to a podcast, while Spotify is not giving ‘time-spent listening’ figures.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said. Mullen agreed: “The two big guys are giving us completely different information,” he said. “It’s all bullshit right now!”

He also said that time-listened is an important metric, rather than pure ‘streams’ or ‘downloads’ of podcast episodes. “I’m trying to change the mentality about time listened. Did somebody listen to your show for 80%, 90%? That’s huge.”

The panel finished off with some scepticism about Spotify’s podcast push, with Wortis suggesting that the motivation is “moving listenership into IP that they own, rights that they have: that’s less in the subscription bucket that has to go to rightsholders”.

Meanwhile, LaCour offered a perspective from the listener side of all this. “I’m still questioning if I want my podcasts in a platform like Spotify: I have a very different mentality when I want to listen to music than when I want to listen to podcasts,” she said. “I like my separate [podcasts] app because I have a specific mentality of when I listen to music.”

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